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Posts Tagged ‘Iowa Civil Rights Act’

Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Gay Workers’ Compensation Commissioner’s Jury Verdict and $1.5 Million Damage Award

Posted on: July 3rd, 2021 by Art Leonard No Comments

Christopher J. Godfrey, an out gay man who served as Iowa’s Workers Compensation Commissioner beginning in 2006, won a jury verdict in 2019 of $1.5 million dollars on claims of sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation by Governor Terry Branstad, Branstad’s legal counsel, and the state government.  The jury found a violation of the state’s statutory ban on sexual orientation discrimination in employment, and a violation of Godfrey’s constitutional due process rights.  But on June 30, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the jury verdict in Godfrey v. State of Iowa, 2021 WL 2671324, 2021 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 92, finding that the trial judge should have ruled that the defendants, now-former Governor Branstad, his Legal Counsel Brenna Findley, and the State of Iowa were entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and that the judge should not have submitted the case to the jury for decision. Justice Christopher McDonald wrote the opinion for the court.

Godfrey was appointed to a full six-year term as Commissioner of Workers Compensation by Governor Chet Culver, a Democrat, and was confirmed unanimously by the state Senate in 2009.  He was openly gay at the time.  He had previously received interim appointments to that position beginning in 2006 from prior Governor Tom Vilsack, also a Democrat who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration (a position to which he was appointed again this year by President Biden), and Godfrey was reappointed to an interim vacancy as Commissioner by Governor Culver, before receiving the full-term appointment.

In 2010, Republican Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor who had taken a position as a university president, came out of political retirement and defeated Governor Culver’s bid for reelection.  As was customary with a change of administration, his staff notified all Commissioners who had been appointed by Branstad’s Democratic predecessors to submit letters of resignation, leaving the decision to the governor-elect whether to continue them in office.

Godfrey refused to submit such a letter, telling Governor-Elect Branstad (in the only in-person meeting he ever had with Branstad) that he was appointed and confirmed for a full six-year term and intended to serve the full term through 2015.  Under Iowa law, Governor Branstad could not replace Godfrey on his own initiative, but Godfrey could be removed by the Executive Council of the state, made up of the governor and several other top executive branch officials, for causes specified by statute which were not present in this situation.  So Branstad was stuck with Godfrey if Godfrey would not resign.

Upon taking office, Branstad turned his attention to other matters, but at the end of the legislative session on June 30, 2011, he returned to the Godfrey situation, having received complaints about Godfrey’s perceived “anti-business” stance from the leadership of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), the state’s chamber of commerce, who told Branstad that the Commission was creating an adverse climate for business in the state.  In consultation with his staff, Branstad determined that he could reduce Godfrey’s salary, hoping that would induce him to quit.  State law specified a salary range for Commissioners and Godfrey was being paid at the top of the range at $112,070.  Branstad decided to reduce his salary to the bottom of the range, $73,250, if he rejected another request to resign.  Two members of the governor’s staff met with Godfrey to reiterate the governor’s demand for his resignation, which Godfrey refused.  He was then told the Governor had decided to reduce his salary to the bottom of the statutory range.

Godfrey quickly let others know about his salary reduction, contacted the attorney general seeking possible intervention, and contacted legislators to see if they would intervene.  Senator William Dotzler phoned one of Branstad’s aides, saying “you guys might want to consider the action you’re taking on Chris Godfrey.  He is an openly gay man, and that can be an issue down the road.”  When Godfrey announced publicly the next day that he was being subjected to sexual orientation discrimination, Branstad claimed that he, the sole decision-maker in reducing Godfrey’s salary, had not known that Godfrey was gay until the day after the salary reduction was communicated to Godfrey, when Godfrey leveled his public accusation.

Godfrey sued the State, Branstad and other executive branch officials in January 2012, asserting claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination because of sexual orientation, and the Iowa Constitution.  Before the case came to trial, various pretrial motions came up to the Supreme Court involving immunity claims by particular state officials and the question whether Godfrey could sue for damages against Branstad and other officials on his constitutional claims.  One question that did not come up in those proceedings was whether the Iowa Civil Rights Act’s ban on employment discrimination and retaliation applied to a state agency commissioner who was appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for a fixed term.

Much of the focus of the trial, which is described in great detail in Justice McDonald’s opinion, went to the question whether Branstad personally knew that Godfrey was gay when he took action to pressure Godfrey to resign by reducing his salary.  Branstad insisted that he had not known, but evidently the jury did not believe him, relying on testimony from numerous witnesses about how Godfrey’s sexual orientation was known and reported in the press when he was appointed by Vilsack and Culver, was known to the Senators who voted to confirm him (and even came up at one point in a confirmation hearing), was known by the lieutenant governor (now Governor Reynolds since Branstad’s retirement to become Ambassador to China in the Trump Administration), who had actually been introduced to Godfrey’s husband, and was known by members of Branstad’s staff and the staff of the ABI.

Godfrey also put in plenty of evidence about the anti-LGBT stance of the Iowa Republican Party, about the vicious campaign against members of the Iowa Supreme Court who were denied retention by the voters after they had unanimously ruled in favor of same-sex marriage under the state constitution, about the party’s platform in Branstad’s election campaign seeking to amend the constitution to overrule the court’s marriage decision and to amend the Civil Rights Act to remove sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination.  There was also substantial evidence, which was not contested by the defendants, about the emotional distress that Godfrey suffered as a result of the pressure campaign to get him to resign.

At the end of the trial, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, but Jasper County District Judge Brad McCall denied the motion.  The jury awarded Godfrey $500,00 in emotional distress damages on his claims for sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation against the state, and $1 million in emotional distress damages against Governor Branstad and one of his aides on Godfrey’s constitutional claims.  The defendants appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The court concluded that the trial record showed no direct evidence that Branstad was personally aware that Godfrey was gay.  Branstad had served as governor before Vilsack.  When he left office, he became president of Des Moines University, an “osteopathic school of medicine,” and, wrote Justice McDonald, “At the time he was hired, Branstad committed to the trustees of the university that he would stay out of and away from politics while serving in the position.”  He claimed that he paid no attention to whom Vilsack or Culver was appointing as Commissioners, and that he was personally unaware of Godfrey until during his campaign to defeat Culver for re-election, when ABI officials first complained to him about Godfrey’s anti-business bias, but that they did not mention that Godfrey was gay.  Indeed, although he was surrounded by people who knew Godfrey was gay, Branstad swore that the first he heard of that was when Godfrey accused him of sexual orientation discrimination after the salary reduction was communicated to Godfrey.

The court decided that all of Godfrey’s evidence on this point was circumstantial, none of it directly showing that Branstad knew Godfrey was gay, and therefore, since Branstad was the sole decision maker on dealing with Godfrey, the case should have been dismissed as a matter of law for lack of evidence of discriminatory motive.  The court also rejected the constitutional due process claim, finding no denial of Godfrey’s procedural due process rights.

Dissenting Justice Brent Appel objected to the court substituting its judgment for that of the jury.  He agreed with the court’s disposition of the constitutional claim, but pointed out that under the Civil Rights Act a plaintiff can win a discrimination case based on circumstantial evidence, and it was up to the jury to weigh all the evidence and decide whether the defendants violated the statute.  Appel conceded that it was possible that a jury could find for Branstad, but taking account of all the evidence, it was also possible that a reasonable jury could decide for Godfrey, and it was inappropriate for an appellate court to make that determination.  Contested questions of fact are supposed to be decided by juries, unless it would be impossible for a reasonable jury to resolve such questions in favor of the plaintiff.  Appel argued that the evidence about the Republican Party’s anti-LGBT stance was relevant to the jury’s determination of the motive for attempting to force Godfrey from his position.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Matthew McDermott, while also agreeing with the majority as to the ultimate outcome of the case in favor of defendants, argued in an opinion by McDermott that the claims under the Civil Rights Act should have been dismissed on the ground that Godfrey, as an appointed and Senate-confirmed officer of the state government, was not an “employee” within the meaning of the Act, and thus that the Act’s employment discrimination provisions did not apply to him.

Godfrey did not serve out his full term as Commissioner, eventually resigning to take a position in the Obama Administration at the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board (ECAB), where he continued to serve until January 20, 2021, when he was sworn in to his current position as Director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Godfrey is represented by Roxanne Conlin, Devin Kelly, and Jean Mauss of Roxann Conlin & Associates, Des Moines.

Iowa Judge Strikes Down Medicaid Ban on Sex Reassignment Surgery

Posted on: July 2nd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

An Iowa trial judge ruled on June 6 that a state regulation prohibiting Medicaid coverage for sex reassignment surgery violates the state’s Civil Rights Act as well as the equal protection requirement of the state’s Constitution. Ruling on appeals by two transgender women who were denied preclearance for the procedures, Polk County District Judge Arthur E. Gamble rejected the state’s argument that the public accommodations law is inapplicable.

Iowa has a rather unusual history with this issue. Back in the 1970s, a transgender woman appealed a denial of benefits for sex reassignment surgery to federal court, winning a ruling from the district court and, in 1980, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that under the federal Medicaid statute, as then written, such surgery was covered under a general category of medically necessary in-patient hospital services.  The federal Medicaid program subsequently adopted policy statements disavowing the 8th Circuit’s approach, purporting to relieve state Medicaid programs from any obligation to cover sex reassignment procedures.  The federal agency backed away from that position during the Obama Administration, taking a neutral stance on what states might cover, although the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits sex discrimination by health care providers, might be construed to require such coverage.  But the Trump Administration now take the position, contrary to the Obama Administration, that gender identity discrimination is not covered under sex discrimination.

In 1991, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), ruling on a similar coverage claim, held that the language of the state’s Medicaid regulations required coverage. This prompted the state to take steps to change the regulatory language.  In 1995, relying on a report prepared by the Iowa Foundation for Medical Care, a non-profit that studies and generates reports on health care policy issues, DHS adopted new regulatory language, explicitly excluding from coverage “procedures related to transsexualism, hermaphroditism, gender identity disorders, or body dysmorphic disorders.”  Also excluded were “breast augmentation mammoplasty, surgical insertion of prosthetic testicles, penile implant procedures, and surgeries for the purpose of sex reassignment.”  This was included with a general ban on cosmetic procedures “performed primarily for psychological reasons or as a result of the aging process.”  The position of DHS in 1995, reiterated in this lawsuit, is that gender identity is entirely a psychological issue.

Although the 1995 Regulation has been reviewed by the agency numerous times since then, it has never been altered to take account of the changing medical consensus on gender identity and the role of sex reassignment procedures in treating gender dysphoria.

This is where the state fell down in the appeals filed by Eerieanna Good and Carol Beal from the denial of pre-clearance for their procedures. Their attorneys, Rita Bettis and Seth Horvath, retained the services of a distinguished expert, Dr. Randi Ettner, an author of several books on gender identity issues who has done a fair amount of public speaking and television appearances, who testified in detail about the current medical consensus about the nature of gender identity and appropriate health care for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The current consensus goes beyond psychology to invoke fetal development, hormones, genes, and a biological basis for gender identity as a deeply rooted trait that is largely impervious to change, and these concepts are reflected in more up-to-date standard medical reference sources.

DHS did not produce an expert witness, instead resting on that quarter-century old Iowa Foundation report, which was mired in thinking already verging on obsolescence at the time, labeling “transsexualism” as purely a psychological issue and sex reassignment as essentially cosmetic.

Judge Gamble was not convinced by the state’s argument, finding Dr. Ettner’s testimony convincing and consistent with the medical literature. Gender identity issues are about more than psychology, the state agency has failed to keep up with the times, and the beliefs on which it based its 1995 regulation no longer enjoy professional acceptance in the field.  These findings clearly supported Judge Gamble’s conclusion that the Regulation is vulnerable to attack.

The state tried to argue that the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which was amended several years ago to add “gender identity” to the list of forbidden grounds of discrimination in public accommodations, did not apply. Medicaid, argued the state, is not a “public accommodation.”  Judge Gamble decided the state was mischaracterizing the issue.  Medicaid is a service, overseen and provided in Iowa through contracts with private managed care organizations (MCOs) by the DHS. The DHS, as a “unit of government,” is clearly a “public accommodation” within the meaning of the law, as are the MCOs that administer the program.

When the doctors for Good and Beal applied for pre-clearance to perform the medical procedures and were turned down, the MCOs relied on the DHS regulation, not engaging in any individualized evaluation of the claims. Similarly, when Good and Beal filed internal appeals, the DHS itself denied their appeals without any individualized analysis, merely invoking the old regulation. Thus, by refusing to authorize the procedures under Medicaid, the DHS, a public accommodation, was denying a service to Good and Beal.  And the court concluded that this denial was because of their gender identity, taking note of how the Regulation explicitly targeted transgender people for discrimination.

The plaintiffs had also claimed sex discrimination, but Judge Gamble found that under an old state supreme court decision that has never been overruled, he was precluded as a state trial judge from treating a gender identity discrimination claim as a sex discrimination claim under state law, although he acknowledged that many federal courts of appeals have now agreed with the argument that gender identity claims are covered by laws banning sex discrimination.

Turning to the constitutional challenge, Judge Gamble had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny to be applied to gender identity discrimination by a state agency, a question of first impression under the Iowa Constitution. He looked to the Iowa Supreme Court’s historic decision Varnum v. Brien from 2009, in which the Iowa Supreme Court became the first state high court in the nation to rule by unanimous vote that same-sex couples are entitled to marry.  In that case, the court had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny for a claim that the marriage laws unconstitutionally discriminated against gay people, and concluded that such discrimination was subject to heightened scrutiny, placing a significant burden of objective justification on the state.

Gamble found many parallels to the analysis of sexual orientation and gender identity claims, and concluded that heightened scrutiny should apply, having identified transgender people as a “quasi-suspect class.” The state had utterly failed to meet its burden of proof here, resting on outmoded misunderstanding of gender identity and failing to counter the plaintiffs’ expert testimony.  Hedging his bets in case of an appeal, Judge Gamble also evaluated the policy under the less demanding rational basis test, but the state fared no better, as he found that the plaintiffs “negated every reasonable basis for the classification that might support disparate treatment.  The Regulation’s exclusion of surgical treatment for Gender Dysphoria does not pass under rational basis review,” concluded Gamble, who went on to agree with the plaintiffs that continuing to enforce the Regulation violated the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, as being an “arbitrary or capricious” administrative action, depriving them of equal rights.

“While the Court understands that DHS is in some respect obligated to enforce the administrative rules as previously adopted,” Gamble wrote, “it also owes an obligation to ensure those rules conform to the statutes like the [Iowa Civil Rights Act] and the Iowa Constitution which trump any prior administrative rule. DHS also has an obligation to keep up with the medical science.  DHS failed to do so when it denied coverage to Good and Beal for medically necessary gender affirming surgery.  This decision was made without regard to the law and facts.  The agency acted in the face of evidence upon which there is no room for difference of opinion among reasonable minds.  The exclusion of coverage was unreasonable arbitrary and capricious.”

Finally, Judge Gamble rejected DHS’s plea to limit the scope of his ruling by giving the agency time to develop a new regulation and not make the court’s order immediately binding, or to write a narrow order that would not have any broader effect. Gamble refused to be so limited, pointing out that the plaintiffs had already suffered undue delay and were entitled to the coverage mandated by law.  A total wipe-out of the state’s position.  The Iowa Attorney General’s office did not offer any comment in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, which could be appealed.