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North Carolina Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to North Carolina’s Exclusion of Coverage for Gender Transition from State Employee Medical Plan

Posted on: April 5th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

On March 11, U.S District Judge Loretta C. Biggs denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal claiming that the State Health Plan’s categorical exclusion of coverage for treatment sought “in conjunction with proposed gender transformation” or “in connection with sex changes or modifications” violates the Equal Protection Clause, Title IX, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Kadel v. Folwell, 2020 WL 1169271, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42586 (M.D.N.C.). The state university defendants had moved to dismiss the Title IX claim, and the State Health Plan defendants had moved to dismiss the Equal Protection and ACA claims. The plaintiffs are all current or former employees of the university defendants, or dependents of university employees, which were all enrolled in the Plan and are the parents of transgender individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are seeking treatment that is categorically excluded from coverage under the Plan.

The plaintiffs jointly allege that since the 1980s the Health Plan covering employees of the state university and their dependents has denied coverage for medically necessary treatment if the need stems from gender dysphoria, as opposed to some other condition. Thus, a cisgender woman’s medically necessary mastectomy would be covered, but a transgender man’s mastectomy for purpose of gender transition would not be covered. With the exception of 2017, this exclusionary policy has been in effect. Third party administrators retained by the employers to administer the plans – Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (claims administrator) and CBS Caremark (pharmaceuticals) – sell this kind of coverage to other employers, this it would be possible for the state to include such coverage using their current administrators, who are experienced in dealing with such claims.

The statutory causes of action (Title IX and ACA) would require the court to conclude that discrimination because of gender identity is covered under the statutory prohibition of sex discrimination, while the constitutional claim would require a finding that gender identity discrimination claims are actionable under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Judge Biggs turned first to the statutory claims in her analysis. She first rejected the state university’s claim that the suit should not be against them, because the state government dictates the content of their employee benefits plans. She found that the defendants “offer” the plan to plaintiffs, and “participate” (or participated) in its availability. “Indeed,” she wrote, “had University Defendants not hired Plaintiffs, they would not have been permitted to enroll in the Plan at all. The Court finds, at this stage, those facts provide a sufficient nexus between the alleged injuries the University Defendants.” Also, responding to the University’s argument that a ruling against them would not redress the plaintiffs’ claims because the defendants are bound by state policy, Biggs wrote that “there are other wahys in which a favorable ruling on Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim could give them the relief they seek. First, Plaintiffs have asked for – and ‘personally would benefit in a tangible way’ from – an award of damages.” Further, she noted, the university defendants might offer supplemental coverage beyond what the state Plan provides. She also rejected defendant’s arguments that since some of the Plaintiffs are not themselves transgender, their injuries are only indirect, because the minor plaintiffs’ “only ties” to the university are through their parents’ employment. Judge Biggs found that the parents were in this case within the class of plaintiffs protected by Title IX.

Turning to the argument that gender identity claims are not cognizable under Title IX, Biggs took note of the fact that the Supreme Court was considering whether Title VII covers gender identity discrimination claims in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, No. 18-107, which was argued on October 8, 2019, and had not been decided yet. The defendants argued that this case should be put “on hold” until a Supreme Court ruling was issued. “Because courts in this circuit often look to Title VII when construing like terms in Title IX,” she noted, “the Supreme Court’s decision could potentially impact the viability of the Title IX claim in this case. At this time, however, this Court is left to make its own determination as to whether discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ encompasses discrimination on the basis of transgender status,” and she noted Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 302 F. Supp. 3d 730 (E.D. Va. 2018) and M.A.B. v. Board of Education of Talbot City, 286 F. Supp. 3d 704 (D. Md. 2918), in which other district courts also within the 4th Circuit have ruled that such claims are covered by Title IX. Biggs wrote that she “agrees with their reasoning and follows it here.” She also noted that some other district courts in other circuits have faced similar arguments challenging transgender exclusions under state employee benefit plans, and have ruled against the employing states in those cases.

“University Defendants do not seriously contest that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination because of sex (although State Defendants do),” she wrote. “Rather, in moving to dismiss for failure to state a claim, they simply rephrase their arguments related to standing. There is no dispute that ‘a recipient of federal funds may be liable in damages under Title IX only for its own misconduct; the parties just disagree over whether University Defendants’ conduct is sufficiently implicated in this case.” Biggs held that “at this stage” in the litigation, the plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the university defendants’ role in providing benefits to their employees are sufficient both for standing and for the Title IX claim, and denied the motion to dismiss the Title IX claim.

Turning to the ACA claim, the state defendants argued sovereign immunity. “Section 1557 does not purport to condition a state’s acceptance of federal funding on a waiver of sovereign immunity,” she wrote. “Nor does any other provision of the ACA. However, in the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act of 1986 (CREA), Congress explicitly stated that a state shall not be immune from suit in federal court ‘for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the provisions of any other Federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal assistance.” The 4th Circuit found clear congressional intent to waive the state’s sovereign immunity if they accepted money in programs that prohibit discrimination. The state’s response was that the lack of mention of gender identity or transgender status in Section 1557 shows that North Carolina did not “knowingly” waive its sovereign immunity with respect to discrimination claims on these bases. Disagreeing, Biggs wrote that the state’s potential exposure to such suits should not have been “surprising,” because “courts across the country have acknowledged for decades that sex discrimination can encompass discrimination against transgender plaintiffs. Further, as a general matter, ‘statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,’” citing Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1999). She asserted that surely the state would agree that Title IX covers sexual harassment claims, even though the word “harassment” does not appear in the statute. “By the same token, Section 1557 need not include the precise phrasing State Defendants demand to provide sufficient notice of a condition of waiver.”

Turning to the constitutional claim, asserted against specific state officials in their official capacity, she found convincing the case law supporting heightened scrutiny for gender identity discrimination claims as being essentially sex discrimination claims. “On its face,” she wrote, “the Exclusion bars coverage for ‘treatment in conjunction with proposed gender transformation’ and ‘sex changes or modifications.’ The characteristics of sex and gender are directly implicated; it is impossible to refer to the Exclusion without referring to them. State Defendants attempt to frame the Exclusion as one focused on ‘medical diagnoses, not . . . gender.’ However, the diagnosis at issue – gender dysphoria – only results from a discrepancy between assigned sex and gender identity. In short, the Exclusion facially discriminates on the basis of gender, and heightened scrutiny applies.” And, quoting from United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), she wrote, “A policy that classifies on the basis of gender violates the Equal Protection Clause unless the state can provide an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for the classification.” [Thank-you, Justice Ginsburg!] Judge Biggs found that at this stage in the litigation, “State Defendants have failed to satisfy this demanding standard” and, in fact, “the only justification presented thus far is that the Exclusion ‘saves money.’ Under ordinary rational basis review, that could potentially be enough to thwart Plaintiffs’ claim. However, when heightened scrutiny applies, ‘a State may not protect the public fisc by drawing an invidious distinction between classes of its citizens,’” quoting from Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250 (1974).

Next, Judge Biggs rejected the state defendants’ argument as a ground for dismissal the plaintiffs’ failure to join the Health Plan’s Board of Trustees as a required party, as they would have to vote to make any change in the Plan that would be required to repeal the Exclusion. She found that the state defendants “share primary responsibility for the operation and administration of the Plan” so an award of declaratory, injunctive and monetary remedies against them would “give plaintiffs all the relief they seek.”

Finally, rejecting defendants’ request that the action be stayed pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris Funeral Homes, Judge Biggs pointed out that “the potential harm to Plaintiffs resulting from even a mild delay is significant, as they will continue to be denied healthcare coverage for medically necessary procedures. In contrast, the ‘harm’ to Defendants of not staying this case appears to be nothing more than the inconvenience of having to begin discovery.” This is obvious. Since discovery hasn’t begun yet, there is no chance this case would be ready for a motion for summary judgment for many months, and the Supreme Court will likely rule in Harris by the end of June. “Judicial economy is, of course, a consideration,” wrote Biggs. However, this case is in its infancy, and it may be months before a decision issued in Harris – a substantial delay for those seeking to vindicate their civil rights. Given the ongoing harm to Plaintiffs and Defendants’ failure to present ‘clear and convincing circumstances’ outweighing that harm, this Court declines to exercise its discretion to stay the proceedings.”

Thus, pending motions to dismiss are all denied. As of the end of March, the defendants had not petitioned the 4th Circuit for a stay.

Counsel for plaintiffs include Deepika H. Ravi, of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Washington, DC; Meredith T. Brown and Tara L. Borelli, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., Atlanta, GA; Noah E. Lewis, of Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.; Omar F. Gonzalez-Pagan, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., New York, NY; and Amy E. Richardson, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Raleigh, NC (local counsel).

Alaska Federal Court Says Employer’s Denial of Insurance Coverage for Sex-Reassignment Surgery Violates Federal Law

Posted on: March 10th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district court in Anchorage, Alaska, has ruled that a public employer’s health benefits plan violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it categorically denies to employees, whether male or female, coverage for the surgical procedures used to effect gender transition.  According to the March 6 opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, the employer’s exclusion of this coverage is “discriminatory on its face and is direct evidence of sex discrimination.”  The ruling does not require all employers to provide coverage for gender reassignment surgery, but it requires that they not discriminate because of an employee’s sex in deciding which procedures are covered.

Judge Holland’s decision has potentially wide application because Title VII applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, including both businesses and government employers at the federal, state and local levels.  Although a trial court ruling is not a precedent binding on other courts, Judge Holland’s explanation for his ruling may provide a persuasive precedent both for courts confronting similar claims and for employers deciding how to respond to employees seeking such coverage under their employee benefit plans.

Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of Jennifer Fletcher, who works as a legislative librarian for the State of Alaska.  Fletcher is enrolled in AlaskaCare, a self-funded employee health care plan that is administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company.  The Plan “provides benefits for medical services and procedures that are medically necessary and not otherwise excluded from the Plan,” according to the State’s written responses to discovery questions posed by Fletcher’s attorney from Lambda Legal, Tara L. Borelli.

During discovery in this case, the State conceded that for “some” transgender individuals, surgical procedures for gender transition may be “medically necessary,” but the plan formally excludes performance of the procedures in question for that purpose.  The procedures in question are covered for employees if they are necessary to address a medical issue other than gender transition.  None of the procedures at issue in this case are used solely in connection with gender transition.

Fletcher was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2014 and began the process of social, legal, and medical transition under professional care, starting hormone therapy that year.  By 2016, she and her health care provider agreed that gender transition-related surgery was necessary for her transition.  In her complaint, Fletcher claimed that such treatment was “essential” for her “well-being.”

In November 2016, Fletcher contacted Aetna to discuss coverage for her surgical treatment, but was told that the Plan did not cover it, and would not in 2017.  Although the Plan has since been modified to allow coverage for some aspects of gender transition, hormones and counseling, the express exclusion of surgery continues.

Fletcher’s request for coverage spurred the State to study the cost of eliminating this exclusion, for which it engaged a consultant, who advised that the annual increase in claims on the Plan would be $60,000.  Although there was internal discussion about this within the State government, no further action was taken to change the Plan to cover surgical transition procedures.

Because AlaskaCare would not cover her surgery, Fletcher obtained her surgery in Thailand, where the procedure is less expensive than if it were performed without insurance coverage in the Unites States.  She filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the Plan’s exclusion violates Title VII’s ban on discrimination in “terms and conditions of employment” because of an individual’s sex.  The State’s simplistic response was that because the Plan excludes coverage for any surgical procedure for purposes of gender transition, whether the employee involved was identified as male or female at birth, there was no discrimination “because of sex.”  The EEOC rejected this argument, and issued a finding that the State’s policy violates Title VII.  On May 17, 2019, the EEOC notified Fletcher that its attempt to “conciliate in this matter” with the State was unsuccessful, authorizing her to file a lawsuit.

Fletcher’s complaint alleged that the State discriminated against her because of her “sex” which, she alleged, includes “discrimination on the basis of gender nonconformity, gender identity, transgender status, and gender transition.”  This list covered all the bases of different theories that federal courts have used at various times to evaluate Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs.  After discovery, Fletcher moved for summary judgment on the question whether the Plan exclusion violates Title VII, while the State moved for summary judgment to dismiss the entire lawsuit on the merits.

As it turned out, the list of alternative coverage theories in Fletcher’s complaint was unnecessary, because Judge Holland concluded that the exclusion was, on its face, discrimination “because of sex.”He based this conclusion on the State’s concession that all the surgical procedures involved in Fletcher’s transition would be covered if they were performed for reasons other than gender transition.

Thus, if Fletcher was identified as female at birth but needed the vaginoplasty procedure for some reason other than transition, she would be covered, and indeed that procedure is employed to deal with some medical conditions experienced by women.  Because she was identified as male at birth, however, coverage for the the procedure was denied, because its only purpose for somebody identified as male at birth would be for gender transition.  To Judge Holland, this was clearly an exclusion specifically because of the sex of the employee, and one had to go no further into theories of gender nonconformity, gender identity or transgender status in order to bring her claim within the coverage of the statute.

Under Title VII, any “disparate treatment” between men and women regarding a particular term or benefit of employment is illegal unless it can be justified as a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) that is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation or essence of an employer’s business.”  In this case, Holland commented, “Defendant has not argued, nor could it, that there is any BFOQ for the disparate treatment at issue here.  As such, plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment that defendant violated her rights under Title VII.”

While granting Fletcher’s motion, the court simultaneously denied the State’s summary judgment motion.  Still to be determined is the remedy for the violation.  As Fletcher has already had the surgical treatment, the court needs to decide what to award for compensation for violation of the statute.  In light of the court’s decision on the merits of Fletcher’s claim, it is likely that the parties will negotiate a settlement on damages.

Judge Holland was appointed to the District Court by President Ronald Reagan and took senior status in 2001.

Unanimous Federal Appeals Panel Blasts Trump Administration in HIV-Military Discharge Cases

Posted on: January 14th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, blasted the Trump Administration on January 10 for relying on “outmoded”  information that is “at odds with current science” when the Air Force moved to discharge otherwise healthy HIV-positive service members based on the spurious assertion that they were not available for deployment outside the United States.  Roe v. U.S. Department of Defense, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 821, 2020 Westlaw 110826 (4th Cir., Jan. 10, 2020).

The court affirmed a preliminary injunction that was issued last year by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, barring the discharges while the case proceeds to an ultimate ruling on the merits.  The court’s opinion, written by Circuit Judge James Wynn, provides a detailed review of relevant Defense Department policies  and current medical facts, leaving little doubt that Judge Brinkema’s conclusion that plaintiffs are likely to win their case is solidly grounded in legal reasoning.

The three-judge panel consisted of Wynn, who was appointed by Barack Obama, and Albert Diaz and Henry Floyd, both also appointed by Obama.  At the time of his nomination to the court of appeals, Judge Floyd was a District Judge who had been appointed by George W. Bush.

Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN brought the case on behalf of two service members, anonymously identified as Richard Roe and Victor Voe, as well as other Outserve members who are HIV-positive and subject to discharge for that reason.  Both Roe and Voe had years of meritorious service when they were diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2017 as a result of the Defense Department’s policy of periodically requiring personnel to submit to HIV testing.  Both men immediately went into treatment, are taking retroviral therapy, have undetectable HIV, and are healthy and uncompromised in their ability to perform their duties.

Defense Department written policies state unequivocally that HIV-positive personnel who are “determined to be fit for duty will be allowed to serve in a manner that ensures access to appropriate medical care.”  The Air Force has a written policy stating that HIV-positive status “alone is not grounds for medical separation or retirement,” and states that “force-wide, HIV-infected employees are allowed to continue working as long as they are able to maintain acceptable performance and do not pose a safety or health threat to themselves or others,” and “may not be separated solely on the basis of laboratory evidence of HIV infection.”

The Catch-22, however, comes with the Air Force’s insistence that personnel must be deployable anywhere in the world, and in particular to the central theater of Air Force active operations, known as CENTCOM, which covers operations spanning North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.  Under a rule known as “Modification 13,” personnel who are “found to be medically non-deployable will not enter [the Central Command area] until the non-deployable condition is completely resolved or an approved waiver is obtained.”  It lists “confirmed HIV infection” as “disqualifying for deployment.”  The official in charge of granting waivers has stated that it is highly unlikely that a waiver would be granted for HIV-positive servicemembers to be deployed to CENTCOM’s area, and in fact no such waiver has ever been granted.

In this litigation, the Defense Department takes the position that neither it, nor in particular the Air Force, has an absolute ban on continued employment of healthy HIV-positive personnel.  On the other hand, since most of the Air Force’s current activity is in the CENTCOM area, Modification 13 prohibits deployment of HIV-positive personnel to CENTCOM without a waiver, and the official in charging of granting waivers does not grant them for HIV-positive personnel, there is, de facto, a ban.

The lawsuit claims that the discharge of Roe, Voe and similarly-situated service members for being HIV-positive violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), as being “arbitrary and capricious” in light of the facts of their individual cases, and also violates the Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment.  Judge Brinkema and the court of appeals narrowed their attention to the alleged APA violation, under the well-established approach of avoiding making a constitutional ruling if the plaintiff can prevail based on a statutory claim.

In this case, it seemed clear to Brinkema and the appeals panel that the government’s position was inconsistent with medical facts, based on outmoded ideas about HIV and current treatments. The court emphasized that Roe and Voe take daily pills that do not require any special treatment (refrigeration, for example, or shielding from temperature extremes, which were required for some HIV treatments prior to the introduction of the pills now in use) and have not generated any significant side effects for either man.  The court summarizes the well-established science that somebody with undetectable levels of HIV presents virtually no risk of transmission through casual contact, and even blood exposure or sexual contact with somebody under retroviral treatment whose HIV level is undetectable is highly unlikely to result in transmission.

Both men present themselves as fully capable of performing their duties, and in both cases their commanding officers have endorsed their request to be allowed to continue serving, as have military physicians.  However, the Air Force, despite the requirements in published policies to evaluate each case on its individual merits, has maintained a de facto categorical exclusion.  Each man appealed the initial rulings against them internally, and both were met with virtually identical formulaic statements that they had to be discharged on medical grounds under the deployability rules, suggesting that their cases did not receive individualized consideration.

“To comply with the APA,” wrote Judge Wynn, “the agency must examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found the choice made.  Agency action is arbitrary and capricious when the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.”

Analyzing these requirements, Wynn pointed out that “the Government has taken inconsistent positions on whether HIV-positive servicemembers may deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.” Prior to this litigation, the Government has treated Modification 13 as “a categorical ban,” but now it tries to appear to conform to APA requirements by emphasizing the possibility of a waiver being granted.  But this position is belied by the evidence that waivers have not been granted in any HIV case, despite the facts concerning these plaintiffs.

“If Modification 13 is not a categorical ban,” wrote Wynn, “the Air Force acted arbitrarily by treating them as categorically ineligible to deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility and denying Plaintiffs the required individualized assessment of their fitness for continued service.  If Modification 13 is a categorical ban, the Government failed to satisfy the APA’s requirements in promulgating their policy.”

The court of appeals concluded that Judge Brinkema “rightly found that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the Air Force’s discharge decisions were arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the APA.”  This is the threshold factor in deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction to pause the discharge process while the case is litigation has been met.  In this case, the men were designated for discharge without any individualized assessment, and furthermore without even applying for a waiver and being turned down, since the Air Force’s decision-makers predicted that CENTCOM would deny a waiver in their cases, making any such application virtually futile.  “Such a categorical predictive assessment is not ‘a satisfactory explanation’ for discharging each servicemember,” wrote Wynn, “and in using this predictive assessment to discharged these servicemembers, the Air Force violated Department of Defense regulations, failed to consider important aspects of the criteria for discharge, and explained its decision in a manner contrary to the evidence before it.”

Indeed, wrote Wynn, “Upon review, each explanation offered by the Government for the policy is unsupported by the record or contradicted by scientific evidence, leading us to conclude Plaintiffs have adequately shown that the Government failed to consider the relevant evidence and offers explanations so contrary to that evidence as to be arbitrary.”

For example, the court found the Government’s claim that HIV requires “highly specialized” treatment to be unsupported by the record in this case, which shows that managing HIV through anti-retroviral medications involves taking a single daily pill, “which does not require special storage or handling,” minimal side effects, and periodic blood tests that  can be simply performed by any general practitioner in the field, which are reduced to once a year after somebody has been “undetectable” for a period of two years.

The court similarly dismissed some of the standard arguments that were made earlier in the epidemic prior to current treatment protocols, and found that “the risk of battlefield transmission is unsupported by the record,” given the medical evidence that those with undetectable viral loads don’t transmit the virus.  The court found that the Defense Department’s own internal research showed that out of 1.13 million Army servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq between 2001 and 2007, only 131 seroconverted, a lower rate than among servicemembers who were not deployed to those countries, and there was only one documented case of a servicemember who had seroconverted during deployment.  Furthermore, there was no documentation of any servicemember contracting HIV through non-sexual means, and no instances of transmission through  trauma care, blood splash, transfusion, or other battlefield circumstances.  In short, the government’s explanations for its policy were contradicted by the data it generated through its own internal studies.

“A ban on deployment may have been justified at a time when HIV treatment was less effective at managing the virus and reducing transmission risks,” wrote Wynn.  “But any understanding of HIV that could justify this ban is outmoded and at odds with current science.  Such obsolete understandings cannot justify a ban, even under a deferential standard of review and even according appropriate deference to the military’s professional judgements.”  As to Modification 13, relied upon so heavily by the Air Force in this case, it “evidences a complete failure to reasonably reflect upon the information contained in the record and grapple with contrary evidence – disregarding entirely the need for reasoned decision-making.”

The court found that plaintiffs easily met the other tests for obtaining preliminary relief, showing they are likely to suffer irreparable harm if they are given medical discharges.  Such discharges would effectively require them to “out” themselves as HIV-positive when they apply for non-military employment, and the interruption of their military careers would set them back in tangible and intangible ways if they ultimately won their cases and the Air Force was ordered to take them back.

The court also endorsed Judge Brinkema’s conclusion that the balance of the equities and the public interest support requiring the Air Force to keep these men employed while their cases are pending.  As to the argument that the injunction improperly intrudes into military personnel decision-making, the court agreed with Judge Brinkema that the relief request by the plaintiffs “that Defendants adhere to their stated policies and make nonarbitrary, personalized determinations about each individual’s fitness for service did not do violence to the notion of military independence.”

Thus, the court upheld Judge Brinkema’s order that the Air Force not discharge “active-duty servicemembers because they are classified as ineligible to deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility due to their HIV status.”  The court rejected the government’s ritualistic opposition to a nation-wide injunction, finding that Supreme Court precedents support such relief in a case such as this.

In a parting shot, Judge Wynn wrote, “The Government’s explanations for why it has imposed an effective ban on deploying HIV-positive servicemembers to CENTCOM’s areas of responsibility are at odds with modern science.”  After concisely summarizing the basic evidence, he commented, “the Government did not consider these realities when discharging these servicemembers, instead relying on assumptions and categorical determinations.  As a result, the Air Force denied these servicemembers an individual determination of their fitness for military service,” which violates the APA.

Lambda Legal’s lead attorney on the case is Scott Schoettes of Lambda’s Chicago office.  Outserve-SLDN’s lead attorney is Peter Perkowski, Washington, D.C.  Amicus briefs were filed on behalf of a variety of individuals and groups, represented by Winston & Strawn LLP and Dentons US LLP, as well as GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, a Boston-based public interest law firm.

 

Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to Maryland Law Against Conversion Therapy for Minors

Posted on: September 24th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On September 20, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the federal district court in Maryland granted that state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Liberty Counsel on behalf of a conversion therapy practitioner who was challenging the state’s recently enacted law that provides that “a mental health or child care practitioner may not engage in conversion therapy with an individual who is a minor.” The ban is enforceable  through the professional licensing process enforced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  The named defendants are Governor Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh.  The case is Doyle v. Hogan, 2019 WL 4573382, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160709 (D. Md., Sept. 20, 2019).

The plaintiff, Christopher Doyle, argued that the law violates his right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, seeking a preliminary injunction against the operation of the law while the litigation proceeds.  Having decided to dismiss the case, however, Judge Chasanow also denied the motion for preliminary relief as moot.  Liberty Counsel immediately announced an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has yet to rule on a constitutional challenge against a conversion therapy ban.

Several U.S. Circuit courts have rejected similar challenges.  The New Jersey statute, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, was upheld by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state has the power to regulate “professional speech” as long as there was a rational basis for the regulation.  King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014). The California statute, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, was upheld by the 9th Circuit, which characterized it is a regulation of professional conduct with only an incidental effect on speech, and thus not subject to heightened scrutiny by the court.  Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2015).  Liberty Counsel is also appealing a similar ruling by a federal court in Florida to the 11th Circuit.

The task of protecting statutory bans on conversion therapy against such constitutional challenges was complicated in June 2018 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court in a 5-4 decision involving a California law imposing certain notice requirements on licensed and unlicensed pregnancy-related clinics, wrote disparagingly of the 3rd and 9th Circuit conversion therapy opinions.  National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018). The California statute required the clinics to post notices advising customers about pregnancy-related services, including family planning and abortion, that are available from the state, and also required non-licensed clinics to post notices stating that they were not licensed by the State of California.  The clinics protested that the statute imposed a content-based compelled speech obligation that violated their free speech rights and was subject to “strict scrutiny.” Such speech regulations rarely survive a strict scrutiny constitutional challenge.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reverse a decision by the 9th Circuit, which had ruled that the notices constituted “professional speech” that was not subject to “strict scrutiny.”  In so doing, Justice Thomas rejected the idea that there is a separate category of “professional speech” that the government is free to regulate.  He asserted that “this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’”

“Some Court of Appeals have recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech that is subject to different rules,” Thomas observed, citing among examples the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit conversion therapy cases.  “These courts define ‘professionals’ as individuals who provide personalized services to clients and who are subject to ‘a generally applicable licensing and regulatory regime.’ ‘Professional speech’ is then defined as any speech by these individuals that is based on ‘[their] expert knowledge and judgment,’ or that is ‘within the confines of [the] professional relationship,’” this time quoting from the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit opinions.  “So defined, these courts except professional speech from the rule that content-based regulations of speech are subject to strict scrutiny,” again citing the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases.

After reiterating that the Supreme Court has not recognized a category of “professional speech,” Thomas does concede that there are some circumstances where the court has applied “more deferential review” to “some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech,” and that “States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”  But, the Court concluded, neither of those exceptions applied to the clinic notice statute.

As a result of Justice Thomas’s comments about the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases, when those opinions are examined on legal research databases such as Westlaw or Lexis, there is an editorial indication that they were “abrogated” by the Supreme Court.  Based on that characterization, Liberty Counsel sought to get the 3rd Circuit to “reopen” the New Jersey case, but it refused to do so, and the Supreme Court declined Liberty Counsel’s request to review that decision.

Liberty Counsel and other opponents of bans on conversion therapy have now run with this language from Justice Thomas’s opinion, trying to convince courts in new challenges to conversion therapy bans that when the practitioner claims that the therapy is provided solely through speech, it is subject to strict scrutiny and likely to be held unconstitutional.  The likelihood that a law will be held unconstitutional is a significant factor in whether a court will deny a motion to dismiss a legal challenge or to grant a preliminary injunction against its enforcement.

Liberty Counsel used this argument to attack conversion therapy ordinances passed by the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, both in Florida, but U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg rejected the attempt in a ruling issued on February 13, holding that despite Justice Thomas’s comments, the ordinances were not subject to strict scrutiny and were unlikely to be found unconstitutional. She found that they were covered under the second category that Justice Thomas recognized as being subject to regulation: where the ordinance regulated conduct that had an incidental effect on speech.  Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 353 F. Supp. 3d 1237 (S.D. Fla. 2019).

Liberty Counsel argued against that interpretation in its more recent challenge to the Maryland law.  It argued in its brief, “The government cannot simply relabel the speech of health professionals as ‘conduct’ in order to restrain it with less scrutiny,” and that because Dr. Doyle “primarily uses speech to provide counseling to his minor clients, the act of counseling must be construed as speech for purposes of First Amendment review.”

The problem is drawing a line between speech and conduct, especially where the conduct consists “primarily” of speech.  Judge Chasanow noted that the 4th Circuit has explained, “When a professional asserts that the professional’s First Amendment rights ‘are at stake, the stringency of review slides ‘along a continuum’ from ‘public dialogue’ on one end to ‘regulation of professional conduct’ on the other,” continuing: “Because the state has a strong interest in supervising the ethics and competence of those professions to which it lends its imprimatur, this sliding-scale review applies to traditional occupations, such as medicine or accounting, which are subject to comprehensive state licensing, accreditation, or disciplinary schemes.  More generally, the doctrine may apply where ‘the speaker is providing personalized advice in a private setting to a paying client.’”

And, quoting particularly from the 3rd Circuit New Jersey decision, “Thus, Plaintiff’s free speech claim turns on ‘whether verbal communications become ‘conduct’ when they are used as a vehicle for mental health treatment.”

Judge Chasanow found that the Maryland statute “obviously regulates professionals,” and although it prohibits particular speech “in the process of conducting conversion therapy on minor clients,” it “does not prevent licensed therapists from expressing their views about conversion therapy to the public and to their [clients.]”  That is, they can talk about it, but they can’t do it!  “They remain free to discuss, endorse, criticize, or recommend conversion therapy to their minor clients.”  But, the statute is a regulation of treatment, not of the expression of opinions.  And that is where the conduct/speech line is drawn.

She found “unpersuasive” Liberty Counsel’s arguments that “conversion therapy cannot be characterized as conduct” by comparing it to aversive therapy, which goes beyond speech and clearly involves conduct, usually involving an attempt to condition the client’s sexual response by inducing pain or nausea at the thought of homosexuality.  She pointed out that “conduct is not confined merely to physical action.” The judge focused on the goal of the treatment, reasoning that if the client presents with a goal to change their sexual orientation, Dr. Doyle would “presumably adopt the goal of his client and provide therapeutic services that are inherently not expressive because the speech involved does not seek to communicate [Doyle’s] views.”

She found that under 4th Circuit precedents, the appropriate level of judicial review is “heightened scrutiny,” not “strict scrutiny,” and that the ordinance easily survives heightened scrutiny, because the government’s important interest in protection minors against harmful treatment comes into play, and the legislative record shows plenty of data on the harmful effects of conversion therapy practiced on minors.  She notes references to findings by the American Psychological Association Task Force, the American Psychiatric Association’s official statement on conversion therapy, a position paper from the American School Counselor Association, and articles from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Association of Sexuality Educations, Counselor, and Therapists.  Such a rich legislative record provides strong support to meet the test of showing that the state has an important interest that is substantially advanced by banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

Having reached this conclusion, the judge rejected Liberty Counsel’s argument that the ban was not the least restrictive way of achieving the legislative goal, or that it could be attacked as unduly vague.  It was clear to any conversion therapy practitioner what was being outlawed by the statute, she concluded.

Turning to the religious freedom argument, she found that the statute is “facially neutral” regarding religion.  It prohibits all licensed therapists from providing this therapy “without mention of or regard for their religion,” and Liberty Counsel’s Complaint “failed to provide facts indicating that the ‘object of the statute was to burden practices because of their religious motivation.’”  She concluded that Doyle’s “bare conclusion” that the law “displays hostility toward his religious convictions is not enough, acting alone, to state a claim” that the law violates his free exercise rights.  She also rejected the argument that this was not a generally applicable law because it was aimed only at licensed practitioners.  Like most of the laws that have been passed banning conversion therapy, the Maryland law does not apply to religious counselors who are not licensed health care practitioners.  Because the law is enacted as part of the regulation of the profession of health care, its application to those within the profession is logical and has nothing to do with religion.  As a result, the free exercise claim falls away under the Supreme Court’s long-standing precedent that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with religiously-neutral state laws.

Having dismissed the First Amendment claims, Judge Chasanow declined to address Liberty Counsel’s claims under the Maryland Constitution, since there is no independent basis under the court’s jurisdiction to decide questions of state law.

Joining the Office of the Maryland Attorney General in defending the statute were FreeState Justice, Maryland’s LGBT rights organization, with attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal.  Also, the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher of Washington, D.C., submitted an amicus brief on behalf of The Trevor Project, which is concerned with bolstering the mental health of LGBT youth.

Senior District Judge Chasanow was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

 

Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Oregon Wedding Cake Case, but Remands for “Further Consideration” in Light of Masterpiece Cakeshop

Posted on: June 17th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. 18-547, on June 17, but at the same time vacated the Oregon Court of Appeals decision in the case, 289 Or. App. 507 (Dec. 28, 2017), and remanded the case to that court for “further consideration” in light of the Court’s decision last year in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).  The Court did not issue any explanation for its ruling, beyond the direction of “further consideration” specifying Masterpiece Cakeshop as the ground for such consideration.

Both cases involved the question whether a baker who refuses to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple has a federal constitutional defense to a discrimination charge in the state administrative and judicial fora.  In both Oregon and Colorado, state law forbids discrimination because of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation, and businesses selling wedding cakes are definitely public accommodations under both laws.  Without ruling directly on the question presented in Masterpiece, the Supreme Court last year vacated the Colorado Court of Appeals and Colorado Commission rulings based on the Court’s conclusion that the Commission forum was “hostile to religion” as evidenced by statements by two of the Commissioners and “inconsistent” action on a religious discrimination charge by a provocateur who sought unsuccessfully to order anti-gay cakes from other bakers.

It takes at least four votes on the Supreme Court to grant a writ of certiorari, but it takes at least five votes to vacate and remand a lower court ruling.  According to its usual practice, the Court did not specify how many justices voted for the cert grant or the “vacate and remand” order.

The issue on remand for the Oregon Court of Appeals appears to be whether some statements made by Brad Avakian, Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI), evinced the kind of hostility to religion that the Supreme Court identified as problematic in the Masterpiece case.

When Melissa Klein, proprietor of Sweetcakes by Melissa, rejected a wedding cake order from Rachel and Lauren Bowman-Cryer on religious grounds, the women filed complaints with the Oregon Department of Justice and the Bureau of Labor and Industries. The media found the case newsworthy, resulting in interviews with Melissa Klein and her husband in which they sought to justify their action on religious grounds.  Commissioner Avakian reacted to the ensuing controversy by posting a statement to his Facebook page and speaking with The Oregonian, a wide-read newspaper in the state.

Avakian’s Facebook post included a link to a television station’s news story about the refusal of service and a statement: “Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can disobey laws that are already in place.  Having one set of rules for everybody ensures that people are treated fairly as they go about their daily lives.”  The Oregonian subsequently quoted Avakian as saying that “everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that folks have the right to discriminate.”

Under BOLI’s procedures, an administrative law judge (ALJ) holds a hearing and issues a “proposed final order,” to which the parties can file “exceptions” as an appeal to the Commissioner.  Before the hearing in this case, the Kleins moved to disqualify Commissioner Avakian from taking any role in the case, arguing that his public statements had prejudged the case so he was not neutral.  The ALJ denied the motion to disqualify and went on to find that the Kleins had violated the statute by denying services to the couple “on account of” their sexual orientation, as prohibited by the statute.  The ALJ rejected the Kleins argument that they had not discriminated because of the women’s sexual orientation, or that their actions were protected by the First Amendment free speech and free exercise of religion provisions.  But the ALJ also rejected BOLI’s argument that statements made by Mr. Klein during interviews were communicating a future intent to discriminate, which would itself violate a specific prohibition in the statute. Rather, the ALJ ruled, they were an account of the reasons for their denial of services in this case.  The ALJ ordered damages to the couple totaling $135,000, mainly for emotional suffering and having to put up with the media attention.

The Kleins and BOLI both filed exceptions to the ALJ’s proposed order. Commissioner Avakian affirmed the ALJ’s ruling on discrimination, but disagreed with the ruling on statement of future intent to discriminate.  Avakian concluded that the record supported the opposite finding, that the interviews and a sign taped to the bakery’s window communicated intent to discriminate on the same basis in the future, but he approved the ALJ’s proposed damage award without adding anything for this additional violation.  The Kleins then petitioned for judicial review.

The Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision on discrimination, but rejected Commissioner Avakian’s reversal of the ALJ’s ruling on communicating an intention to discriminate in the future.  The court also rejected the Kleins’ argument on appeal that Avakian should have been disqualified from ruling on the case because of his Facebook and Oregonian interview statements. As to another flashpoint in the case, the court deemed the amount of damages awarded appropriate, noting that the amount was in line with damages awarded in other similar cases.  The Kleins sought review in the Oregon Supreme Court, but were turned down without comment.

The Kleins’ petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court mentions the issue of Avakian’s statements and the ALJ and Oregon court’s rejections of disqualification, but it does not focus on that issue in its statement of questions presented, even though the petition was filed months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop made that a potentially viable alternative route to getting the agency’s decision overturned.  Counsel for the Kleins, instead, were focused on getting the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1990 ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, in which the Court abandoned its long-established free exercise clause jurisprudence, substituting a rule that people have to comply with neutral state laws of general application – such as most anti-discrimination laws – even though complying might burden their free exercise of religion.   Their second “question presented” asked the Court to overrule Smith, and their third “question presented” asked the Court to “reaffirm” a “hybrid rights doctrine” suggested in dicta in Smith, where there would be more stringent judicial review in cases where other constitutional rights in addition to free exercise of religion were implicated.

The Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the Oregon Court of Appeals decision for “further consideration” by the state court suggests that there are not enough votes on the Court to reconsider Smith as of now, but we can’t know how many votes short the proponents on the Court of reconsidering Smith might be.  Smith has long been a controversial precedent.  The decision’s cutback on protection for religious objectors led Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and many states to pass their own versions of that law.  But Smith has become a bulwark for vindicating the rights of same-sex couples to obtain wedding-related goods and services, as most courts confronted with the issue have concluded that such businesses do not have the right to deny them to same-sex couples.

The Kleins are represented by First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas, Boyden Gray & Associates of Washington, D.C., and Oregon local counsel Herbert G. Grey.  Ten amicus briefs, all urging the Court to grant the petition for certiorari, were filed by conservative and religious litigation and policy groups, many extolling the case as a vehicle for overturning Employment Division v. Smith.  Lambda Legal represented Rachel and Laurel Bowman-Cryer with an amicus brief at the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Supreme Court Takes a Pass on Hawaii B&B Discrimination Case

Posted on: March 21st, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on March 18 that it will not review a decision by Hawaii’s Intermediate Court of Appeals, which ruled in February 2018 that a small bed & breakfast operating in a private home in the Mariner’s Ridge section of Hawai’i Kai, violated Hawaii’s civil rights law by denying accommodations to an unmarried lesbian couple who were planning a trip to Hawaii to visit a friend.  Hawaii’s civil rights law forbids businesses that are “public accommodations” from discriminating in providing their services based on the sexual orientation of customers.  Cervelli v. Aloha Bed & Breakfast, 415 P.3d 919 (Int. Ct. App. Haw. 2018), cert. denied by Hawaii S. Ct., 2018 WL 3358586 (July 10, 2018), cert. denied, No. 18-451, 2019 WL 1231949 (U.S. Sup. Ct., March 18, 2019).

The key issues raised in the case were whether such an operation is covered by the public accommodations law, and whether the owner, Phyllis Young, who lives there and operates it personally, could successfully raise constitutional claims against being required to accommodate a lesbian couple in her home.

Young operates “Aloha B&B” out of her four-bedroom house, and has averaged between one hundred and two hundred customers a year.  She advertises on her own website and some third-party websites.  Diane Cervelli and Taeko Bufford, a “committed” lesbian couple, emailed to inquire about renting a room for their vacation trip.  Young immediately responded by email that a room was available and explained how to make a reservation.  Cervelli phoned two weeks later to book the room.  As Young was taking down her information, Cervelli mentioned that she would be accompanied by another woman, and Young asked whether they were lesbians.  When Cervelli said “Yes,” Young responded, “We’re strong Christians.  I’m very uncomfortable in accepting the reservation from you.” Young refused the reservation and hung up on Cervelli.

Bufford then called and attempted to reserve the room, but again Young refused.  Bufford asked her whether it was because she and Cervelli were lesbians, and Young said “Yes.”  Young referred to her religious beliefs as the reason she was refusing the reservation.  “Apart from Plaintiff’s sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Craig Nakamura for the court of appeals, “there was no other reason for Young’s refusal to accept Plaintiffs’ request for a room.”

The women filed a discrimination claim with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, which concluded that they had a legitimate case.  Then Cervelli and Bufford filed a lawsuit against Aloha B&B in the state circuit court, represented by Lambda Legal with local attorneys from Honolulu, and the Civil Rights Commission intervened in the lawsuit as a co-plaintiff.  Attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-LGBT religious litigation group, joined with local attorneys to defend the B&B.

Judge Edwin C. Nacino of the circuit court easily rejected the B&B’s argument that it was not a public accommodation, but rather a landlord that would not be covered by this law.  The law on discrimination in real estate transactions prohibits sexual orientation discrimination in residential rentals, but doesn’t apply to facilities with four or fewer units.  While the B&B has only four bedrooms, the evidence of 100-200 rentals per year made clear that Young’s business came within the “public accommodations” definition.  Young admitted that she only rented rooms for short stays, so this was a transient rather than a residential facility.

Young claimed that requiring her to accommodate the lesbian couple in her home violated her constitutional right to privacy, freedom of intimate association and free exercise of religion.  The circuit court rejected these defenses, and awarded summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the issues of liability and injunctive relief.  Since the defendant was planning to appeal, the issue of damages was put on hold pending a final decision on the case.

The appeals court affirmed the trial judge on all points.  Judge Nakamura wrote that “to the extent that Young has chosen to operate her bed and breakfast business from her home, she has voluntarily given up the right to be left alone,” thus rejecting her privacy claim.  Opening up her residence to 100-200 paying guests a year is inconsistent with such a privacy claim.  Furthermore, although Young lives there, the extent of commercial activity means that “it is no longer a purely private home.”  And, furthermore, “the State retains the right to regulate activities occurring in a home where others are harmed or likely to be harmed,” and in this case “discriminatory conduct caused direct harm to Plaintiffs and threatens to harm other members of the general public.”

The court similarly rejected the intimate association claim, which, said the court, applies to family relationships and other small-group settings.  “The relationship between Aloha B&B and the customers to whom it provides transient lodging is not the type of intimate relationship that is entitled to constitutional protection against a law designed to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations,” said the appeals court.

Finally, the court found Young’s federal constitutional religious freedom claim would be foreclosed by Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), where the U.S. Supreme Court held that “neutral laws of generally applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even when they have the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice,” wrote Nakamura, summarizing the holding.  Fueled by ADF’s representation, Young tried to argue that the appeals court should impose a stricter test using the Hawaii Constitution’s protection of religious freedom, but the court refused to do so, stating that in its view Hawaii’s civil rights law would survive the most demanding constitutional test in any event.

“Assuming, without deciding, that Aloha B&B established a prima facie case of substantial burden to Young’s exercise of religion, we conclude that the application of [the Hawaii civil rights law] to Aloha B&B’s conduct in this case satisfies the strict scrutiny standard,” wrote Nakamura,” since “Hawaii has a compelling state interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the legislature has declared “the practice of discrimination because of sexual orientation in public accommodations is against public policy.”  The court concluded that the civil rights law “is narrowly tailored to achieve Hawaii’s compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations,” as the law “responds precisely to the substantive problem which legitimately concerns the State.”

The Hawaii Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, so Young took the case to the Supreme Court, posing two questions: “Whether holding Mrs. Young liable without fair notice that her actions could be unlawful violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and whether the Commission’s efforts to punish Mrs. Young for exercising her religious beliefs in her own home violate   the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause?”

The first question reflected Young’s belief that she was covered by the exemption for rental operations with four or fewer bedrooms, so, as she claimed, when she turned down Cervelli and Bufford she sincerely believed her business was not covered by the civil rights law, and it would be fundamentally unfair to impose liability on her.  The court of appeals had easily rejected this argument, and it is not the kind of argument that the Supreme Court was likely to address as a failure of procedural due process of law.

The second question was intended to tempt members of the Court who have been calling for a reconsideration of the Employment Division v. Smith precedent, which was controversial when decided and actually led to the enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Congress and similar laws by many state legislatures.  Prior to that ruling, the Supreme Court had required the government to show a “compelling interest” when laws that burden free exercise of religion were challenged in court.

Employment Division was seen by many as a sharp departure from prior precedents, liberal Supreme Court justices dissented from the Court’s opinion by Justice Scalia, and a broad coalition spanning the political spectrum among religious organizations successfully lobbied Congress to pass RFRA, ultimately reimposing the “strict scrutiny” standard when federal laws impose a substantial burden or religious free exercise.

Despite calls for reconsidering Employment Division, most prominently by Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June, this petition evidently did not tempt at least four members of the Court to use this case as a vehicle to expand the religious freedom of business owners to turn down customers whom they found objectionable based on the owners’ religious beliefs. The Court avoided such reconsideration last Term in Masterpiece Cakeshop by deciding that case on a different ground.  Of course, if the Court wants to address these issues directly, they still have pending a petition to review an Oregon state court ruling against a baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, 289 Or. App. 507, review denied by Oregon S. Ct., 363 Or. 224 (2018), so we continue to wait for another shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, unless a settlement is negotiated, Young faces a renewed proceeding in the Hawaii circuit court to determine what damages, if any, she will be ordered to pay to Cervelli and Bufford for unlawfully discriminating against them.

Federal Court Blocks Discharges of Healthy Airmen Living with HIV

Posted on: February 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema refused to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Air Force’s refusal to allow healthy Airmen living with HIV to deploy to combat zones and continue serving, and issued a preliminary injunction blocking discharges pending a final ruling on the merits in a pending lawsuit.  Brinkema’s February 15 ruling in Roe v. Shanahan, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25419, 2019 WL 643971 (E.D. Va.), found that the plaintiffs – two Airmen living with HIV and OutServe-SLDN, an organization for LGBT servicemembers and veterans representing other service members living with HIV – have “made a strong preliminary showing that the deployment policy applied to asymptomatic HIV-positive servicemenbers cannot withstand rational basis review.”

 

Soon after Donald Trump took office and James Mattis became Secretary of Defense, it became clear that the Pentagon was going to reverse course and systematically dismiss uniformed personnel who were living with HIV, regardless of the state of their health.  Although a literal interpretation of Defense Department regulations would suggest that those who are thriving on anti-retroviral regimens should be able to serve virtually without limitation, the new regime in the Defense Department hierarchy began rendering seemingly inexplicable decisions, determined to discharge highly functioning personnel.  Although this reason was not openly advanced by the defendants or alluded to by the judge, one suspects that the decision may well have been motivated, at least in part, by a desire to avoid the costs of providing expensive medications to the servicemembers involved.

 

The cases of the two plaintiffs, proceeding anonymously as Richard Roe and Victor Voe, well illustrate the bizarre situation.  Both men enlisted in the Air Force during President Barack Obama’s first term, after the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy had been repealed.  Both had very successful careers until they were diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2017.  Although both men, complaint with their treatment regimen, have undetectable viral loads and no measurable impairments, their careers have been side-lined and their hopes for promotions and overseas deployments stymied.

 

Both men had been deployed overseas prior to their diagnosis.  The military screens all active-duty personnel periodically for HIV, and will not enlist HIV-positive individuals, so it is clear that both men contracted HIV while in the service.  Despite the strongly positive recommendations of their commanders and colleagues, the Pentagon’s internal review process has rejected their attempts to remain in the service and both were scheduled for discharge.  But Judge Brinkema’s preliminary injunction will keep them in the service while this case plays out, and depending on compliance with her preliminary injunction, these highly trained individuals should be treated as available for overseas deployment.

 

The Defense Department’s motion to dismiss the case focused on three arguments. First, they claimed that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust administrative remedies because, despite encountering a categorical refusal at multiple levels of internal decision-making, they decided not to appeal once more to the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records (AFBCMR), which would be futile under the circumstances.

 

Judge Brinkema rejected defendants’ suggestion that this required dismissal of the lawsuit.  “Roe and Voe did not seek judicial review without having given the Air Force a meaningful opportunity to examine its policies and decisions,” she wrote.  “To the contrary, they presented their claims to a complex, tiered administrative review process – one that involved medical evaluations, written submissions, and formal hearings – culminating in an extensive administrative record and final written decisions by the [Secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council],” which was “acting on the authority delegated by the Secretary of the Air Force.”  The AFBCMR would not have authority to issue a binding recommendation in any event, and its recommendation would go to the very Secretary of the Air Force on whose authority the plaintiffs’ appeals had been denied.

 

Secondly, the Defense Department argued that its personnel decisions based on medical concerns are “altogether immune from judicial scrutiny,” effectively the same argument the government has been making in defense of Trump’s ban on transgender military service.  Judge Brinkema pointed out that military personnel decisions are not wholly free from judicial scrutiny, and that under precedents of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals binding on her, she found that the factors to be considered tipped in favor of allowing the case to continue, particularly since “at this preliminary stage, [the plaintiffs] have made a strong showing that defendants’ policies are irrational, based on a flawed understanding of HIV epidemiology, and inconsistently applied.”  She also noted that with OutServe-SLDN as a co-plaintiff representing a class of similarly situated HIV-positive personnel facing unjustified discharges, “the far-reaching nature of these claims surely counsels in favor of judicial review.”

 

Finally, the Defense Department argued that the individual plaintiffs lack standing because they have not actually been discharged.  “Defendants’ argument that plaintiffs lack standing is, as is often the case, a matter of characterization,” wrote Brinkema.  “In their view, the Article III injury on which plaintiffs rely is that ‘they have been prevented from continuing to serve in the Air Force.’” Because their terms of enlistment had expired during this dispute, in some sense, the case could be characterized as being about their ability to re-enlist.  But their terms of service had been extended while the lawsuit is pending.  The defendants argued that because there is no guaranteed right to re-enlist, the plaintiffs have suffered no injury if they leave the military at the end of their extensions of service.  However, the judge observed, “Plaintiffs label this argument a ‘Catch-22,’ arguing that Roe’s and Voe’s ‘terms have expired only because Defendants’ illegal policies forced them into the medical discharge process and prevented them from reenlisting.”

 

Furthermore, Brinkema wrote, because their terms of service were extended, a “favorable decision would be likely to remedy their injury” and, furthermore, OutServe, representing numerous HIV-positive service members, continues to have associational standing on behalf of those members who are at various stages of their terms of enlistment.  Thus, she rejected all three arguments and denied the dismissal motion.

 

As to the preliminary injunction motion, expert medical testimony submitted in support of the motion convinced Brinkema that plaintiffs are likely to win their claim on the merits that the defendants’ approach to the issue runs afoul of the 5th Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).  Even though, in the context of a challenge to the military policy, she found that it is likely that the case will have to be decided using the lowest level of judicial scrutiny – rational basis review – the way the Air Force is implementing its policies as described in the Complaint would fail to meet even that test.  “At least at this stage,” she wrote, “plaintiffs have made a strong and clear showing that defendants’ policies are irrational, outdated, and unnecessary and their decisions arbitrary, unreasoned, and inconsistent.”

 

In essence, the Defense Department has been proceeding as if treatment for HIV-infection were still mired in the futility of the 1980s, when HIV infection usually led to severe debility and death.  The decision to discharge Roe and Voe was based on their classification as “non-deployable,” which in turn was based on the mischaracterization of their health as presenting unacceptable risks to themselves and others were they deployed overseas.  Under inflexible regulations, people living with HIV cannot be deployed without a “waiver” of the general restriction on deploying personnel overseas who have serious medical conditions, and the record before Judge Brinkema includes a statement by the official in charge of the “waiver” process that they would never issue a waiver for somebody living with HIV.

 

Judge Brinkema’s opinion takes a deep dive into the medical testimony, and concludes that the Air Force’s application of its regulations is inconsistent with the facts.  “To be sure,” she wrote, “HIV remains incurable, and Roe and Voe must take daily medication to ensure that their viral loads remain suppressed.  But that fact does not justify the categorical prohibition at issue here.  Although HIV-positive individuals who suddenly stop antiretroviral treatment are vulnerable to ‘viral rebound,’ appreciable physical effects are not immediate.”  According to the expert testimony in the record, it “often takes weeks for an individual’s viral load to return to clinically significant levels, and even then, the virus enters a period of clinical latency that can last years, often with no symptoms of negative health outcomes.  What is more,” she continued, “plaintiffs have identified several serious medical conditions treated with daily medication that do not subject servicemembers to the same categorical denial of deployability.”

 

She found that “there appears to be no reason why asymptomatic HIV is singled out for treatment so different from that given to other chronic conditions, all of which are subject to worsening upon disruption of daily medication.”  She also noted the latest evidence that those with undetectable viral load “cannot transmit the virus to another,” obviating the Defense Department’s argument that deployed troops must be able to source blood transfusions.  Roe and Voe’s “risk of transmitting HIV during military service remains vanishingly low,” she observed, pointing out that “Defendants have not identified a single recorded case of accidental transmission of HIV on the battlefield, which is unsurprising given the uncontroverted evidence that even without effective treatment, the risk of transmission through non-intimate contact such as blood splash is negligible.”

 

The judge also found that the defendants had totally failed to counter the plaintiffs’ expert medical evidence.  They cited a report to Congress that asserted that “HIV infection has the potential to undermine a Service member’s medical fitness and the readiness of the force,” but she found that this was just a summary of the Defense Department’s policy position: “It contains no evidence, whether anecdotal or otherwise, of the effect of HIV on a servicemember’s medical fitness or the military’s readiness.”

 

“In sum,” wrote Brinkema, “While plaintiffs have presented considerable evidence in support of their arguments, defendants rely on little more than ipse dixit.” Thus, she found, the defendants’ position on deployability was not supported.

 

As to the discharge decisions themselves, the court found the argument that these men were evaluated on a “case by case” basis and found to be non-deployable mandating discharge, to be unsupported as well.  She wrote that “the evidence in this record clearly establishes that HIV seropositivity alone is not inconsistent with ongoing military service, does not seriously jeopardize the health or safety of the servicemember or his companions in the service, and does not impose unreasonable burdens on the military when compared to similar chronic conditions.”  Both men’s commanding officers recommended retention, which even the Secretary of the Air’s Force’s Council recognized in its opinion on their appeals.  But the Council’s decision failed to make an assessment that had any relationship to the individual situations of these men.

 

This, Brinkema found, makes the discharge decisions “contrary to the APA” for two reasons. First, reliance on the nondeployability policy for HIV-positive service members is not based on an individualized assessment, but rather a categorical ban, which “renders the decision to discharge them arbitrary and capricious.”  Due to the lack of any relationship to a legitimate interest of the military, the Council “violated agency policy mandating that HIV status alone is not a permissible ground for separation.  A decision in direct conflict with the agency’s own standards, and one based on a failure to consider key aspects of the problem, cannot stand under the APA.”

 

Further, she found that the other factors relevant to awarding preliminary relief were all present.  The men’s military careers would be irreparably damaged by an unjustified discharge, which would also deprive them of continued coverage of military health care. The Defense Department argued that an improper discharge could be remedied after the fact by an award of damages, but Brinkema strongly rejected the idea.  “Roe and Voe, along with other similarly situated HIV-positive servicemembers, face a particularly heinous brand of discharge, one based on an irrational application of outmoded policies related to a disease surrounding which there is widespread fear, hostility, and misinformation,” she wrote.  “In their cases, the ‘stigma of being removed from active duty and being labeled as unfit for service’ is coupled with the indignity suffered because the reason for their discharges bears no relationship to their ‘ability to perform their jobs.’”

 

Furthermore, the reason for a military discharge can have secondary consequences, forcing the individuals to “real their condition,” thus subjecting them to discrimination in civilian life as well.  “This is precisely the type of harm that back pay or reinstatement cannot remedy and for which status quo-preserving preliminary relief is designed.”  The judge found that the remaining equitable factors also cut in favor of plaintiffs, and especially the public interest.  She found that these men, dedicated to service with excellent records, were rendering valuable public service that would be interrupted or ended if she did not issue the preliminary injunction.

 

Because her analysis of the case focused specifically on the practice of the Air Force, Judge Brinkema did not grant plaintiffs’ request to make her injunction apply to the entire Defense Department, but on the other hand she rejected the government’s request that it apply only to Roe and Voe and not to the other similarly situated Air Force personnel.

 

Lambda Legal joined with OutServe-SLDN to represent the plaintiffs.  Appearing in the district court were cooperating pro bono attorneys from the Washington office of Winston & Strawn LLP, Laura Joy Cooley and Andrew Ryan Sommer.

Federal Court Orders State Department to Issue Gender-Neutral Passport to Intersex Applicant

Posted on: September 24th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson has ordered the U.S. State Department to issue a gender-neutral passport to Dana Alix ZZyym, who was identified as female at birth but who rejects the gender binary, identifying neither as male nor female. Lambda Legal represents Zzyym in this long-running lawsuit in the federal trial court in Denver.  Zzyym v. Pompeo, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160018, 2018 WL 4491434 (D. Colo., September 19, 2018).

 

Zzyyym is described by Judge Jackson as “an intersex individual” who submitted a passport application in September 2014. In common with many intersex people, Zzyym uses the pronouns they, them, and their, but Judge Jackson skirts the pronoun issue by using ZZyym’s gender-neutral first name throughout the opinion in place of pronouns.

 

“Instead of checking the box labeled ‘M’ for male or ‘F’ for female on the application form, Dana instead wrote ‘intersex’ below the ‘sex’ category,” wrote Jackson. “By separate letter Dana informed the passport authorities that Dana was neither male nor female.  The letter requested ‘X’ as an acceptable marker in the sex field to conform to International Civil Aviation Organization (‘ICAO’) standards for machine-readable travel documents.  It is undisputed that in every other respect Dana is qualified to receive a passport.”

 

But the State Department denied the application. At the bureaucratic level at which passports are processed, there is no flexibility.  One must selection M or F or be denied.  In the denial letter, the Department said it would issue Dana a passport listing their gender as “female” because that was the sex listed on the driver’s license that they submitted to prove Dana’s identity.  Or, said the Department, Dana could have M listed if they provided “a signed original statement on office letterhead from your attending medical physician” attesting to their “new gender.”  Obviously, the low-level bureaucrats at State had trouble getting their heads around the concept of intersex, confusing it with transgender.

 

Dana submitted a letter appealing this denial, including “two sworn statements by physicians from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that verified Dana’s sex as ‘intersex.’” Dana also personally presented their case at the Colorado Passport Agency, explaining why they did not want their passport to indicate M or F.

 

But the Department persisted, explaining that it could not issue a passport unless the gender box was checked off as M or F. Why?  Because.  The form requires it.  Dana requested reconsideration, which was turned down in April 2015.

 

This led to the lawsuit, originally against Obama Administration Secretary of State John Kerry (in his official capacity), now against Michael Pompeo, as well as Director Sherman Portell of the Colorado Passport Agency. The lawsuit made multiple claims for relief, foremost arguing that the Department’s conduct was “arbitrary and capricious” in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires that agency action be undertaken for a reason.  The lawsuit also argued that by imposing this gender choice requirement the Department exceeded the authority delegated to it by Congress in the statutes governing issuance of passports, and that it violated 5th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection rights. As relief, Zzyym ask the court to issue a “writ of mandamus” to compel the Department to issue a passport “accurately reflecting the plaintiff as intersex.”

 

On November 16, 2016, Judge Jackson ruled that “the agency’s decision-making process was not rational based upon the evidence in the record,” but rather than issue the requested writ of mandamus, he decided to send the case back to the Department for “reevaluation of its gender policy.” Too late, unfortunately, as this ruling was issued the week after Donald Trump’s election as president.  So it eventually fell into the lap of the new Trump-appointed leadership of the State Department, and one can only speculate about the puzzlement and consternation it may have caused in the new fact-free world of the Trump Administration.

 

“In March 2017, while the Department was reevaluating the policy, Dana requested that the Department issue a full-validity or temporary passport bearing an ‘X’ or other third-gender marking in the sex field in order for Dana to attend an international conference,” wrote Judge Jackson. But the Department refused. Why?  Need you ask?  No reason, just no.  The refusal letter did state, however, that the Department “would soon complete its review of the policy,” but you know where this leading.  On May 1, the Department again denied Dana’s application, issuing a memorandum purporting to “explain” its decision, but the explanation really just boiled down to a version of “that’s the way it is.”

 

Dana moved to reopen the case and their counsel filed a supplemental complaint to reflect the Department’s May action, seeking “injunctive relief and a judicial declaration that the State Department has exceeded its authority under the Administrative Procedure Act and has violated the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” In his ruling of September 19, Judge Jackson explains that there is no need to address the constitutional claim because the matter can be resolved in ZZyym’s favor under the APA.

 

Judge Jackson noted that U.S. passports did not record gender prior to 1976, when the Department “changed course and added a male and female checkbox. The applicant is required to choose one or the other.  In my order dated November 22, 2016, I found that the administrative record did not show that the Department’s decision-making process that resulted in the gender policy was rational.  The reasons provided by the Department for the policy failed to show a reasoned decision-making process and instead seemed to be ad hoc rationalizations for the binary nature of the gender field.”

 

The new memorandum issued by the Department fared no better. In the memo, the Department showed awareness that some other countries have accommodated non-binary individuals by using an “X” on travel documents, and they can be scanned by the standard passport reading equipment in use at border crossings and airports.  Now the Department advances five “reasons” for its “gender policy.”

 

First, the Department argued that requiring a gender selection of M or F helps to ensure the accuracy and verifiability of a passport holder’s identity, for which the Department relies on state-issued documents, such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses. Secondly, the sex of a passport applicant is a “vital data point in determining whether someone is entitled to a passport” since “the Department must data-match with other law enforcement systems” all of which “recognize only two sexes.”  Thus, State argues, “continued use of a binary option for the sex data point is the most reliable means to determine eligibility.”  The Department also argued that “consistency of sex data point ensures easy verification of passport holder’s identity in domestic contexts.”  In essence, they argue that introducing a third sex marker on passports could “introduce verification difficulties in name checks and complicate automated data sharing among these other agencies,” which would “cause operational complications.”  The Department also contended that “there is no generally accepted medical consensus on how to define a third sex.”  While acknowledging that people such as Dana exist, “the Department lacks a sound basis in which to make a reliable determination that such an individual has changed their sex to match that gender identity.”  This explanation suggests they don’t understand the difference between transgender and intersex.  Finally, they argued, they had to stick with the current policy because “changing it would be inconvenient.”  In other words, a totally bureaucratic response focused on technical convenience and unresponsive to the need to deal with individuals as they are.

 

“Looking at the proffered reasons and cited evidence provided by the Department,” wrote the judge, “I find that the Department’s decision is arbitrary and capricious,” and he went through the reasons step by step, explaining why they failed to show “rational decision making,” which is the minimal requirement under the APA to sustain an administrative decision. He showed how the earlier responses to Dana’s application undermined the explanations provided in the memorandum.  Even though M and F do not accurately identify Dana, the Department insists on using them, thus contradicting its explanation that it clings to the binary system for purposes of “accurate” identification of people.  And the judge found that the administrative record included data at every turn that contradicted the Department’s conclusions.

 

Most tellingly, there was never any real explanation as to why somebody’s sex needs to be indicated on their passport that would justify refusing to accommodate intersex people. “Apparently,” wrote Jackson, “the data field of ‘SEX (M-F)’ was recommended because experts thought ‘that with the rise in the early 1970s of unisex attire and hairstyles, photographs had become a less reliable means for ascertaining a traveler’s sex.”  Additionally, as naming conventions changed, relying on first names to identify sex became problematic.  An ICAO report from 1974 recommended adding the sex markers as an aid to identification, and at that time the recommendation was to add M-F as the indicators.  But since then the ICAO has modified its standards to use “X” for “unspecified,” so relying on the ICAO recommendation of 1974 no longer justifies refusing to use the “X”.

 

The court found that the Department contradicts itself by relying on the same sort of authorities to deal with transgender people’s passport applications as would be relied upon in transgender cases. Jackson pointed out that “the information relied upon in the administrative record also reflects a lack of consensus as to how individuals born intersex could be classified as either ‘male’ or ‘female,’” but “this has not prevented the Department from requiring intersex people to elect, perhaps at random, as it doesn’t seem to matter to the Department which one of those two categories Dana chooses.” The lack of a medical consensus is thus irrelevant to the Department’s current practices.

 

Finally, turning to the inconvenience and expense argument, Jackson notes that it is merely asserted without any data to back it up. “True,” he wrote, “common sense would tell anyone that altering a system will necessarily involve some effort and money.  However, the Department’s rationale here is the product of guesswork rather than actual analysis, and it does not rise to the level of reliable evidence that is needed to show that the Department’s policymaking was rational.”

 

Actually, Jackson concluded, the new memorandum “added very little” to what was presented to the court in 2016. Jackson also ruled against the Department on Zzyym’s argument that denying them a passport exceeded the Department’s delegated powers.  Congress has delegated to the Department the decision to deny passports for a variety of reasons, but, wrote Jackson, “The authority to issue passports and prescribe rules for the issuance of passports under 22 U.S.C. section 211a does not include the authority to deny an applicant on grounds pertinent to basic identity, unrelated to any good cause. . .”

 

“Because neither the Passport Act nor any other law authorizes the denial of a passport application without good reason,” concluded Jackson, “and adherence to a series of internal policies that do not contemplate the existence of intersex people is not good reason, the Department has acted in excess of its statutory authority.”

 

The court determined to grant Zzyym the injunctive relief they sought. “Dana has been pursuing a passport for close to four years now,” he wrote.  “I grant Dana’s request for injunctive relief and enjoin the Department from relying upon its binary-only gender marker policy to withhold the requested passport from Dana.”  The judge concluded that a writ of mandamus was not necessary, as injunctive relief would suffice.  Will the Trump Administration comply or pursue a pointless appeal?

 

Advocacy for Dana drew in several pro bono cooperating attorneys, local counsel from Denver, and Lambda Legal attorneys Camilla Bronwen Taylor, M. Dru Levasseur, and Paul David Castillo.

7th Circuit Ruling Creates Federal Precedent to Protect Older Gays in Residential Facilities

Posted on: August 27th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on August 27 that a lesbian resident of a rental facility for seniors in Illinois may seek to hold the management of the facility accountable for severe harassment against her by other residents due to her sexual orientation.  The ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, a George W. Bush appointee, to dismiss her case.  The court of appeals decision marks an important appellate precedent for the protection of older LGBT people living in residential facilities.  The case is Wetzel v Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC, Case No. 17-1322 (7th Cir., Aug. 27, 2018).

Marsha Wetzel moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community after her partner of 30 years died. Under the Tenant’s Agreement she signed with the facility, she is entitled to a private apartment, three meals daily served in a central location, access to a community room, and use of laundry facilities.  The agreement requires her (and all other tenants under their agreements) to refrain from “activity that [St. Andrew] determines unreasonably interferes with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants” or that is “a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals.”  The Agreement also authorizes the facility to bring eviction proceedings against a tenant who violates the Agreement.

Wetzel was not closeted, speaking openly with staff and other residents about her sexual orientation when she moved in. “She was met with intolerance from many of them,” wrote Chief Judge Diane Wood in summarizing the allegations in Wetzel’s Complaint.  For purposes of ruling on the facility’s motion to dismiss her case, the court’s role is to accept Wetzel’s allegations as true and to decide whether those allegations, if proved at trial, would constitute a violation of her rights under the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination because of sex.

Judge Wood’s summary of the Complaint makes horrific reading. “Beginning a few months after Wetzel moved to St. Andrew and continuing at least until she filed this suit (a 15-month period), residents repeatedly berated her for being a ‘fucking dyke,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘homosexual bitch.’  One resident, Robert Herr, told Wetzel that he reveled in the memory of the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub, derided Wetzel’s son for being a ‘homosexual-raised faggot,’ and threatened to ‘rip [Wetzel’s] tits off.’  Herr was the primary, but not sole, culprit.  Elizabeth Rivera told Wetzel that ‘homosexuals will burn in hell.’”

The Complaint also describes incidents of physical abuse, focused on knocking Wetzel off the motorized scooter she depends upon to get around, spitting at her, and striking her from behind accompanied by anti-gay epithets.

When she complained to the staff, there was a “brief respite,” but soon the misconduct continued. Indeed, Judge Wood wrote, “the management defendants otherwise were apathetic.  They told Wetzel not to worry about the harassment, dismissed the conduct as accidental, denied Wetzel’s accounts, and branded her a liar.”  Furthermore, Wetzel alleges, they retaliated against her by relegating her “to a less desirable dining room location” after she notified them about one incident of physical harassment by another resident, “barred her from the lobby except to get coffee” and “halted her cleaning services, thus depriving her of access to areas specifically protected in the Agreement.”  They also false accused her of smoking in her room and one St. Andrews worker “slapped her across the face” when she denied having violated the no-smoking rule.

In what sounds like a transparent attempt to set her up for an eviction for non-payment, they failed to send her the customary rent-due notice sent to all tenants, but she remembered to pay on time, “but she had to pry a receipt from management.”

As a result of these management responses, Wetzel sharply curtailed her activities outside her room, staying away from common spaces including the dining room, and finally, fed up with this mistreatment, filed this lawsuit, alleging violations of the FHA as well as state laws. (Illinois laws forbid sexual orientation discrimination in housing and public accommodations.)

The facility did not argue in defense that the FHA does not ban sexual orientation discrimination. They could hardly raise such an argument in the 7th Circuit, because that court was the first appellate court to rule that sexual orientation claims are a subset of sex discrimination claims, under the similar anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Instead, the defendant argued that the landlord cannot be held liable for discrimination by other tenants under the FHA without a showing of discriminatory animus by the landlord. Furthermore, it argued that FHA deals with refusals to rent, and does not cover “post-acquisition harassment claims.”  In other words, as Judge Wood explained, once an apartment has been rented, the defendant argued that the FHA is no longer relevant to claims brought by “a tenant already occupying her home.”  The defendant countered Wetzel’s retaliation claim by arguing, once again, that it lacked an allegation that defendants were motivated by discriminatory animus.

District Judge Der-Yeghiayan agreed with the defendants’ FHA arguments and dismissed the case. The dismissal of the FHA claim removed the basis for federal jurisdiction, and the judge declined to keep the state claims alive, dismissing them for lack of jurisdiction, although federal courts do have discretion to continue to consider state law claims in such cases.

Writing for the appeals court, Judge Wood relied on cases of workplace harassment decided under Title VII for a standard to apply to a harassment case brought under the FHA, for which there was no precedent in the 7th Circuit.  “The harassment Wetzel describes plausibly can be viewed as both severe and pervasive,” she wrote, referring to the Title VII standard.  “For 15 months, she was bombarded with threats, slurs, derisive comments about her family, taunts about a deadly massacre, physical violence, and spit.  The defendants dismiss this litany of abuse as no more than ordinary ‘squabbles’ and ‘bickering’ between ‘irascible,’ ‘crotchety senior resident[s].’  A jury would be entitled to see the story otherwise.”

The question for the court was whether there was a basis to impute liability to St. Andrew for the hostile housing environment, a question new for the 7th Circuit.  Again, the court borrowed from principles established under another statute, this time focusing more on Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which schools have been held liable for harassment of students by other students, when the harassment was brought to the attention of school authorities and they failed to take appropriate steps to assure that the harassed students were not denied equal educational opportunity because of their sex.

The question was whether the facility management had “actual knowledge of the severe harassment Wetzel was enduring and whether they were deliberately indifferent to it. If so,” wrote the judge, “they subjected Wetzel to conduct that the FHA forbids.”  The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that the landlord-tenant relationship is so different from the school-student relationship as to make such a test inappropriate.  The court, finding that the defendant had inaccurately described the court’s holding, responded: “We have said only that the duty not to discriminate in housing conditions encompasses the duty not to permit known harassment on protected grounds. The landlord does have responsibility over the common areas of the building, which is where the majority of Wetzel’s harassment took place.  And the incidents within her apartment occurred precisely because the landlord was exercising a right to enter.”

The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that its ruling would unfairly hold St. Andrew liable for actions it was “incapable of addressing,” pointing out that the tenant Agreement signed by all residents imposed obligations on tenants not to engage in conduct that would constitute a “direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals” and to refrain from conduct that would “unreasonably” interfere with “the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants.” This is, on its face, directly applicable to the conduct of other residents directed at Wetzel.  And the Agreement gives the facility the right to seek to evict tenants who violate these rules.  Yet, according to Wetzel’s Complaint, the facility took action against her for complaining rather than against her harassers for their misconduct.

The court also noted a rule published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2016, providing that a landlord could be held liable under the FHA for failing to “take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party” (such as a fellow resident in a rental building) if the landlord “knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it.” The court said it did not need to rely on this rule, however, stating that “it is enough for present purposes to say that nothing in the HUD rule standings in the way of recognizing Wetzel’s theory” for landlord liability in her case.

The court also discounted St. Andrew’s argument that this case is just about “bad manners” by some residents. “It is important,” wrote Wood, “to recognize that the facts Wetzel has presented (which we must accept at this stage) go far beyond mere rudeness, all the way to direct physical violence.”  She noted that under Title VII courts have routinely had to distinguish between hostile environment harassment and mere incivility.

The court also decisively rejected St. Andrew’s claim that the FHA anti-discrimination provision does not apply once the apartment is leased to the tenant. The statute bans discrimination regarding “services or facilities,” and the court pointed out that “few ‘services or facilities’ are provided prior to the point of sale or rental; far more attach to a resident’s occupancy.”  In this case, Wetzel’s allegations included her virtual exclusion from the enjoyment of the common areas of the building, and denial of certain services to which she was entitled under the tenant Agreement.  “At a minimum, then,” wrote the court, “Wetzel has a cognizable post-acquisition claim because discrimination affected the provision of services and facilities connected to her rental.  Beyond that, the discrimination diminished the privileges of Wetzel’s rental.”

The court also rejected St. Andrew’s argument, which the district court had accepted, that the anti-retaliation provision of the statute required proof of the landlord’s discriminatory intent. “Indeed,” wrote Judge Wood, “if we were to read the FHA’s anti-retaliation provision to require that a plaintiff allege discriminatory animus, it would be an anomaly.  Like all anti-retaliation provisions, it provides protections not because of who people are, but because of what they do.”  The focus, thus, is on whether the landlord takes some adverse action after a tenant complains about violation of her rights under the FHA, not whether the landlord is biased against somebody because she is a lesbian.

In sending the case back to the district court, the Court of Appeals revived Wetzel’s FHA claim and also directed to the court to “reinstate the state-law claims that were dismissed for want of jurisdiction.”

Wetzel is represented by Lambda Legal and cooperating attorneys from Foley & Lardner LLP.

Trump Administration Suffers More Setbacks in Defending Transgender Military Ban

Posted on: August 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Two federal district judges have issued new rulings in lawsuits challenging the Trump Administration’s ban on military service by transgender individuals, mainly adverse to the government.  [Addendum:  After this was drafted, we received a decision from a federal magistrate judge in Baltimore on discovery issues in one of the other challenged to the transgender ban.  Our summary appears at the end of this posting.]

After the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit refused to lift Seattle U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s preliminary injunction against the policy on July 18, she issued a new ruling on July 27 granting the plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery and denying the government’s motion for a protective order that would shield President Trump from having to respond to any discovery requests.  The Justice Department immediately announced that it would appeal this ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judge Pechman had previously denied motions for summary judgment in the case, having found that there was a need for discovery before such a ruling could take place.

On August 6, D.C. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who had issued the first preliminary injunction against the policy last year, issued two decisions. In one, she rejected the government’s request to vacate her preliminary injunction as moot, finding that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge the “new” policy described by Defense Secretary James Mattis in his February 2018 memo to the President, and agreeing with Judge Pechman that the “new” policy is not essentially different from the “old” one announced by President Trump a year ago. However, Judge Kollar-Kotelly granted a motion by the government to dismiss President Trump as an individual named defendant in the case.

Two other lawsuits challenging the policy are pending in federal district courts in Riverside, California, and Baltimore, Maryland. In both cases, the judges have received motions from the parties that are awaiting decision, similar to those filed with Judges Pechman and Kollar-Kotelly.

To recap for those coming late to this story, Trump tweeted a ban on transgender military service on July 26, 2017, and issued a memorandum a month later describing the policy in slightly more detail, charging Secretary Mattis to propose a plan for implementation by late February, 2018, with the goal of implementing the policy later in March. Trump’s memo specified that Mattis’s previous directive to allow transgender applicants to join the military, which had been announced at the end of June 2017 to go into effect on January 1, 2018, was to be indefinitely delayed, as Trump’s policy would not allow transgender people to enlist.  Mattis announced that no action would be taken against now-serving transgender personnel pending the implementation of the policy in March 2018, but there were reports of transgender personnel suffering cancellations of promotions and desire assignments and of planned medical procedures after the policy was announced.

Mattis’s memo to the president in February proposed some modifications to the policy that had been announced in Trump’s August memorandum. Transgender personnel who were already serving and had transitioned and were “stable” in their preferred gender would be allowed to continue serving, based on a determination that the investment in their training outweighed whatever “risk” they posed to the readiness of the military.  Furthermore, transgender individuals who had not transitioned or been diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” would be allowed to enlist and serve, provided they refrained from transitioning and served in the sex identified at birth.  Otherwise, those diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” would be prohibited from enlisting or serving, and those who could not comply with these requirements would be discharged.  The proposal was based on a “finding” by a rigged special committee apparently dominated by committed opponents of transgendered service that allowing transgender people to serve in the military was harmful to the operational efficiency of the service – a finding based on no factual evidence and oblivious to the fact that transgender people had been serving openly without any problems since the Obama Administration lifted the prior ban at the end of June 2016.

Four lawsuits had been filed in response to the summer 2017 policy announcement, and in a matter of months the four district courts had issued preliminary injunctions, having found it likely that the plaintiffs would prevail on their argument that the policy violates the Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights. As compelled by the preliminary injunctions, the Defense Department allowed transgender people to submit applications to enlist beginning January 1, 2018, after losing a last-ditch court battle to continue the enlistment ban, but there were reports that the applications they received were getting very slow processing, and all indications are that few have been accepted for service.

Trump responded to Mattis’s February 2018 memo by “withdrawing” his prior memo and tweet, and authorizing Mattis to adopt the implementation plan he was recommending by late March. The Justice Department then filed motions in all the lawsuits seeking to lift the preliminary injunctions. Their argument was, in part, that the “new” policy was sufficiently different from the one that had been “withdrawn” as to moot the lawsuits. They further contended that the plaintiffs who were already serving and would be allowed to continue serving under the “new” policy no longer had standing to challenge the policy in court.  The Department also argued that plaintiff’s attempts to conduct discovery in the case should be put on hold until there was a definitive appellate ruling on their motion to lift the preliminary injunctions.

On April 13, Judge Pechman rejected the government’s motion to lift the preliminary injunction, having already ordered that discovery proceed. In his initial tweet, Trump had claimed that he had consulted with generals and other experts before adopting the policy, but the identities of these people were not revealed, and the government has stonewalled against any attempt to discover their identities or any internal executive branch documents that might have been generated on this issue, making generalized claims of executive privilege.  Similarly, the February memorandum released under Mattis’s name did not identify any of the individuals responsible for its composition, and naturally the plaintiffs are also seeking to discover who was involved in putting it together and what information they purported to rely upon.

Judge Pechman’s July 27 order to compel discovery specified the materials sought by the plaintiffs, and pointed out that under federal evidentiary rules, any claim of privilege against disclosure is subject to evaluation by the court. “The deliberative privilege is not absolute,” she wrote.  “Several courts have recognized that the privilege does not apply in cases involving claims of governmental misconduct or where the government’s intent is at issue.”

The question, under 9th Circuit precedents, is “whether plaintiffs’ need for the materials and the need for accurate fact-finding override the government’s interest in non-disclosure.  In making this determination, relevant factors include: (1) the relevance of the evidence; (2) the availability of other evidence; (3) the government’s role in the litigation; and (4) the extent to which disclosure would hinder frank and independent discussion regarding contemplated policies and decisions.”  There is a formal process for invoking privilege, which requires the government to “provide precise and certain reasons for preserving the confidentiality of designated material.”

In this case, Judge Pechman had previously determined that discrimination because of gender identity involves a “suspect classification” for purposes of equal protection requirements, which means the government has the burden of proving that there is a compelling justification for the discrimination. In this case, however, the government has articulated only a generalized judgment that service by transgender individuals is too “risky” based on no facts whatsoever.  Judge Pechman concluded in granting the plaintiffs’ discovery motion that “the deliberative process privilege does not apply in this case.”

The government had moved for a protective order “precluding discovery directed at President Trump.” While conceding that Trump has “not provided substantive responses or produced a privilege log” listing specifically what information has to be protected against disclosure, the government contended that “because the requested discovery raises ‘separation of powers concerns,’ Plaintiffs must exhaust discovery ‘from sources other than the President and his immediate White House advisors and staff’ before he is required to formally invoke the privilege.”

Judge Pechman noted that so far the government has refused to provide any information about how the policy decision was made or developed, and has failed to identify the specific documents and other information for which it claims privilege. In a footnote, she commented, “The Court notes that Defendants have steadfastly refused to identify even one general or military official President Trump consulted before announcing the ban.”  Thus, she found, there was no basis for the court to evaluate “whether the privilege applies and if so, whether Plaintiffs have established a showing of need sufficient to overcome it.”  Indeed, she concluded in a prior decision, as far as the record stands, it looks as if Trump made the whole thing up himself without relying on any military expertise. Thus, she has preliminarily rejected the government’s contention that the policy would enjoy the deference normally extended to military policies adopted based on the specialized training and expertise of the military policy makers.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s August 6 ruling focused on an issue that Judge Pechman had previously decided: whether the plaintiffs had standing to continue challenging the policy after Mattis’s memo supplanted the “withdrawn” earlier policy announcements. She had little trouble in determining that all the plaintiffs, even those who are currently-serving transgender personnel who would be allowed to consider serving under the “new” policy, still had standing, which requires a finding that implementing the policy would cause them harm.

“The Court rejects Defendants’ argument that Plaintiffs no longer have standing because they are not harmed by the Mattis Implementation Plan,” she wrote, stating that “the effect of that plan would be that individuals who require or have undergone gender transition would be absolutely disqualified from military service, individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria would be largely disqualified from military service, and, to the extent that there are any individuals who identify as ‘transgender’ but do not fall under the first two categories, they would be allowed to serve, but only ‘in their biological sex’ (which means that openly transgender persons would generally not be allowed to serve in conformance with their identity.)” Furthermore, those who have already transitioned and are now serving would be doing so under the stigma of having been labeled as “unfit” for military service and presenting an undue risk to military readiness, and would likely suffer prejudice in terms of their assignments and their treatment by fellow military personnel, as well as emotional harm.

“The Mattis Implementation Plan sends a blatantly stigmatizing message to all members of the military hierarchy that has a unique and damaging effect on a narrow and identifiable set of individuals, of which Plaintiffs are members,” she wrote. They would be serving “pursuant to an exception to a policy that explicitly marks them as unfit for service.  No other service members are so afflicted.  These Plaintiffs are denied equal treatment because they will be the only service members who are allowed to serve only based on a technicality; as an exception to a policy that generally paints them as unfit.”

She concluded that “because their stigmatic injury derives from this unequal treatment, it is sufficient to confer standing.” She pointed out that beyond stigmatization, the Implementation Plan “creates a substantial risk that Plaintiffs will suffer concrete harms to their careers in the near future.  There is a substantial risk that the plan will harm Plaintiffs’ career development in the form of reduced opportunities for assignments, promotion, training, and deployment.  These harms are an additional basis for Plaintiffs’ standing.”  She rejected the government’s contention that these harms were only “speculative.”

Furthermore, she rejected the claim that Trump’s “withdrawal” of his August 2017 memorandum and the substitution of the Mattis Implementation Plan made the existing lawsuits moot, agreeing with Judge Pechman that the “new” plan was merely a method of “implementing” the previously announced policy. She found that the Implementation Plan “prevents service by transgender individuals,” just as Trump had directed in August 2017, and the minor deviations from the complete categorical ban were not significant enough to make it substantially different.

Thus she refused to dissolve the preliminary injunction. She refrained from ruling on motions for summary judgment on the merits of the equal protection claim, because there are sharply contested facts in this case and no discovery has taken place, so it can’t be decided purely as a matter of law. The facts count here in court, even if they don’t seem to count in the White House or the Defense Department.

However, Judge Kollar-Kotelly granted the government’s motion to partially dissolve the injunction as it applies personally to Trump, and granted the motion to “dismiss the President himself as a party to this case. Throughout this lawsuit,” she wrote, “Plaintiffs ask this Court to enjoin a policy that represents an official, non-ministerial act of the President, and declare that policy unlawful.  Sound separation-of-power principles counsel the Court against granting these forms of relief against the President directly.”  Thus, she concluded, there was no reason to retain Trump as a defendant.  If the Plaintiffs prevail on the merits, an injunction aimed at the Defense Department’s leadership preventing the policy from taking effect will provide complete relief.

The Plaintiffs complained that removing Trump from the case as a defendant would undermine their attempt to discover the information necessary to make their case, since individuals who are parties to litigation are particularly susceptible to discovery requests. The judge wrote that “it would not be appropriate to retain the President as a party to this case simply because it will be more complicated to seek discovery from him if he is dismissed.  To the extent that there exists relevant and appropriate discovery related to the President, Plaintiffs will still be able to obtain that discovery despite the President not being a party to the case.”  And, she concluded, “Plaintiffs will be able to enforce their legal rights and obtain all relief sought in this case without the President as a party.”

The judge treated as moot the Defendants’ motion for a protective order shielding Trump from having to respond to discovery requests. “However,” she wrote, “the Court reiterates that dismissing the President as a party to this case does not mean that Plaintiffs are prevented from pursuing discovery related to the President.  The court understands that the parties dispute whether discovery related to the President which has been sought by Plaintiffs is precluded by the deliberative process or presidential communication privileges, and the Court makes no ruling on those disputes at this point. The Court will be issuing further opinions addressing other dispositive motions that have been filed in this case.  After all of those opinions have been issued, if necessary, the Court will give the parties further guidance on the resolution of the discovery requests in this case.”  In a footnote, Judge Kollar-Kotelly noted Judge Pechman’s July 27 discovery order, and that defendants were appealing it to the 9th Circuit.  The judge emphasized that the preliminary injunction remains in effect for all of the remaining defendants in the case, so the policy may not be implemented while the case continues.

The possibility that Trump will be ordered to submit to questioning under oath in at least one of these cases remains a reality, but any attempt by the Plaintiffs to do so would undoubtedly arouse spirited opposition from the Defense Department, officially based on claims of privilege, but realistically due to the likelihood that Trump would perjure himself under such questioning. Recall the historical precedent:  The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton based, in part, on the charge that he committed perjury during questioning before a grand jury by the Special Counsel investigating his affair with Monica Lewinski.  Thus, at least in that case, the House considered presidential perjury to be an impeachable offense.

Plaintiffs in the Seattle case, Karnoski v. Trump (in which the president remains a defendant), are represented by Lambda Legal and pro bono attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis. Plaintiffs in the D.C. case, Jane Doe 2 v. Trump, are represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and pro bono attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP and Foley Hoag LLP.

Addendum:

On August 14, U.S. Magistrate Judge A. David Copperthite, to whom Baltimore U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis had referred discovery matters in Stone v. Trump, another one of the pending cases, issued a ruling granting in part the plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery of deliberative materials regarding Trump’s July 2017 tweet, August 2017 memorandum, the “activities of the DoD’s so-called panel of experts and its working groups” who put together the memorandum ultimately submitted by Mattis to the President in February 2018, and deliberative materials regarding that Implementation Plan and the President’s March memorandum, “including any participation or interference in that process by anti-transgender activists and lobbyists.” However, noting that a motion is pending before Judge Garbis to dismiss Trump as a defendant in the case, Judge Copperthite declined to rule on the government’s request for a protective order that would shield Trump from having to respond to discovery requests directed to him, “pending the resolution of the motion to dismiss President Trump as a party.”  Cooperthite wrote that “no interrogatories or document requests will be directed to President Trump as a party, but may be directed to other parties pursuant to this Memorandum Opinion.  If the Motion to Dismiss is denied, the Court will revisit the issue of the protective order as to President Trump.”

Cooperthite faced a practical dilemma in dealing with the government’s requests to shield Trump from discovery. “On July 27, 2017, President Trump tweeted transgender persons would no longer be able to serve in the military and as for any deliberative process, simply stated this policy occurred after consulting with ‘my Generals and military experts.’  There is no evidence to support the concept that ‘my Generals and military experts’ would have the information Plaintiffs request.  There is no evidence provided to this Court that ‘my Generals and military experts’ are identified, in fact do exist, or that they would be included in document requests and interrogatories propounded to the Executive Branch, excluding the President.  By tweeting his decisions to the world, the President has, in fact narrowed the focus of Plaintiffs’ inquiries to the President himself.  The Presidential tweets put the President front and enter as the potential discriminating official.”  So there is a real question whether discovery that doesn’t include President Trump is at all meaningful, since the ultimate legal question in the litigation is the intent of the government in adopting the ban which is, at bottom, Trump’s intent.  On the other hand, discovery directed at President Trump raises serious questions about separation of powers and the traditional respect for the confidentiality of internal White House policy deliberations.

“So many factors are unknown at this juncture in the litigation,” wrote Copperthite. “It is unknown whether Plaintiffs can obtain the information necessary from the non-Presidential discovery to define the ‘intent’ of the government with respect to the transgender ban.  Defendants offer as an alternative, a stay of discovery with respect to the President, until the Motion to Dismiss the President as a party is decided.  If the President, as the discriminating official, tweeted his transgender ban sua sponte as alleged, this Court sees no alternative to obtaining the intent of the government other than denying the protective order with respect to President Trump.”  However, he wrote, precedents “instruct this Court to give deference to the executive branch because ‘occasions for constitutional confrontation between the two branches should be avoided whenever possible.’”  Thus, Copperthite decided to put off deciding the protective order issue until after Judge Garbis decides whether to dismiss Trump as a party, but for now will order the defendants only to comply with discovery requests directed to defendants other than Trump, Secretary Mattis and the Secretaries of the various military branches.