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Posts Tagged ‘Gibson v. Collier’

Federal Court Permanently Enjoins Wisconsin Medicaid from Enforcing State Statutory Exclusion of Coverage for Gender Transition

Posted on: August 26th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last year, U.S. District Judge William M. Conley granted a preliminary injunction to several named plaintiffs in a case challenging a 1996 amendment to Wisconsin’s Medicaid statute under which transgender Medicaid participants were denied coverage for their gender transitions.  At that time, the court had concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to win their case on the merits and that delaying their access to gender transition coverage pending a final ruling on the merits would cause them irreparable injury, far outweighing any harm to the state.  The court refused to stay its preliminary injunction pending a possible appeal.  On August 16, Judge Conley issued his final ruling on the merits in the case, having in the interim certified it as a class action extending to all transgender people in the state who relied on Medicaid for their health care coverage, and making the injunction permanent.  The judge ordered the parties to “meet and confer” within 14 days on the scope of relief and final wording of an injunction.  Flack v. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139388, 2019 WL 3858297 (W.D. Wis., Aug. 16, 2019).

Judge Conley premised his ruling on three sources of law: Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, the “Availability and Comparability” provisions of the Medicaid Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  Providing three independent and equal bases for the ruling makes it eminently defensible should the state decided to seek review at the 7th Circuit.  In this connection, the 7th Circuit has previously found thta government policies that disadvantage transgender people may violate the Equal Protection Clause, and it has adopted an interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that accepts the contention that a federal law banning sex discrimination would extend to gender identity discrimination, although this holding might be adversely affected by a Supreme Court ruling under Title VII in a pending case from the 6th Circuit, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, to be argued on October 8.

Judge Conley accepted the plaintiffs’ contention that the standards of care for gender dysphoria published by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH), most recently updated in 2011, as supplemented by clinical guidelines on hormone treatment for gender dysphoria published in 2017 by the Endocrine Society, represent a medical consensus recognized by numerous professional health care associations and many, many court decisions, defining the standard of care in the context of any dispute about medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria.  There is near-unanimity among federal courts at this point that gender dysphoria can be a serious medical condition and that, depending on the symptoms of the individual transgender person, various forms of treatment involved in transition, including hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery (GCS), may be medically necessary.  The published standards emphasize, as does Judge Conley, that not every person who identifies as transgender experiences gender dysphoria (a “disconnect” between their gender identity and their anatomy), and that there is a range of severity, so not every person with gender dysphoria will necessarily seek GCS.  The Medicaid program’s coverage should depend upon competent medical professionals diagnosing gender dysphoria in the individual case and determining that hormone therapy and or GCS are medically necessary for the individual in question.

A significant problem for the defendants in this case, who include various officials as well as the state’s health services department, was that the legislature, evidently for political reasons, voted in 1996 to forbid the use of state Medicaid funds for gender transition, even though the particular treatments and procedures involved remain covered for a variety of other medical conditions.  For example, somebody suffering a severe hormone deficiency could obtain hormone replacement therapy under Medicaid, and a woman with breast cancer would be covered for a mastectomy, while transgender people would be denied coverage for hormone therapy or mastectomies, even though there was a medical consensus that these treatments were necessary to deal with their gender dysphoria.  The legislature did not undertake any serious study of the expenses of providing such treatment or of the professional medical standards in effect for treating gender dysphoria at that time.  The state tried to defend the statute in this case by coming up with various post hoc arguments that were easily discredited by the court, which observed that the state had failed to present credible expert testimony that there was a sound medical reason to deny the specified procedures to individuals for whom it was medically necessary.

The bulk of Judge Conley’s opinion is devoted to describing the medical evidence in the case, much of it derived from expert testimony provided by the plaintiffs, whose two expert witnesses were experienced medical specialists who had treated hundreds of transgender individuals and who were well-recognized in their field.  The state’s response to this, from the point of view of litigation strategy, was pathetic.  It failed even to offer experts with facially relevant expertise to contest any of the medical evidence.  Indeed, officials of the Wisconsin Medicaid program conceded in their testimony that the WPATH standards describe safe and effective treatments for gender dysphoria in appropriate cases, and there was little dispute that the named plaintiffs qualified for these treatments but were denied coverage for them solely because of the statute.  The court also pointed out that the state had attempted to rely in its arguments on materials that could not have provided a basis for the statute when it was passed, because their publication post-dated it.  In addition, Judge Conley observed that scientific knowledge about gender identity had significantly moved on since the mid-1990s, making the treatments and procedures even safer and more effective today.

The defendants sought to rely on two decision from other circuits: Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F.3d 63 (1st Cir. en banc, 2014), and Gibson v. Collier, 920 F.3d 212 (5th Cir. 2019), but Judge Conley concluded these rulings were not persuasive precedents for this case.

Kosilek culminated long-running litigation and was based on expert testimony presented to the trial court in 2006, predating the current WPATH and Endocrine Society standards.  Also, the en banc 1st Circuit, which was ruling on the question whether GCS was medically necessary in the 8th Amendment context of a state prisoner serving a life sentence for murder (and which, incidentally, was reversing a 3-judge panel decision in the plaintiff’s favor), was heavily influenced by prison security concerns raised by the state that are not relevant in to Medicaid.

As to Gibson, Judge Conley performed a total demolition job on the cock-eyed reasoning of the 5th Circuit panel, whose opinion was written by Trump appointee James Ho.  This was also a prisoner case, the issue being whether it violated the 8th Amendment for the state to maintain a categorical refusal to provide GCS to transgender inmates (unlike in Kosilek, where the court focused on the individual inmate rather than an explicitly categorical treatment ban).  Gibson was a pro se case at the trial level, where the unrepresented inmate was incapable of compiling a state-of-the-art record of expert medical testimony, leaving a factual record bare of the kind of detailed information available to Judge Conley in this case litigated by experience attorneys.  In the absence of such a record, Judge Ho invoked the 1st Circuit’s decision in Kosilek, with its reliance on out-of-date information.  Of course, unlike the present Medicaid case, a case involving a prison setting raises different issues.  On the other hand, Judge Conley’s opinion leaves little doubt that he found the 5th Circuit’s analysis unpersuasive on the key points in common: whether there is a medical consensus that GCS can be medically necessary and that it is a safe and effective treatment.

For the short Affordable Care Act portion of his analysis, Judge Conley refers the reader to his earlier preliminary injunction decision.  As to the Medicaid portion, he details the requirement under Medicaid to cover medically necessary treatments, and furthermore the specific ban on discriminating in coverage decisions depending on the diagnosis of the individual participant.  In the Equal Protection portion of the opinion, he explained that the parties agree that Equal Protection claims by transgender plaintiffs are subject to “some sort of heightened scrutiny,” requiring the state to take on the burden of proving that it has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for carving out this particular exception from its Medicaid coverage.  The government’s justification, stated now in its defense of the 1996 enactment, was “containing costs and protecting public health in face of uncertainty.”  Conley found neither justification to be sufficient under heightened scrutiny.  For one thing, the state conceded that the legislature made no study prior to passing the statute, either of the costs involved in providing coverage or of the medical facts surrounding gender transition and available treatments.  The only cost projections introduced by the state now were undertaken in response to this litigation, two decades later, and showed that the additional cost to the state’s Medicaid budget on an annual basis amounted to little more than a rounding error.  And, the court observed, there was no credible evidence to support the contention that covering these procedures would endanger public health.

The court also rejected a “spending clause” constitutional argument raised for the first time in support of the state’s opposition to plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion: that it was somehow unfair to the state to impose this “new” burden on it as a matter of federal law when it wasn’t contemplated at the time the state agreed to expand the Medicaid program in response to the Affordable Care Act in 2014.   “Nonsense,” wrote the judge.  Too late, and too bad.

Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from McNally Peterson, S.C, Milwaukee; Dane & Colfax PLLC, Washington; Abigail Koelzer Coursolle of the National Health Law Program, Los Angeles; and Catherine Anne McKee of the National Health Law Program, Washington.

5th Circuit Panel Rules Denial of Gender Confirmation Surgery for Transgender Inmate Does Not Violate 8th Amendment

Posted on: April 1st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on March 29 that the state of Texas did not violate the 8th Amendment right against cruel or unusual punishment by denying gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmate Vanessa Lynn Gibson.  Gibson v. Collier, 2019 WL 1417271, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 9397.  The dissent argued that the substantive legal question was not properly before the court.  The majority took the position that a state may categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery (or, as they labelled it, “sex reassignment surgery”) as a treatment for gender dysphoria, regardless of the needs of the individual inmate.

The opinion for the panel was written by James C. Ho, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill one of the long-standing vacancies on the 5th Circuit that was preserved by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s determined effort to block President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies that opened up during his second term.  The retirement of an active judge created this vacancy in 2013.  Upon confirmation by the Senate, James Ho joined the court on January 4, 2018.  He was previously Solicitor General of Texas, and active in the Federalist Society.  Joining Ho’s opinion was Circuit Judge Jerry Edwin Smith, who was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan.  The dissenter was Senior Circuit Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.  (President Trump has appointed five out of the sixteen current active judges on the circuit court, among whom two were appointed by President Bill Clinton and three by President Barack Obama.  There is on vacancy pending on the 5th Circuit.)

Judge Ho’s opinion rests on two simple propositions.  Under the 8th Amendment’s text and case law concerning the rights of inmates to medical treatment, denying an inmate a treatment that is controversial within the medical profession and which has rarely if ever been provided to inmates cannot be held to violate the Amendment.  For one thing, he argued, denying sex reassignment surgery is not rare.  Indeed, it is a matter of course, since by his account only once in the nation’s history has any state prison system provided sex reassignment surgery to an inmate, when California recently settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide sex reassignment surgery to the plaintiff.  Thus, denying such a procedure is not “rare,” and the 8th Amendment only prohibits punishments that are cruel and unusual.  On the other point, he wrote, the case law supports the proposition that the state only violates the 8th Amendment if it exhibits deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition, a demanding test that requires that the treatment requested by the inmate be one as to which there is widespread agreement among health care providers about its necessity.  Thus, if there is significant disagreement among medical authorities about whether a particular treatment is necessary, it doesn’t violate the Constitution for the state to refuse to provide it.

The opinion sets out only the bare bones of factual allegations by plaintiff Scott Lynn Gibson (a/k/a Vanessa Lynn Gibson).  The court uses male pronouns to refer to Gibson, claiming that Gibson did not object, although the litigation papers Gibson prepared while pro se use feminine pronouns. Gibson is an inmate at the Gatesville facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).  Gibson was incarcerated on conviction of two counts of aggravated robbery, and committed additional crimes in prison of aggravated assault, possession of a deadly weapon, and murder.  Upon further conviction, Gibson is sentenced to serve through May 2013, eligible for consideration for parole in April 2021.  Identified male at birth, Gibson has identified and lived as female since age 15, but was not diagnosed as having gender dysphoria at the time of incarceration.

The court accepts that Gibson has gender dysphoria as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association, is depressed, and has attempted self-castration and suicide, although according to the record is not presently considered suicidal (although learning of this decision may well affect that).  It was not until after a suicide attempt that Gibson obtained a formal diagnosis.  Gibson has been receiving counseling and hormone therapy, but insists that surgery is necessary to ameliorate her condition. Despite living as a woman, Gibson is incarcerated per the state’s policy in a men’s prison. The state’s formal policy provides that transgender inmates be “evaluated by appropriate medical and mental health professionals and have their treatment determined on a case by case basis,” reflecting the “current, accepted standards of care.”  The policy does not mention surgery, but doctors have repeatedly denied Gibson’s request for surgery because the TDCJ formal policy does not “designate [sex reassignment surgery] as part of the treatment protocol for Gender Identity Disorder.”

Gibson represented herself in this lawsuit until it reached the level of the Court of Appeals, at which point the court appointed counsel to represent Gibson on appeal: Stephen Louis Braga, I, of the University of Virginia Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. This appointment is apparently only for the appeal; had the case been remanded, Gibson would presumably be pro se again.  From the court’s account of oral argument, referred to several times in the opinion, it appears that Braga made concessions at oral argument that supported the court’s ultimate conclusion because of how Judge Ho dealt with the facts, but it is clear that the court was most heavily influenced by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F. 3d 63 (1st Circuit, en banc, 2014), in which the full 1st Circuit bench reversed a three-judge panel’s 2-1 decision and held that a transgender inmate serving a sentence of life without parole was not entitled to receive sex reassignment surgery.  Most importantly, Judge Ho referred repeatedly to the 1st Circuit’s summary of expert medical testimony offered in that case, filling an important gap in this case’s record, where there is no direct expert testimony because the district court rejected Gibson’s claims outright.  Judge Barksdale’s dissent objects to heavy reliance on the Kosilek ruling in this way.

Prison inmates are entirely dependent on the corrections system for their health care, for obvious reasons.  The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have found that prisoners are entitled to “necessary treatment for serious medical conditions.”  There is a consensus among federal courts that gender dysphoria is a “serious medical condition,” but there is no judicial consensus about whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment for it, and to date there is no final ruling on the merits by any federal appeals court ordering a state to provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate.  As the courts have interpreted the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a “necessary” treatment is one that has achieved general acceptance in the relevant medical specialty, and some courts have relied on Standards of Care published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) as potentially supporting general acceptance – however, Judge Ho asserts, only in denying motions to dismiss cases, not in ultimate rulings on the merits.

The WPATH Standards state that “for many, surgery is essential and medically necessary to alleviate their gender dysphoria.”  But, Judge Ho observes, in the Kosilek decision, the 1st Circuit reported expert testimony sharply divided over whether sex reassignment is necessary treatment, and some testimony suggesting that WPATH is not an objective source but rather an organization devoted to advocacy for transgender rights whose published standards do not necessarily reflect a consensus of the medical profession, or even of individuals specializing in providing treatment to transgender patients.  Be that as it may, to the Gibson panel majority, this was sufficient to suggest that there is “serious dispute” within the medical profession about the necessity for sex reassignment surgery, and so long as that situation prevails, it is not “deliberate indifference” by the Texas corrections system to categorically refuse to provide such treatment.

While many federal courts have made clear that hormone therapy can be considered necessary for cases of severe gender dysphoria, and that counseling by itself is not always sufficient to meet the constitutional standard of care, even that point is not universally accepted, as Judge Ho demonstrated by citing cases on both sides of the question.  Regardless of how the medical necessity point is resolved, however, the judge pointed out that under the 8th Amendment’s language – cruel and unusual – it is not unusual to deny sex reassignment surgery to inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria – indeed, it is the norm – and thus such denial cannot be found to violate the Constitution as an “unusual punishment.”

Judge Barksdale’s dissent argued that Gibson has never been afforded the opportunity in the lower courts to present any evidence beyond the factual assertions in her complaint. “Accordingly,” she wrote, “as the majority notes correctly, this appeal springs from this very unusual and improper procedure and resulting sparse summary-judgment record, which is insufficient for summary judgment purposes,” so she dissented from “the majority’s reaching the merits of this action, which concerns the Eighth Amendment’s well-established requirements for medical treatment to be provided prisoners.”

Judge Ho specifically responds to Barksdale’s various objections by asserting that it would be a waste of time and judicial resources to remand the case to build a factual record because, as he found, categorical denial of a right to sex reassignment surgery is so well-founded in the existing case law and facts readily available from published sources, including the Kosilek decision, that there is no need to compile a record of the individual facts of Gibson’s case.  The panel majority considers that Gibson’s factual allegations fail to generate material fact issues that would need to be resolved before the court could render a decision on the merits as a matter of law. To the majority, there is no disputing that medical practitioners are divided as to whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment, so there is no need for inquiry into Gibson’s individual case.

Judge Ho drew an analogy to an attempt by an inmate to obtain a drug that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved, pointing out that no court would find that a prisoner’s right to receive necessary treatment would be abridged by refusing to provide a treatment that has not been approved by the FDA.  He also relies on some outdated information concerning practices under Medicaid and Medicare, as the Obama Administration withdrew the formal refusal to fund sex reassignment surgery under those programs, and there actually is a small but growing body of case law finding that these government programs must provide such treatment in appropriate cases, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.  There is also a U.S. Tax Court decision finding that the costs of sex reassignment surgery are tax deductible, based on its conclusion that it is a medical necessary treatment within the meaning of the Internal Revenue Code’s medical deduction provisions.  (Law Notes reports below a new decision by the Iowa Supreme Court holding that refusing to provide such treatment under the state’s Medicaid program violated the Iowa civil rights law’s ban on gender identity discrimination. EerieAnna Good and Carol Beal v. Iowa Department of Human Services, 2019 WL 1086614, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 19 (March 8, 2019).)  But what Ho is looking for is a professional medical consensus, not a legal consensus, and that has not yet been achieved, in the court’s view.

Gibson can seek rehearing en banc or petition the Supreme Court for further review.  Failing that, however, the precedent is now set for the states of the 5th Circuit – Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – as they were previously set for the 1st Circuit – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico – that state corrections systems can categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmates.