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2nd Circuit Holds That It Was Not “Clearly Established” That Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Public Employment is Actionable Under the Equal Protection Clause Prior to Obergefell and Windsor

Posted on: September 8th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In the course of deciding an appeal by some supervisory public employees of a district court’s refusal to accord them qualified immunity from a discharged employee’s claim of discrimination because of perceived sexual orientation (that took place in 2010), a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals stated in Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (Aug. 12, 2019), that it was not then “clearly established” by the Supreme Court or the 2nd Circuit prior to the rulings in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable under in a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 claim alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The opinion for the panel by Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes suggests that it might be “possible today that sexual orientation discrimination in public employment may be actionable under Section 1983,” but at the time of the conduct challenged in this case “such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established’” so the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from the claim.  In a footnote, Judge Cabranes acknowledged that as early as 1996, in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 634, and again in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, the Supreme Court “had already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays,” but in this case the plaintiff had not alleged “such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”  He also noted that under Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591 (2008), the plaintiff could not bring a “class of one” equal protection case “simply on the basis that her termination was individually arbitrary.”

On March 10, 2010, Binghamton University’s Athletic Director, James Norris, informed Elizabeth Naumovski, then assistant coach of the women’s basketball team, that she would be discharged if she did not resign.  She resigned and filed her discrimination charges with the NY State Division of Human Rights and the EEOC.  After exhausting administrative remedies against the school, she filed suit in federal court, adding discrimination claims under the Constitution against the Athletic Director and the Head Coach of the team as well as the university employer.  Norris and Scholl sought unsuccessfully to get U.S. District Judge David Hurd to dispose of the claims against them on grounds of qualified immunity, as part of his overall ruling on motions for summary judgment, and this appeal to the 2nd Circuit concerns Judge Hurd’s failure to grant their motions, which he implicitly did by denying them summary judgment.

Naumovski, a single woman in her thirties, became the subject of rumors concerning her possible relationship with a woman on the team, identified in the opinion as J.W.  Complaints from other students that Naumovski was showing favoritism to this woman came to the head coach and the then-assistant athletic director, James Norris, who, according to Judge Cabranes, “states that he understood the rumors to refer to a relationship of favoritism between a coach and a student-athlete, rather than to a sexual relationship between the two.”  Norris discussed these rumors with the Athletic Director, “who assured him that the allegations were the baseless fabrications of disgruntled former members of the Binghamton Athletics community.”  Norris was promoted to the athletic directorship on September 30, 2009.

In response to the persisting rumors during the fall term of 2009, Head Coach Nicole Scholl “imposed various restrictions on interactions between coaches and student-athletes to avoid any perception of impropriety.”  According to Naumovski’s allegations, “As a result of the increased scrutiny triggered by these restrictions, Naumovski began to suffer from depression and stress-induced weight loss.” She met with Norris to address the rumors, and claims he told her that “your problem is that you’re a single female in your mid-30s,” implying that the rumors were due to a perception that she was a lesbian.  Norris denies having made that comment, a potential material fact in the overall scheme of the litigation, in terms of the school’s potential liability.

The rumors persisted into 2010, as Norris continued to receive complaints about “favoritism” by Naumovski towards J.W. Friction developed between Naumovski and Head Coach Scholl, who felt that “Naumovski was trying to undermine her leadership of the team.”  Wrote Cabranes, “Naumovski does not deny tension between herself and Scholl; rather, she claims that any such tension ceased after a February 9, 2010 meeting with Scholl.  Naumovski further claims that Scholl and Norris never expressed any additional concerns about her coaching performance after that time.”  However, during a phone call on February 21, Scholl and Norris agreed that Naumovski’s employment should be terminated at the end of the basketball season in March. “The decision was purportedly based on Naumovski’s demonstrated favoritism toward certain student-athletes and the disruptive impact of her workplace conflicts with Scholl,” writes Cabrances, relating the defendants’ claims.  Meanwhile, Norris continued to receive student complaints and things came to a head when J.W.’s family received “an anonymous, vulgar letter accusing her of ‘screwing’ Naumovski,” which J.W. told Naumovksi about, and which led J.W.’s mother to call Norris; it is disputed whether the letter was mentioned in that phone call.  However, a week after that call, Norris informed Naumovski that she was being fired for performance reasons, but she could resign to forestall being fired, which she did.

Naumovski’s suit alleges discrimination based on her sex, perceived sexual orientation, and national origin (Canadian), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment (42 USC 1983), as well as the NY Constitution and NY Human Rights Law.  Defendants moved for summary judgment after discovery.  “The motion remained pending for several years,” write Cabranes, not being decided until April 17, 2018, when District Judge Hurd granted summary judgment to Binghamton University and the State University of New York on all constitutional claims but allowed statutory claims to proceed to trial. (Perhaps Judge Hurd was waiting to rule on the motions for a final resolution by the Circuit of whether sexual orientation claims are actionable under Title VII, which emerged with the Zarda v. Altitude Express en banc ruling in February 2018.) As to the individual defendants, Scholl and Norris, Hurd dismissed all claims except for Naumovski’s sex-based disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims under 42 USC 1983 (Equal Protection), failing to address the issue of their qualified immunity from constitutional claims even though they sought to invoke immunity in their summary judgment motion.  Judge Hurd subsequently denied a motion by Norris and Scholl for reconsideration on the immunity argument as untimely under local rules, asserting that it did not raise any new issues, and they appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

Judge Cabranes devoted considerable space in his opinion to explaining the different proof requirements on the statutory claims and the constitutional claims.  In particular, he noted, under Title VII, the plaintiff can win by showing that her sex or perceived sexual orientation was a “motivating factor” for discrimination, but on the constitutional equal protection claim, her burden would be to show that it was a “but-for” factor.  He also devoted a portion of the opinion to itemizing the various other ways in which the statutory and constitutional claims receive different treatment, finding that the district court seems to have conflated the two separate modes of analysis in its decision.  Furthermore, he pointed out that the statutory claims under employment discrimination law run only against the institutional employer, not against individuals, while the constitutional claims could be asserted against individuals who are “state actors,” but who enjoy qualified immunity from personal liability unless it is “clearly established” by appellate precedent that the discrimination with which they are charged is, if proven, unconstitutional.

Turning to the subject of the appeal, Judge Hurd’s implicit denial (or failure to recognize) qualified immunity from the constitutional claims for Norris and Scholl, Cabranes noted that the 2nd Circuit’s review of the district court’s “implicit” rejection of the qualified immunity claims “is complicated by several factors.  First, the District Court never addressed the claims of qualified immunity in its Memorandum-Decision and Order; it is therefore impossible to review its specific reasoning in denying relief on this ground.  Second, while both the Complaint and the District Court’s Memorandum-Decision and Order conclude that Defendants’ alleged conduct constitutes sex discrimination (either through disparate treatment or subjection to a hostile environment), neither explains precisely how Defendants’ conduct can be so construed.  Third, the District Court opinion conflates its analysis of Naumovski’s Title VII and Sec. 1983 claims, rendering our task of reviewing only the Sec. 1983 claims more difficult.”  Attempting to “reconstruct the logic” of the District Court’s denial of immunity to Scholl and Norris on the constitutional claims, the court concluded that “no theory can sustain the District Court’s implicit denial of Defendant’s qualified immunity.”

First addressing the sex discrimination claim, the court found that there was a lack of evidentiary allegations to support the claim, apart from Naumovski’s allegation about Norris’s remark concerning her status as a single woman in her 30s, which the court concluded did not “constitute sufficient evidence to make out a case of employment discrimination,” characterizing it as “the sort of ‘stray remark’ that is insufficient to support an inference of discriminatory intent.”  While Judge Hurd referred to “other indicia” of discrimination intent, the appeals court was not convinced:  “The only ‘other indicia,’ however, is evidence suggesting that Scholl and Norris interpreted the rumors as alleging a sexual relationship between Naumovski and J.W., rather than mere favoritism from one to the other.  The invocation of such evidence is unavailing.  Even if we assume Scholl and Norris interpreted the allegations against Naumovski as sexual in nature, that fact provides no additional support for a conclusion that Scholl’s and Norris’s own actions were based on discriminatory animus toward women in general or any subcategory of female employees in particular,” wrote Cabranes.  Thus, the conclusion that summary judgment should have been granted on the sex discrimination claim.

The court also discussed the possibility that Naumovski could succeed on a sex-stereotyping claim; i.e., “Norris and Scholl stereotyped Naumovski based on her sex (possibly in combination with other characteristics) as more likely to have engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship with J.W.  Defendants then fired Naumovski (at least in part) because of their wrongful and discriminatory belief that she engaged in sexual impropriety with a student and, subsequently, attempted to conceal that stereotyping played any role in their termination decision.”  While the court agreed that such a theory might work in some cases, “Naumovski cannot succeed on such a theory” because of the “but-for” proof requirement for a constitutional violation.  In order to prevail, “Naumovski must establish that a reasonable jury could find that Defendants would not have terminated her based on their stated reasons alone.  To be sure, there may well be cases in which misconduct findings based on sex stereotyping meet the ‘but-for’ discrimination standard,” Cabranes continued.  “Here, however, we do not think that the evidence, even construed in the light most favorable to Naumovski, satisfies that standard.”  Cabranes gives an extended explanation for this conclusion, noting in particular that “Naumovski does not materially dispute that Scholl’s personality and coaching style clashed with her own,” which on its own would be a legitimate reason to let go an assistant coach who was an at-will employee.

Turning to the perceived sexual orientation discrimination claim, Cabranes came to the issue of most direct relevance to Law Notes: whether public officials enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for discriminating against their employees because of actual or perceived sexual orientation.  He pointed out that if the district court was relying on the 2nd Circuit’s 2018 Zarda decision for this proposition, “it erred for at least two reasons.”  First, Zarda was a statutory interpretation case under Title VII, not a constitutional case, thus the Circuit’s decision that discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII includes discrimination because of sexual orientation was not a ruling the sexual orientation claims should be treated the same as sex discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment.  Second, the conduct at issue in this case (2009-2010) predated Zarda by many years.  Given the 2nd Circuit’s pre-Zarda caselaw, Cabranes pointed out, at the time Naumovski was fired, “the ‘clearly established law’ … was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.”

“Nor could the District Court rely on freestanding constitutional principles separate from Zarda,” continued Cabranes.  “To date, neither this court nor the Supreme Court has recognized Sec. 1983 claims for sexual orientation discrimination in public employment.  Moreoever, when the conduct in this case occurred, neither of the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage cases – United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges – had been decided.  It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect.”  At this point, Cabranes wrote a footnote acknowledging the existence of Romer and Lawrence, but distinguishing them based on Naumovski’s factual allegations. Cabranes’ opinion does not explicitly state that a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity today from an adverse personnel decision based on sexual orientation, but he implies that after Windsor and Obergefell, “state distinctions based on sexual orientation” are “constitutionally suspect,” a point that some scholars have argued, attempting to give more teeth to Justice Kennedy’s opinions in those cases than some might see in them.  To be clear, neither of those cases explicitly states that government distinctions based on sexual orientation are to be treated the same as sex discrimination cases and enjoy heightened scrutiny under the 14th Amendment.  Justice Kennedy did not employ that vocabulary, and arguably placed more weight on the liberty interest in marriage in those cases.

The court also found that Norris and Scholl would clearly enjoyed qualified immunity from a claim that their decision relied on biased student claims against Naumovski, and also that a constitutionally-based hostile environment claim based on sex or perceived sexual orientation in a public employment context was not clearly actionable under 42 USC 1983, as the precedential basis for such claims has been developed thus far only under Title VII.

Summarizing the Court of Appeals holding, Cabranes wrote that Section 1983 claims for discrimination in employment require plaintiffs to establish that the defendants’ discriminatory intent was a “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action, that because of the intent requirements under the Equal Protection clause, a Section 1983 claim for employment discrimination “cannot be based on a respondeat superior or ‘cat’s paw’ theory to establish a defendant’s liability (thus ruling out liability for Scholl and Norris based on complaints by discriminatory students), and defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because, “even when interpreted in the light most favorable to Naumovski, the record cannot support the conclusion that they violated her ‘clearly established’ constitutional rights.”

Naumovski is represented by A. J. Bosman of Rome, N.Y.  Judge Cabranes was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel were Ralph Winter (Reagan) and Renee Raggi (George W. Bush).

2nd Circuit Endorses Narrow Interpretation of its Title VII LGBT-Rights Precedent

Posted on: August 16th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, sitting in Manhattan, observed in an opinion issued on August 12 that its historic ruling last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express, holding that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, does not create a judicial precedent in the 2nd Circuit for purposes of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause on the issue of sexual orientation discrimination.

This observation, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes, came in a lawsuit by a woman who was fired early in 2010 from a position as assistant women’s basketball team coach at Binghamton State University in upstate New York after months of rumors that she had a romantic relationship with one of the women on the basketball team.  Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (2nd Cir., Aug. 12, 2019). The plaintiff, Elizabeth Naumovski, who denied that there was any romantic relationship, sued Nicole Scholl, the head coach, and James Norris, the associate athletic director, who made the decision to fire her, claiming a violation of her rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause.  Part of their defense to her constitutional claim was that they enjoyed “qualified immunity” from any personal liability for making the decision to fire her.  District Court Judge David N. Hurd refused to dismiss the claim without discussing the qualified immunity claim, and they appealed.

Under the Supreme Court’s decisions on state actor liability for violating constitutional rights, a government agency or entity such as a public university can only be held liable for its policies, not for discretionary decisions by its management employees.  That is, the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” under which private sector employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees, does not apply in this situation.  Since the University does not have an anti-LGBT employment policy, it cannot be held liable under the Equal Protection Clause, even if a court were to conclude that Ms. Naumovski’s sexual orientation was the reason for her discharge.

However, management employees such as Scholl and Norris can be sued for their decisions violating a public employee’s constitutional rights, if at the time they acted it was “clearly established” in law that the basis for their action was unconstitutional.  Consequently, in ruling on their motion to dismiss the Equal Protection claim against them, Judge Hurd had to determine whether at the time of the discharge in 2010, it was “clearly established,” either by U.S. Supreme Court decisions or 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decisions, that employees of the state university enjoy constitutional protection from discrimination because of their sexual orientation.   If it was not “clearly established” at that time, Scholl and Norris should be shielded from liability by “qualified immunity,” and their motion for summary judgment should have been granted.

The 2nd Circuit ruled that the motion should have been granted.

“Naumovski’s complaint does not explicitly allege sexual orientation discrimination in its enumeration of her [federal] claims,” wrote Judge Cabranes. “Nevertheless, the District Court appears to have so interpreted her claims.  Indeed, the District Court concluded that ‘Plaintiff has established that she is a member of several protected classes including . . . being perceived as gay.’ We need not decide whether the District Court erred in so construing Naumovski’s complaint.  Even if Naumovski had stated a sexual orientation discrimination claim, Defendants would have qualified immunity from such a claim.”

The court said that any reliance by the district judge on the 2nd Circuit’s decision last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express “in recognizing Naumovski’s arguable sexual orientation discrimination claims” would be erroneous for two reasons.  First, Zarda was a Title VII (statutory) case, not a constitutional case.  Because Altitude Express is a private business, not a government entity, it could not be sued on a constitutional theory.  Furthermore, wrote Cabranes, the Zarda ruling “did not address whether the Constitution prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.  Thus, Zarda is only ‘clearly established law’ for statutory sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  It does not, however, ‘clearly establish’ constitutional sexual orientation discrimination claims.’”

This is quite disappointing, since the reasoning of Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann’s opinion in the Zarda case should apply equally as a matter of logical reasoning to the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination, and thus potentially a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  Elsewhere in his opinion in this case, Judge Cabranes devoted attention to explaining the difference between proof of sex discrimination under Title VII as distinguished from the Equal Protection Clause.  Under Title VII, a defendant can be found to have violated the statute if an employee’s sex was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision, even though it was not the only factor supporting the decision.  By contrast, under the Supreme Court’s approach to Equal Protection, the plaintiff must prove that her sex was the “but-for” cause of the action she is contesting, and the defendant would escape liability if other reasons for its action would provide a valid non-discriminatory reason for the action.

Furthermore, Judge Cabranes pointed out, Zarda was decided in 2018, and Naumovski was discharged in 2010.  “Prior to Zarda,” he wrote, “our Court had expressly declined to recognize sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, much less the Constitution.  Thus, if anything, the ‘clearly established law’ at the time Defendants terminated Naumovski’s employment was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.  Insofar as the District Court relied on Zarda, therefore, Defendants were surely entitled to qualified immunity.”

The court also pointed out that Naumovski was fired before the Supreme Court had decided U.S. v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  “It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect,” he asserted.  In a footnote, he conceded that in 1996 the Supreme Court had “already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays” when it declared unconstitutional a Colorado constitutional amendment that excluded gay people in that state from protection under state law. “Here, however,” he wrote, “Naumovski has alleged no such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”

Judge Cabranes concluded that even if it is possible that today a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for dismissing a public employee because of their sexual orientation, depending how one interprets the current state of affairs in the 2nd Circuit in light of Zarda and nationally in light of Windsor and Obergefell, “at the time of the challenged conduct here such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established.’”

The bottom line in Naumovski’s case is that constitutional claims against Binghamton University and the State University of New York (SUNY) as a whole are dismissed, but several statutory claims against the employers that were not dismissed by Judge Hurd remain in play.  Constitutional claims against Scholl and Norris are now dismissed on grounds of qualified immunity.

Naumovski is represented by A.J. Bosman of Rome, New York.  Scholl and Norris are represented by Margaret Joanne Fowler of Vestal, New York.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel are Senior Circuit Judges Ralph Winter and Renee Raggi.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Rules for Same-Sex Co-Parent Standing in “Parity” With Birth Mother in Custody Dispute

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

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Schnedler v. Lee, 2019 WL 2588577, 2019 Okla. LEXIS 49 (June 25, 2019), that “a non-biological same-sex parent stands in parity with a biological parent,” and that once standing requirements are met, “the court shall adjudicate any and all claims of parental rights – including custody and visitation – just a the court would for any other legal parent, consistent with the best interests of the child.”  The lone dissenter, Justice Richard Darby, claimed that the court had issued an “advisory opinion” that was beyond its purview, and should have used “judicial restraint” and based its holding on “the narrowest grounds possible.”  Instead, the court treated it prior precedent on the issue of same-sex co-parent standing as obsolete and substituted an entirely new analysis.  Chief Justice Noma Gurich wrote the court’s opinion.

Lori Schnedler and Heather Lee met each other in the early 2000s, while both were employed by the Bartlesville Police Department, their relationship progressing from co-workers to co-habitants of an apartment.  After Lori did overseas military service, they bought a house together and decided to have a child.  “A work friend of Heather’s, Kevin Platt, agreed to serve as the sperm donor,” wrote Justice Gurich, but after donating his sperm, was not an active participant in the relationship between the women and their child.   Until the break-up of the couple years later and the resulting litigation, Kevin, who was married and had children from his marriage, did not have a relationship with the child.  After the break-up and the ensuing litigation, Kevin got involved and began to establish a relationship with the child.

The child was born in July 2007, either years before the Supreme Court decided Obergefell and a 10th Circuit decision, for which cert had been denied, resulted in marriage equality being available in Oklahoma.  The women’s relationship ended in April 2015, as the marriage equality issue was coming to a head in the courts.  Heather left the home they had shared, taking the child with her.  Although she allowed Lori regular visitation for seven months, Heather “suddenly denied Lori any further contact with their daughter,” wrote Gurich. “Since that time, Lori has neither seen nor spoken with J.L.”

Lori filed suit in December 2015, petitioning for an adjudication of the child’s custody, visitation, and child support, relying on the doctrine of in loco parentis, which the Oklahoma courts had recognized to some extend in prior same-sex parent disputes of this nature.  Heather objected to the petition “and sought to join Kevin, the biological father and genetic donor, as a necessary party to the proceedings.  Additionally, both Heather and Kevin brought cross-claims in the action, requesting the trial court’s determination that Kevin was J.L’s ‘biological and natural father’ and therefore entitled to full parental rights of custody, visitation, and support,” even though Kevin “was not demonstrably involved in J.L.’s life” before the lawsuit began.  Heather and Kevin both challenged Lori’s standing to bring the action, and the trial judge actually agreed, interpreting the state’s existing precedent of Ramey v. Sutton, 2015 OK 79, 362 P.3d 217 (Okla. 2015), as requiring the sperm donor to “consent to, and encourage, the non-biological partner’s parental role” in order to find parental standing for the co-parent. In this case, the sperm donor was a third party custody claimant as well and opposing Lori’s petition. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Lori’s petition.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court granted certiorari “to clarify the standing of non-biological co-parents in same-sex relationships, and to create a meaningful and comprehensive framework for the adjudication of the same.”

First, the court found that the lower courts had misconstrued its earlier holding, which it insisted did not empower the sperm donor to stand as a barrier to the co-parent’s standing in a case like this one.  Going further, the court found its prior precedents using the doctrine of in loco parentis to be inadequate for present purposes, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s concern, expressed in Obergefell v. Hodges, that children being raised by same-sex parents should not have to suffer their families being considered as “lesser” to traditional heterosexual families.

“In announcing today’s decision,” wrote Justice Gurich, “we are mindful of the need to establish practical guidelines for state courts.  We conclude that, to establish standing, a non-biological same-sex co-parent who asserts a claim for parentage must demonstrate – by a preponderance of the evidence – that he or she has engaged in family planning with the intent to parent jointly[,] acted in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established a meaningful emotional relationship with the child, and resided with the child for a significant period while holding out the child as his or her own child.  As always, a court shall assess these factors with the best interests of the child as its foremost aim.  When a continuing relationship with the non-biological parent is in those interests, a court must honor its validity and safeguard the perpetuation of that bond.  In such proceedings, parties may continue to invoke equitable doctrines and defenses, e.g., equitable estoppel.”

The court specifically rejected the use of in loco parentis as the deciding doctrine in such cases.  Justice Gurich wrote that “in loco parentis – at root, a legal fiction – is ‘by its very nature, a temporary status.’  Temporary and uncertain parental status only exacerbates the frequency of cases like today’s and creates an inherently more unstable environment for the children of same-sex couples.  Their children see them as mom or dad.  The law should treat them as such.”  The court asserted that its holding was “consonant with the constitutional protections guaranteed in Obergefell.

In his dissent, Justice Darby argued that the case could be resolve in Lori’s favor by a finding that the requirements of Ramey v. Sutton had been met in this case and that Lori could be accorded in loco parentis standing.  However, he argued, the court’s reformulation of the rules for finding standing for co-parents was unnecessary, and this an “advisory opinion,” and “This Court does not issue advisory opinions.”

Lori Schnedler is represented y Christopher U. Brech of McDaniel Acord & Lytle PLLC, Tulsa, and Michael F. Smith of McAfee & Taft, also Tulsa.  Heather Lee is represented by Bryan J. Nowling, of Hall, Estill, Hardwick, Gable, Golden & Nelson, P.C., also of Tulsa.  “No appearance for Kevin Platt, Third Party Defendant/Appellee,” states the clerk’s summary.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals Rules on Same-Sex Common Law Marriage Claim

Posted on: May 6th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

“Brian Gill and Rodney Van Nostrand were in a romantic relationship and cohabited for several years beginning in 2004,” begins Judge Phyllis Thompson’s opinion for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Gill v. Van Nostrand, 2019 WL 1827998, 2019 D.C. App. LEXIS 159 (April 25, 2019).  “After their romantic relationship waned, and a few months after Mr. Van Nostrand had a ceremonial wedding in Brazil to another man he had met while on a lengthy work assignment in that country, Mr. Gill filed a complaint for legal separation from Mr. Van Nostrand, alleging that the two men are parties in a common law marriage that began in 2004.”  Van Nostrand’s denial that the men were common-law married led to a trial in D.C. Superior Court, resulting in a decision by Judge Robert Okun rejecting Gill’s claim.  Gill’s appeal of that ruling is the subject of the Court of Appeals’ April 25 ruling.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the equivalent of a state supreme court for the District of Columbia.  Its rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Judge Thompson’s opinion goes to considerable length to explain why the court affirmed Judge Okun’s ruling, and to set out in some detail how District of Columbia trial courts should evaluate claims that same-sex couples had formed common law marriages prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).  Although the District of Columbia legislated to allow same-sex marriage several years prior to Obergefell, the issue of whether same-sex couples could form such marriages in the District, one of a handful of U.S. jurisdictions that still recognize same-sex marriages, depends on retroactive application of Obergefell’s holding that same-sex couples enjoy a fundamental right to marry as an aspect of liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause.  In the case of D.C., of course, the relevant Due Process Clause would be that in the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, whereas the Due Process Clause upon which the Court relied in Obergefell was that in the 14th Amendment, binding on the states.

The D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Okun that the fundamental right identified by the Supreme Court in Obergefell did apply to the marital aspirations of same-sex couples at the time in question (2004).  The issue is how to decide whether a particular couple was in a common law marriage, when the District’s relevant case law was stated, in large part, in ways pertaining to different-sex couples whose right to marry at the time was legally recognized, as such a right was not then recognized for same-sex couples.  At an early stage in this case, Judge Okun refused Van Nostrand’s motion to dismiss the case, stating “that a party in a same-sex relationship must be given the opportunity to prove a common law marriage, even at a time when same-sex marriage was not legal.”  This led to the trial, in which Van Nostrand testified that he never considered himself to be married to Mr. Gill, and Mr. Gill testified about an exchange of rings, a pledge of monogamy, and his belief that they considered themselves effectively married, if not legally so.

Under District of Columbia precedents, “the elements of common law marriage in this jurisdiction are cohabitation as husband and wife, following an express mutual agreement, which must be in word of the present tense.”  Quoting Coleman v. United States, 948 A.2d 534 (D.C. Ct. App. 2008).  What that means is the people can’t just “drift” into a common law marriage in D.C.  There must be a mutual express agreement, and it can’t just be an agreement that sometime in the future the couple will get married; it must be a present statement of agreeing to live as a married couple, albeit without the formalities of a marriage license and ceremony by a governmentally authorized officiant.  Normally a preponderance of the evidence standard would apply, but depending on the circumstances the court might apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which the court found applicable in this case, where Gill is trying to prove a common law marriage with a man who is legally married to another man.  (The court noted that the clear and convincing evidence standard has been used by D.C. courts in the past when somebody is trying to prove that they have a common law marriage with somebody who is legally married to somebody else.)

“We shall assume arguendo that serious constitutional issues would arise if the trial court’s analysis of common-law marriage operated to the peculiar disadvantage of Mr. Gill and Mr. Van Nostrand as a same-sex-couple, i.e., required them to meet expectations that they as a same-sex couple could meet only with more difficulty than opposite-sex couples would encounter,” wrote Judge Thompson.   “Such an approach is arguably warranted in order to accord same-sex couples who have chosen to share their lives in a union comparable to traditional marriage ‘the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage,” quoting Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal. 4th 364 (Cal. 2009), a decision in which the California Supreme Court ruled that marriages of same-sex couples who were married in California prior to the passage of Proposition 8 would have exactly the same status as all legally-contracted marriages in that state.

The trial court focused on six factors in its analysis in concluding that Gill and Nostrand did not have a common law marriage.

First was the failure of either man, but particularly Mr. Gill, to remember the date on which Gill claimed they exchanged rings that they agreed to wear for the duration of their relationship.  Gill testified that he “decided to surprise Mr. Van Nostrand by purchasing two rings and presenting them to Mr. Van Nostrand along with M& M candies inscribed with “Will you marry me?”  Gill testified that he got down on one knew and proposed to Mr. Van Nostrand, who said yes and allowed Gill to slip one of the rings on his finger.  Van Nostrand denied various particulars of this testimony, and there was no testimonial agreement about the date on which this purportedly occurred. The court found Gill’s testimony, which goes to the crucial question of whether there was an express agreement to be married, as “exceptionally vague,” although, by contrast, Gill remembered precisely both their first date and the first time they had sex with each other.  “The court reasoned that ‘the date on which parties agree to be married surely would be at least as memorable [as], if not more memorable . . . than the date on which’ the parties first had sexual relations ‘or first had a “real date” at a restaurant,’” wrote Thompson.  Gill criticized the judge’s “overreliance” on this factor, but the appeals court did not consider this “unfairly prejudicial” or improperly expecting the parties “to meet expectations of traditional marriage that they, as a same-sex couple, could meet only with difficulty.”  Since the date in question is the date when Gill claims to have proposed marriage, proffered a ring, and received an affirmative response from Von Nostrand, the court found failure to remember the date was not an “unreasonable factor to consider,” taking into account that it was not the only or dispositive factor, merely one of several.

Secondly, the trial court found that neither of the men “told their friends or family about the alleged marriage (or perhaps more correctly, the alleged ‘entry into a commitment comparable to marriage’) and the couple did not commemorate it with a ceremony or celebrate it by going on a honeymoon.”  The court did find that at that time both parties’ families had “harsh anti-gay views” which could explain why there was no contemporaneous communication to them about this topic, and the court acknowledged that “same-sex couples, prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage, might have been less likely to have a public ceremony or honeymoon,” but, pointed out Thompson, the question was “how these parties and their friends in the gay community marked or signified important events in their romantic lives,” and evidence was lacking as to that.  Traditionally, “holding out” as married to one’s relevant community is an important signifier of common law marriage, and there was nothing stopping a same-sex couple from taking a honeymoon trip to celebrate their new relationship.  Gill attempted to show that a European trip the men took in 2005 was their “honeymoon,” but Van Nostrand testified to the contrary.

Furthermore, there was evidence that Van Nostrand was partial to “celebrating events in a flamboyant manner,” as shown by his marriage to Weller da Silva, the Brazilian man whom he legally married in April 2014.  Related Thompson, “Mr. Van Nostrand delivered the proposal while the pair were in a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti, created an album commemorating the proposal, told family members and friends, med Mr. da Silva’s family, and, after the two were married, went on a honeymoon trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”  (Sounds fab!!)  The trial court credited Van Nostrand’s testimony that “he would not have entered into a marriage with [Gill] without commemorating such an event with … pomp and circumstance” and the evidence showed that Van Nostrand had the financial ability to sustain such activities, as shown by the “shared history of foreign travel” of the two men during their relationship.

The third factor was that the parties “never inscribed their rings,” a step that Van Nostrand credibly testified they would have done had they considered themselves married.  The court also noted that when marriage became available in Massachusetts, Van Nostrand asked Gill whether he wanted to go there to get married and Gill said no.  He also testified that he asked Gill about having their rings inscribed, but Gill declined, and also declined to enter into a registered domestic partnership, which became available in D.C.  Furthermore, D.C. enacted marriage equality in 2010, but the men did not take the step of formalizing their relationship as a marriage then.  Gill criticized the trial court’s reliance on this factor, but the court found that Van Nostrand credibly testified that these were “the steps he would have taken to symbolize and validate that the parties’ relationship had advanced to a mutual commitment comparable to marriage.”  Here, the court referred to a ruling last year by the Colorado Court of Appeals, Hogsett v. Neale, 2018 WL 6564880, which placed some weight on the failure of a lesbian couple to go out of state to get married as a factor in determining that they did not have a common law marriage under Colorado law.

The fourth factor was that “the parties maintained largely separate finances.”  The house in which they lived together from 2005 was only in Van Nostrand’s name, they had no joint bank accounts or credit card accounts, and even though they discussed creating wills, powers of attorney, and so forth, only Van Nostrand made and executed such documents.  The trial court observed that “although [Gill] was supposed to draft documents giving [Van Nostrand] these same benefits and responsibilities, he failed to do so.”  By contrast, shortly after Van Nostrand married da Silva, they established joint bank accounts and executed wills, powers of attorney and the like.  (A docket search shows that sometime after his marriage to da Silva, Van Nostrand sought to evict Gill from the D.C. home, resulting in litigation in which Gill sought, without success, injunctive relief against the eviction, before a different D.C. trial judge. There is no published opinion, and Judge Okun’s decision in this case is apparently not published, either.)

The fifth factor was Gill’s failure to object or to claim he was in a common law marriage with Van Nostrand when he was informed that Van Nostrand planned to marry da Silva in Brazil.  Gill’s response to this news was not to state that they needed to get divorced first in order for that marriage to take place.  He raised the issue “only after realizing that this would affect” his beneficiary status in terms of Van Nostrand’s employee benefits.  As the court pointedly notes, he seemed to have sprung into action when he was removed from coverage under Van Nostrand’s employment-related health insurance.  He went to an attorney and apparently first learned about the possibility of claiming a common law marriage at that point.  “Mr. Gill asserts that he reacted as he did because he was not aware that the parties’ relationship gave him legally enforceable rights vis-à-vis Mr. Van Nostrand,” observed the court.  The court of appeals found this to be “understandable” as the parties are not lawyers, and the trial court did not deem this as a determinative factor in the analysis.  However, wrote Thompson, “we think the trial court exercised reasonable skepticism in light of Mr. Gill’s financial incentive to claim that the parties had a common-law marriage.  Courts have long ‘regarded common-law marriage as a fruitful source of fraud and perjury,’” quoting In re Estate of Danza, 188 App. Div. 2d 530, 591 N.Y.S. 2d 197 (1992).

Finally, the sixth factor concerns the growing body of court decisions about retroactive common law marriage claims, and particularly a case in which a Pennsylvania trial court did find a common law marriage, In re Estate of Carter, 159 A.3d 970 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017).  Carter presented ideal facts to find a same-sex common law marriage.  There was a marriage proposal and a diamond ring that Mr. Hunter gave Mr. Carter on Christmas Day 1996, a day easy to remember and prove. Mr. Carter then gave Hunter an engraved diamond ring on February 18, 1997, with the date inscribed, and the men faithfully observed that date as their anniversary for 16 years until Carter’s death.  They had joint banking and investment accounts, owned their home together with a joint mortgage, had mutual wills and powers of attorney, and referred to each other as spouses.  While Judge Okun disclaimed requiring that all these factors be satisfied in order to find a common law marriage for a same-sex couple formed prior to the legalization of same-sex marriages, he reasoned that Gill’s “failure to prove any of these factors substantially undercuts his effort to prove the existence of a common law marriage.”  In this case, Judge Okun found that the men had at best “an agreement to get married at some point in the future.” Wrote Thompson, “We cannot say that the trial court’s reliance on Carter as persuasive authority and its resultant analysis were legally or factually erroneous.”

In conclusion, wrote Thompson, “For all the foregoing reasons, we are satisfied that the evidence did not compel the trial court to conclude that the parties had an express mutual agreement to be permanent partners with the same degree of commitment as the spouses in a ceremonial marriage.  The evidence permitted the court to conclude, as it did, that the parties never expressly agreed to be married, in the present tense.”  And that decides the case consistent with D.C. case law.

Gill is represented by Aaron Marr Page and Christopher J. Gowen.  Jack Maginnis represents Van Nostrand.  As noted, this ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Federal question jurisdiction is not required for an appeal from the D.C. local courts on questions of D.C. common law, but if it were, this case arguably presents an underlying constitutional question concerning the jurisdiction’s obligation to recognize the fundamental rights of same-sex couples to enter into common law marriages, and the question whether the trial court’s analysis did not adequately respect that right could still be argued on appeal.  However, Judge Thompson took great lengths to reiterate the D.C. Court of Appeals’ view that the court had to take account of contemporary circumstances pre-Obergefell in avoiding unfairly prejudicing the question by imposing unreasonable expectations on how same-sex couples intended to form a common law marriage would have acted in 2004, and that the trial court had done that adequately in this case.

Impatient Christians File Suit Against EEOC’s Interpretation of Title VII and Seek Exemption from Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages

Posted on: April 3rd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Pastor Council (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), and Braidwood Management, Inc., a business claiming to have religious objections concerning the employment of LGBTQ people (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), have jointly filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth Division), seeking a declaratory judgment that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, and they seek to enjoin the federal government from enforcing these policies against any employer who objects to homosexual or transgender behavior on religious grounds.  U.S. Pastor Council & Braidwood Management Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Case No. 4:18-cv-00824-O (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Texas, filed March 29, 2019).  They seek class certification and nation-wide injunctive relief.  Other named defendants include EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic and Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows, Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States of America.  (Lipnic and Burrows are the only currently serving EEOC commissioners, as Trump’s nominees to fill three vacancies were not confirmed in the last session of the Senate, and the Commission as a body lacks a quorum to act at present.)

The headline’s reference to “impatient Christians” points to the Supreme Court’s unexplained delay in deciding whether to grant writs of certiorari in three pending cases that pose the question whether Title VII can be interpreted, as it has been by the EEOC and some circuit courts of appeals, to prohibit employment discrimination because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  If the Supreme Court finally takes these cases and decides them during its October 2019 Term, this lawsuit could be at least partially mooted.  But the complaint ranges more broadly, tempting the court (and ultimately the Supreme Court) to reconsider two of its constitutional precedents that are not beloved by the Court’s current conservative majority: Employment Division v. Smith and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The docket number of the case indicates that it has been assigned to District Judge Reed O’Connor, which means that it is highly predictable that the plaintiffs will get much of the relief they are seeking from the district court.  In earlier lawsuits, Judge O’Connor issued nationwide injunctions against the federal government’s enforcement of Obamacare and Title IX in gender identity cases, disagreeing that the term “discrimination because of sex” could be construed to extend to gender identity.  See Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, 227 F.Supp.3d 660 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 31, 2016) (Obamacare); Texas v. United States, 201 F. Supp. 3d 810 (N.D. Tex. 2016) (Title IX).  Since the current political appointees leading the Justice Department probably agree with the plaintiff’s position on all or most of the claims raised in this complaint, one reasonably suspects that any serious defense can only be mounted by Intervenors, and the government would only appeal pro-plaintiff rulings by Judge O’Connor in order to get a rubber stamp approval from the 5th Circuit on the way to the Supreme Court. Trump has worked hard to cement a conservative majority on the 5th Circuit, having quickly filled five of the vacancies preserved for him by the Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama nominees to the circuit courts.  A new vacancy waits to be filled, and more elderly Republican appointees on the circuit (two active Reagan appointees who have been there more than thirty years) are likely to retire soon enough.

The complaint’s first count argues that the government has no compelling reason to enforce a prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity against employers with religious objections, and thus that the EEOC as a federal agency should be found to be precluded from doing so under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The second count argues that because Title VII exempts religious employers from its ban on religious discrimination, it is thereby not a law of “general applicability,” so Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), is “inapplicable” to the question whether imposing a non-discrimination obligation on employers who are subject to the statute (those with 15 or more employees) violates their constitutional Free Exercise rights under the 1st Amendment.  The complaint observes that the ministerial exemption to Title VII that the Supreme Court has found for religious institutions does not extend to businesses, and further does not extend to the non-ministerial employees of religious organizations, thus imposing a burden on both kinds of employers who are subject to Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  Furthermore, they argue that if the court disagrees with their characterization of Title VII and finds that Employment Division v. Smith would apply in their Free Exercise claim, that decision should be overruled (which, of course, the district court can’t do, but this lawsuit is obviously not intended to stop at the district court).  Justice Neil Gorsuch implied in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June that the Supreme Court should reconsider this precedent.

In terms of the practical impact of the EEOC’s position, the complaint says in its third count that Braidwood Management’s benefits administrator has amended its employee benefits plans to recognize same-sex marriages, complying with guidance on the EEOC’s website, and Braidwood wants to instruct the administrator to return to a traditional marriage definition, consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.  Thus, part of the declaratory judgment plaintiffs seek would proclaim that employers with religious beliefs against same-sex marriage should be allowed to refuse to recognize them for employee benefits purposes.  In several counts, the complaint tempts the court to declare as illegitimate the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, and to excuse religious organizations and businesses from having to recognize same-sex marriages, except possibly in states where same-sex marriage became available through state legislation, unlike Texas, where it exists by compulsion of the federal courts (and certainly against the wishes of the state government).

In terms of standing issues, Braidwood points out that the EEOC has actively enforced its interpretation of Title VII by bringing enforcement actions and filing amicus briefs in support of LGBTQ plaintiffs against employers with religious objections, most prominently in the Harris Funeral Home case, in which the EEOC sued a business that had discharged a transgender employee because of the employer’s religious objections.  The funeral home prevailed in the district court on a RFRA defense, the trial judge finding that in the absence of RFRA the funeral home would have been found in violation of Title VII.  However, the 6th Circuit reversed in part, rejecting the district court’s RFRA analysis and finding a Title VII violation.  The funeral home’s petition for certiorari was filed in the Supreme Court last July, but that Court had made no announcement regarding a grant or denial at the time this complaint was filed on March 29 – impatient Christians, again.

The fourth count claims that the EEOC’s requirement that employers post a notice to employees announcing their protection under Title VII is unconstitutionally compelled speech.  “Employees who read this sign and see that Braidwood is categorically forbidden to engage in ‘sex’ discrimination will assume (incorrectly) that Braidwood is legally required to recognize same-sex marriage, extend spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples, and allow its employees into restrooms reserved for the opposite biological sex,” says the complaint, indicating that Braidwood’s proprietor “is not willing to have Braidwood propagate this message without sufficient clarification.”

The sixth count summons the Administrative Procedure Act to attack the EEOC’s issuance of guidance on its website concerning its interpretation of Title VII, claiming that this constitutes a “rule” that is subject to judicial review under that statute.  The complaint asks the court to “hold unlawful and set aside” the EEOC’s regulatory guidance, invoking Section 706 of the APA.  Braidwood Management also claims to speak in this count as representative of all businesses in the U.S. that “object to the constitutional reasoning in Obergefell, excluding employers in states where same-sex marriage was legalized through legislation.”

The complaint lists as plaintiffs’ counsel Charles W. Fillmore and H. Dustin Fillmore of Fort Worth (local counsel in the district court) and Jonathan F. Mitchell of Austin.  The heavy gun here is Mitchell, a former Scalia clerk and Texas Solicitor General who has been nominated by President Trump to be Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS).  It seems ironic that Trump’s nominee is suing the federal government: the Justice Department and its head (in his official capacity) and the EEOC and its commissioners (in their official capacity), but despite naming the United States as a defendant, plaintiffs are not suing the president by name (in his official capacity, of course).

Kentucky Appellate Court Rejects Lesbian Co-Parent Custody/Visitation Claim, Reversing Family Court

Posted on: December 8th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Adopting a narrow construction of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s historic same-sex co-parent ruling, Mullins v. Picklesimer, 317 S.W.3d 569 (Ky. 2010), a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, ruling on November 30, reversed a decision by Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Deana D. McDonald, and ruled that Teri Whitehouse, the former union partner of Tammie Delaney, is not entitled to joint custody and parenting time with a child born to Delaney during the women’s relationship.  From comments in concurring opinions, it seems clear that this Kentucky Court of Appeals panel deems the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), to require a bright-line test, under which it will be extremely difficult for unmarried partners to claim parental rights.  The opinion confirms the fears of some critics of the marriage equality movement who predicted that achieving same-sex marriage could undermine the interests of LGBT parents who chose not to marry.

The case is Delaney v. Whitehouse, 2018 WL 6266774, 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 844 (Ky. Ct. App., Nov. 30, 2018).  The court designated the opinion as “not to be published,” which means it is not supposed to be cited and argued as precedent for any other case, although Kentucky court rules say that an “unpublished” decision may be cited for consideration by a court if there is no published opinion that would adequately address the issue before the court.  The whole idea of “unpublished” decisions is archaic, of course, when such opinions are released and published in full text in on-line legal services such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg Law, and readily available to practicing lawyers and the courts.

The opinion for the panel by Judge Robert G. Johnson (whose term expired after he wrote the opinion but before it was released by the court) accepts Judge McDonald’s factual findings, but disputes their legal significance.  McDonald found that the parties were in a romantic relationship and participated jointly in the decision to have a child, including the insemination process.  “The parties treated each other as equal partners and clearly intended to create a parent-like relationship” between Whitehead and the child, found Judge McDonald, who also found that “they held themselves out as the parents of this child since before conception.  They engaged in the process of selecting a [sperm] donor together, they attended appointments prior to insemination together, [Whitehouse] was present for the birth, and she has been known to the child as Momma.  The parties participated in a union ceremony, after the birth of the child, and they held themselves out as a family unit with friends and family.”

Judge McDonald referred to Mullins v. Picklesimer, finding that some factual distinctions between the cases were not significant enough to compel a different result, and concluded that Whitehead met her burden of establishing under Mullins that Delaney had waived her “superior right to custody” as the biological mother, and thus had conferred standing on Whitehouse to seek joint custody and parenting time after the parties’ relationship terminated.

The Appellate Court disagreed.  Johnson found that in Mullins, a case decided by the closely divided state supreme court voting 4-3, the court stated that “legal waiver ‘is a voluntary and intentional surrender or relinquishment of a known right, or an election to forego an advantage which the party at his option might have demanded or insisted upon.’”  Also, he noted, the Kentucky Supreme Court “emphasized that although there need not be a written or formal waiver, ‘statements and supporting circumstances must be equivalent to an express waiver to meet the burden of proof.’”

“While it is indisputable that some of the factors set out in Mullins are present in this case,” wrote Johnson, “we are persuaded that those factors fall short of the clear and convincing proof required to establish waiver.  It seems clear that both parties agreed to artificial insemination for the purpose of having a child, that both parties shared parenting responsibilities to some extent, and that for a relatively short period of time they held themselves out as a family unit.  However, ‘no specific set of factors must be present in order to find there has been a waiver.’”  The court in Mullins found “a myriad of factors” supporting waiver, including that the women in that case gave their child a hyphenated last name, which was placed on the birth certificate, that they made a formal written agreement bestowing custody rights on the co-parent, and that even after the parties separated, they continued to share custody for a period of five months.  “In contrast,” wrote Johnson, “Delaney and Whitehouse made no efforts to formalize the custody status of the child at any point and the child bore only Delaney’s name.  Although the parties did participate in a union ceremony after the child was born, that was not a legally cognizable marriage ceremony.  Neither did the parties attempt to formalize their relationship after the decision of the United State Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.”  (One of the concurring judges noted that Obergefell was decided about a month after the parties had their union ceremony.)

“It is also telling,” Johnson wrote, “that the family court found that the parties intended to create a ‘parent-like’ relationship between Whitehouse and the child, not that Delaney specifically intended to confer parental rights on Whitehouse.  Finally, upon the deterioration of her relationship with Whitehouse, Delaney did not allow Whitehouse to continue to participate in parenting responsibilities with the child,” pointing out that the Mullins court had specifically pointed to the continued five months of shared parenting in that case as tending to show that the co-parent was more than merely a friend or caretaker.

“Because we reverse the trial court’s finding that Whitehouse had standing to seek custody and parenting time with Delaney,” wrote Johnson, “we need not address the family court’s best-interests analysis.”  This, of course, demonstrates clearly the inhumanity of the court’s decision.  The trial court, in a ruling as to which the Appellate Court finds no reason to question that court’s factual findings, deems totally irrelevant the trial court’s conclusion that it is in the best interest of this child to order joint custody and parenting time.  This is to be totally ignored, and a situation that is not in the best interest of the child is to be perpetuated, mainly because, as Johnson intimated and as the concurring judges made clear, these women did not formally marry when the opportunity created by Obergefell presented itself.

Concurring Judge Glenn Acree urged that the Kentucky Supreme Court reconsider Mullins in light of Obergefell, arguing that because same-sex couples can marry, there is no longer any need for Kentucky law to recognize parental rights in unmarried co-parents.  “Obergefell changed everything for same-sex relationships,” wrote Acree.  “Necessarily, it changed how we assess whether a parent has partially waived her constitutional right to raise her child, partial waiver being the theory invented in Mullin.  This case is an illustration.”  He noted that Obergefell was decided within thirty days of the parties’ non-legal union ceremony, so “they had the right and opportunity to legally marry.  They chose not to do so.  Considering the Supreme Court’s emphasis in Obergefell on the importance of the marital relationship, legal significance must be given to a decision not to marry.  Electing not to marry when the opportunity is available should be deemed to fully contradict all allegations by anyone seeking rights to another person’s child based on the Mullins partial waiver theory.  Otherwise, marriage means far less than Obergefell indicates.”

Judge Acree goes on to quote Justice Anthony Kennedy’s flowery description of marriage, stating that this “sentiment permeates the opinion and uplifts the institution of marriage as few opinions have.  In my view, it is not an insincere capitulation to social pressure.  The opinion signals new the judiciary’s recognition of the majesty of marriage.”  Acree advocates a bright line test based on Obergefell, leaving out in the cold all unmarried same-sex partners, regardless of the quality or depth of their relationship with the child.  He argued that failure to adopt such a bright line test “will invite other individuals, and even groups, whether they cohabit with a biological or adoptive parent or not, to claim the partial waiver Mullins invented.”  And, as his parting shot, he wrote, “Although ‘it takes a village’ is a catchy cant, the nucleus of a family is not made up of loose threads of casual affection.  It is a tightly woven fabric of unifying love amongst two parents and their children.

Concurring, Judge Gene Smallwood, Jr., joined with Acree in encouraging the Kentucky Supreme Court to “revisit” the Mullins decision and overrule it, asserting that the dissenting opinion in Mullins had “proven true” and, quoting from a dissenting opinion in another case, wrote, “Mullins was decided as it was because of, and as a way of avoiding the pre-Obergefell prohibitions” on same-sex marriage.  “The conceived basis for the court’s opinion in Mullins no longer exists,” he insisted, urging that the state’s high court “reaffirm all prior precedence on this issue and return the legal standing of parenthood to the safe mooring of the law as guaranteed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).”  Troxel held unconstitutional a state law that allowed third parties, such as grandparents, to seek visitation rights with children over the protest of their biological parents, affirming strong constitutional protection for the right of legal parents to exclude other adults from contact with their children.  Many state courts have distinguished Troxel from cases involving same-sex parent presenting facts similar to those in this case of Delaney v. Whitehead.

Teri Whitehouse is represented by Hugh W. Barrow of Louisville.  Tammie Delaney is represented by Louis P. Winner and Kristin M. Birkhold, also of Louisville.  One would anticipate an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, and the case cries out for LGBT rights movement participation, since an overruling of Mullins could endanger the parental rights of numerous unmarried co-parents in Kentucky.

 

Kennedy Retirement from Supreme Court May Doom LGBT Rights Agenda

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

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s announcement on June 27 that he would retire from active service on the U.S. Supreme Court as of July 31, 2018, opening up a vacancy for President Donald J. Trump to fill with the assistance of the bare majority of Republican United States Senators, portends a serious setback for LGBT rights in the years ahead. Kennedy cast a crucial vote and wrote powerfully emotional opinions to establish the dignity of LGBT people under the Constitution’s 5th and 14th Amendments.  Justice Kennedy will be remembered as the author of four major Supreme Court opinions that worked a revolution in United States constitutional law concerning the rights of sexual minorities.

Before his opinion for the Court in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, was announced on May 20, 1996, the Court had never ruled in favor of gay litigants in an Equal Protection Case.   In Romer, the Court invalidated a Colorado constitutional amendment, adopted in a voter initiative that banned the state from protecting gay people from discrimination.  Kennedy condemned the measure as an attempt to render gay people as “strangers to the law,” and found it to be an obvious violation of equal protection, leading Justice Scalia to complain in dissent that the Court’s opinion was inconsistent with its ruling a decade earlier that sodomy laws were constitutional.

Before his opinion for the Court in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, was announced on June 26, 2003, the Court had never used the Due Process Clause to strike down an anti-gay law. In Lawrence, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, by making private consensual adult gay sex a crime, had unconstitutionally abridged the liberty of gay people.  (Justice O’Connor concurred in an opinion focused solely on the equal protection clause.)  This time, Justice Scalia’s dissent denounced the Court’s opinion as opening the path to same-sex marriage.

His opinions in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), established a right to marriage equality for LGBT people in the United States, the most populous nation so far to allow same-sex couples to marry. In Windsor, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Defense of Marriage Act, a statute requiring the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were valid under state law, violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment, emphasizing the affront to the dignity of gay married couples.  In dissent, of course, Justice Scalia accused the Court of providing a framework for lower courts to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage.  Scalia’s dissent was prophetic, as just two years later the Court ruled in Obergefell that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of Due Process and Equal Protection required the states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize such marriages for all legal purposes.  In the intervening years, lower courts had cited and quoted from Kennedy’s Windsor opinion (and Scalia’s dissent) in finding bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  Kennedy’s vote with the majority in the per curiam ruling in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), reinforced Obergefell’s holding that couples in same-sex marriages enjoyed the “full constellation” of rights associated with marriage, as did his vote in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), affirming that states were obligated to extend full faith and credit to second-parent adoptions granted by the courts of other states.

Justice Kennedy also joined the majority in a concurring opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a 1st Amendment challenge to a public university law school’s refusal to extend official recognition to a student group that overtly discriminated against gay students.

When LGBT litigants lost Kennedy’s vote, however, they lost the Court. In his most recent LGBT-related decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018 WL 2465172, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3386 (June 4, 2018), while reiterating his concern for the dignity of gay people to be able to participate without discrimination in the public marketplace, Kennedy could not bring himself to reject the religious free exercise claims of a Christian baker, and so engineered an “off ramp” by embracing a dubious argument that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was so overtly hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs that he had been deprived of a “neutral forum” to decide his case.  Thus, Kennedy was able to assemble a 7-2 vote to overturn the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in that case, without directly ruling on whether the baker’s religious objections would override the non-discrimination requirements of Colorado law, leading to oversimplified media headlines suggesting that the baker had a 1st Amendment right to refuse to make the cake.

Kennedy also joined the majority (without writing) in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), a 5-4 ruling holding that the Boy Scouts had a 1st Amendment right to deny membership to an out gay Assistant Scoutmaster, based on BSA’s rights of free speech and expressive association. He was part of the unanimous Courts that rejected a constitutional challenge to the Solomon Amendment, a law denying federal money to schools that barred military recruiters (mainly because of the Defense Department’s anti-gay personnel policies), in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), and that, reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, held that a gay Irish-American group could be barred from marching in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995).  However, in those cases all of the more liberal members of the Court joined in the unanimous opinions, so Kennedy’s vote did not make a difference to the outcome.

While Justice Kennedy’s majority opinions in the major LGBT rights cases were triumphs for LGBT rights, they were not viewed as unalloyed triumphs in the halls of legal academe. Commentators who agreed with the results were frequently harshly critical of Kennedy’s opinions in terms of their articulation of legal reasoning and doctrinal development.  The Romer decision left many scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether the Court had applied some sort of “heightened scrutiny” to the Colorado constitutional amendment, puzzled about the precedential meaning of the ruling for later LGBT-related equal protection challenges.  There was similar criticism of the opinions in Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell.  Kennedy failed to use the doctrinal terminology familiar to constitutional law scholars and students, such as “suspect classification,” “heightened scrutiny,” “compelling state interest” and the like, leaving doubt about the potential application of these rulings.  Indeed, three justices dissenting in Pavan v Smith in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch claimed that the Court’s Obergefell ruling had left undecided the question in Pavan – whether Arkansas had to list lesbian co-parents on birth certificates – and the Texas Supreme Court expressed similar doubts about the extent of Windsor and Obergefell in refusing to put an end to a dispute about whether the city of Houston had to extend employee benefits eligibility to the same-sex spouses of city employees.  While some courts, such as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saw Kennedy’s opinions as extending protected class status to gay people for equal protection purposes, others insisted that those rulings had produced no such precedent.

Justice Kennedy’s retirement effective July 31, 2018, seemed to signal a likely retreat from LGBT rights leadership by the Supreme Court. Assuming that President Trump will nominate and the Republican majority in the Senate will confirm a justice with the ideological and doctrinal profiles of Neil Gorsuch or Samuel Alito, the crucial fifth vote to make a pro-LGBT majority would most likely be missing, although Supreme Court appointments are a tricky business.  In the past, some presidents have been astounded at the subsequent voting records of their appointees.  President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of William J. Brennan one of the worst mistakes of his presidency, as Brennan went on to be a leader of the Court’s left wing.  Had he lived long enough to see it, President John F. Kennedy might have been similarly disappointed by the rightward drift of Byron R. White, his nominee who wrote the blatantly homophobic decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), that upheld Georgia’s felony sodomy law, calling a claim to constitutional protection by gay people “at best facetious.”  President Richard Nixon was undoubtedly disappointed with the leftward drift of Harry Blackmun, author of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), the Court’s key abortion rights decision, and vigorous dissenter in Bowers v. Hardwick.  President Ronald Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy assuming he would provide a vote to strike down abortion rights, but Kennedy was part of a moderate Republican coalition (joining with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter) that joined with the remaining Democratic appointees to reaffirm those rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).  President George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Souter ended up being a massive disappointment to conservatives, as Souter frequently voted with the Democratic appointees and the leftward veering John Paul Stevens, who had been appointed by President Gerald Ford and ended up being much more liberal than expected.  Souter was so disillusioned by the Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), handing the presidency to George W. Bush after Albert Gore decisively won the national popular vote and may well have been entitled to the Florida electoral votes needed to put him over the top, that he retired from the Court prematurely.

In other words, the past records of Supreme Court nominees are not inevitably accurately predictive prologues to how they will vote on the Court over the long term. Supreme Court justices frequently serve for several decades (Kennedy’s service stretched over 30 years), and the looming constitutional issues at the time of their appointment are inevitably replaced by new, unanticipated issues over the course of their service.  Also, the Supreme Court is like no other court in the United States, in which the constraints of precedent faced by lower court judges are significantly loosened, since the Supreme Court can reverse its prior holdings, and in which theories and trends in constitutional and statutory interpretation evolve over time.  The examples of Brennan, Souter and Kennedy have caused the confirmation process to change drastically, and the possibility of an appointee turning out a total surprise appears diminished, but it is not entirely gone.  One can hope that a Trump appointee will not be totally predictable in the Alito/Gorsuch orbit, although that may be unduly optimistic when it comes to LGBT issues.  In his first full term on the Court, Justice Gorsuch has not cast 100 predictable votes. . .

Federal Magistrate Rejects Retroactive Marital Privilege Claim for Connecticut Couple in Antitrust Case

Posted on: June 6th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

In Antech Diagnostics, Inc. v. Veterinary Oncology and Hematology Center, LLC, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 82947, 2018 WL 2254543 (D. Conn., May 17, 2018), U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah A. L. Merriam had to deal with a claim by defendants that certain correspondence between two men (one of them a named defendant) that was sought in discovery by the plaintiffs was protected by marital privilege.  Judge Merriam’s opinion does not set out the underlying facts of the lawsuit, focusing solely on two contested discovery issues, one of which is the marital privilege issue.  However, from references in the opinion discussing the question of applicable law, it appears that this case is in federal court under federal question jurisdiction invoking the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, with a host of supplementary state law claims that also might qualify for diversity jurisdiction.  As a preliminary matter, Judge Merriam determined that the source of law governing the privilege question would be Connecticut common law.

The plaintiffs sought to compel production of 26 communications between Dr. Gerald Post, a defendant, and David Duchemin. Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin were legally married in Connecticut on December 20, 2013, five years after the Connecticut Supreme Court issued its marriage equality ruling in Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health, 957 A.2d 407 (Conn. 2008), and about six months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, under which, inter alia, same-sex marriages performed in Connecticut could not be recognized by the federal government.  However, Post and Duchemin’s relationship dated back to 1995, and they claimed that they considered themselves effectively to have been married back to then.  The communications in question, for which they sought to invoke marital privilege, dated from 2009-2013. They argued to the court that it should consider the men to have been married, for purposes of this privilege claim, retroactively to 1995, asking the court to “extend the privilege on public policy grounds to communications made prior to the issuance of a valid marriage license.”

First, Judge Merriam rejected their claim that their relationship could be deemed a common law marriage, inasmuch as the Connecticut Supreme Court stated in McAnerney v. McAnerney, 334 A.2d 437 (1973), “Although other jurisdictions may recognize common-law marriage or accord legal consequences to informal marriage relationships, Connecticut definitely does not.”  Furthermore, the judge noted that plaintiffs had introduced evidence to contradict the claim that the men had considered themselves to be married prior to their legal marriage in 2013, including deposition testimony in which Dr. Post testified, in response to the question of what year he and Duchemin had married, “2013,” identifying their anniversary date as December 20.  “There was no confusion, and no attempt to explain, the anniversary date in light of Dr. Post’s purported consideration that he and Mr. Duchemin had been married since 1995.”  The judge also referred to an email offered in evidence, dated January 2014, in which Duchemin responded to a friend’s congratulations on the wedding by stating, “It’s so weird calling another man my husband but it is nice.”  If they had considered themselves to be spouses since 1995, perhaps this would presumably not have felt “weird” in 2014, but we do not think that necessarily follows.  Two men might have considered themselves to be virtually married but have not adopted the convention of calling themselves husbands until they had legally tied the knot….

“Regardless,” wrote Merriam, “under Connecticut law, it is well-established that for a legally valid marriage to exist, there must be a marriage contract ‘with certain formalities.’ Accordingly, because the marital communications privilege attaches only to those communications made during a legally valid marriage, and leaving aside for the moment the date on which same-sex marriage became legal, the privilege here would only attach to those communications made after December 20, 2013.”

However, defendants argued that the court should, as some other courts have done in varied contexts, take account of the fact that in 1995 Connecticut was unconstitutionally denying these men the right to marry, that they swear that they would have married then had the option been available, and thus it was equitable to treat them as married for that period of time when same-sex marriage was denied to them. A decent argument, especially in light of Mueller v. Tepler, 95 A.3d 1011 (Conn. 2014).  “There,” wrote Merriam, “the Connecticut Supreme Court recognized a loss of consortium claim by unmarried partners in a same-sex relationship, where at the time the claim arose the partners would have been married, but for the existence of a state law barring same-sex marriage.”  The Connecticut court premised its ruling on public policy concerns, stating that “marriage cannot logically serve as a proxy for the existence of the commitment that gives rise to the existence of consortium in the first instance when marriage is not an option.”  Thus, there is Connecticut precedent for retroactive recognition of a marital relationship in certain circumstances.

But Judge Merriam found that the argument did not work in this case due to issues of timing. “Mueller is plainly distinguishable from the current facts,” she wrote.  “There, the individual in a same-sex relationship sought to assert a loss of consortium claim for a tort that occurred in 2001, some seven years before same-sex couples had a right to marry in the State of Connecticut.  At the time the claim arose in Mueller, legal marriage between a same-sex couple was not an option.  Here, by contrast, the [defendants] claim privilege for communications between Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin from 2009 to 2013.  During that time period, Dr. Post and Dr. Duchemin were able to marry in the State of Connecticut.  There was no obstacle to legal marriage in this state at that time, as there was at the time the claim in Mueller arose.  Accordingly, the holding and rationale of Meuller are not persuasive, nor entirely applicable, to the facts presently before the Court.”

While disclaiming any ruling on whether the men could claim privilege in any communications between them before marriage equality was established in Connecticut in 2008 by the Kerrigan opinion, Merriam pointed out that “the only communications implicated in the current dispute date from 2009 to 2013.  Additionally, the Court is not adjudicating the general rights of same-sex couples.  Rather, it is constrained to consider the specific facts of the current dispute before it – which simply does not implicate the ‘bewildering and unjust anomaly’ suggested by the [defendants].”

Judge Merriam mentioned that Dr. Post claimed that he and Duchemin had not married as soon as it was possible in Connecticut “out of solidarity with those to whom this recognition was still denied.” While she said that this “is certainly a noble position,” it carried “real legal consequences.  Although the [defendants] present an emotionally compelling argument with respect to extending the marital communications privilege to a date before Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin’s legal marriage, the Court must apply the law as it stands. . . .  Here, Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin were not legally married until December 20, 2013.  They had the legal right, in Connecticut, to marry as early as 2008.  Therefore, communications between Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin between 2009 and December 20, 2013, are not protected by the marital communications privilege.”  In a footnote, she added, “The Court notes the discrepancy between the statement that Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin delayed obtaining a marriage license ‘out of solidarity with those to whom this recognition was still denied,’ and the date on which marriage became legal through the United States.  Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin married on December 20, 2103. The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell on June 26, 2015, about a year and a half after Dr. Post and Mr. Duchemin obtained a marriage license.”

Although not stated by Judge Merriam, it seems likely that the decisive timing factor for Post and Duchemin was probably the June 2013 U.S. v. Windsor decision, after which it became clear in the ensuing months that same-sex couples who had refrained from marrying under state law because they had diminished practical incentive to do so in light of lack of federal recognition, should now get married in order to obtain whatever advantages they might derive from federal recognition of their marriage.  By December 2013, the Obama Administration had issued enough guidelines, advisories, and other pronouncements in response to Windsor’s impact on federal rights that those holding back may have decided the time was right to proceed without awaiting the next step of a marriage equality ruling under the 14th Amendment binding on all the states.

Judge Merriam ordered the defendants to produce the challenged 26 communications, with a June 11 deadline to do so.

Dr. Post’s legal representative on this issue is Edward D. Altabet (lead attorney), Gerard Fox Law P.C., New York, with Richard J. Buturla and Ryan Driscoll (local counsel) from Berchem, Moses & Devlin P.C., Milford, CT.

Mississippi Supreme Court, Rejecting Parental Status for an Anonymous Sperm Donor, Says Birth Mother Can’t Challenge Same-Sex Partner’s Parentage

Posted on: April 12th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Ruling on a custody contest between a birth mother and her former same-sex spouse on April 5, the Mississippi Supreme Court avoided mentioning the parental presumption that most states automatically apply for the spouse of a woman who gives birth to a child, relying instead on a doctrine called “equitable estoppel” to prevent the birth mother from contesting her former spouse’s parental status.

Although none of the five written opinions signed by different combinations of judges on the nine member court represent the views of a majority, adding them up produces a holding that the existence of an anonymous sperm donor is irrelevant to the determination of parental rights for the birth mother’s same-sex spouse.  The court reversed a ruling by Judge John S. Grant, III, of the Rankin County Chancery Court, that the failure to obtain a waiver of parental rights from an anonymous sperm donor prevents identifying the birth mother’s spouse as a legal parent of the child.

The various complications in this case arose because the relevant facts played out before marriage equality came to Mississippi as a result of the June 2015 Obergefell decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, and because the retrograde Mississippi legislature has neglected to adopt any statutes concerning who would be considered a parent when a woman or a couple use sperm from an anonymous donor obtained through a sperm bank to conceive a child, leaving the courts to sort this out without any legislative guidance.

The story begins in 1999 when Christina Strickland and Kimberly Jayroe began their relationship.  After several years together, they decided to adopt a child.  The adoption of E.J. was finalized in 2007.  Because Mississippi did not allow joint adoptions by unmarried couples, only Kimberly was the legal adoptive parent of E.J..  In 2009, Christina and Kimberly went to Massachusetts to marry, and Kimberly took Christina’s last name.  The Stricklands then returned to their home in Mississippi, where their marriage was not legally recognized.

In 2010, the Stricklands decided to have a child using “assisted reproductive technology” – A.R.T.  They obtained anonymously donated sperm from a Maryland sperm bank.  Kimberly, whom they jointly decided would be the gestational mother, signed the sperm bank’s form providing that she would “never seek to identify the donor” and that the donor would not be advised of Kimberly’s identity.  In Maryland, Kimberly was then recognized as a married woman and Christina was identified as her spouse in the clinic paperwork.  Both women signed the form acknowledging that they were participating in this process as a married couple and would both be parents of the resulting child.

According to the plurality opinion by Justice David Ishee, “Christina testified that she was involved in and supportive through every step of the conception and pregnancy.”  She also testified that their plan was to go to Massachusetts for the delivery of the baby, so that their marriage would be recognized and both recorded as parents on the birth certificate.  But for medical reasons that did not occur.  Six week before her due date, Kimberly gave birth to the child, Z.S., in an emergency cesarean section surgical procedure in a Mississippi hospital.  Since Mississippi did not recognize the marriage, the birth certificate shows Kimberly as the only parent.

Over the next two years, the women functioned as a family unit, raising both E.J. and Z.S. as co-parents.  Christina stayed home for the first year of Z.S.’s life, while Kimberly worked full time.  Christina testified that both children call her “mom.”  The women separated in January 2013.  Christina continued to visit both children and paid child support, medical and daycare expenses for Z.S.

Now things took a strange twist: On August 13, 2015, while still married to Christina (and at a time, due to the Obergefell decision, when Mississippi would be legally obligated to recognize the marriage is the issue came up in any legal context), Kimberly married a second spouse, whose name and gender are not identified in any of the judge’s opinions, although from the caption of the case it sounds like her new spouse’s surname is Day, since Kimberly is identified in the title of the case as Kimberly Jayroe Strickland Day.

This prompted Christina to file a divorce petition in Harrison County Chancery Court on August 31. On November 16, Kimberly filed a motion for a declaratory judgment that her second marriage was valid and her first marriage “dissolved” in Rankin County Circuit Court.  Christina answered that motion and counterclaimed for divorce and legal and physical custody of both children, who were then living with Kimberly.  She also sought to be named as Z.S.’s legal parent.  The two cases were consolidated in the Rankin County court.  On May 17, 2016, Judge Grant issued an order declaring that Christina and Kimberly’s 2009 Massachusetts marriage was valid and recognized in Mississippi, and therefore that Kimberly’s second marriage was void.

This led the women to negotiate a “consent and stipulation,” in which they agreed that Z.S. was born during their marriage, that they would jointly pay all school expenses for Z.S., and that Kimberly would retain physical and legal custody of E.J., the adoptive child.  They agreed to let the chancery court decide custody, visitation, and child support issues for Z.S., child support and visitation issues for E.J., and the issue of Christina’s parental status toward Z.S.

Judge Grant’s final judgment of divorce, entered on October 16, 2016, ordered Christina to pay child support for both children, and held that Z.S. was born during a valid marriage.  But, he ruled, Z.S. was “a child born during the marriage, but not of the marriage,” so both parties were not considered to be Z.S.’s parents.  The court considered the anonymous sperm donor to be “an absent father” whose legal parentage “precluded a determination that Christina was Z.S.’s legal parent.”  However, Judge Grant held that she was entitled to visitation with Z.S. under a doctrine called “in loco parentis,” which recognizes that somebody who has acted as a parent and bonded with a child as such could be entitled to visitation even though she has no legal relation to the child.

Christina appealed three days later.  At the heart of her argument was that because Z.S. was born while Christina was married to Kimberly, Christina should be deemed the child’s legal parent, and that the anonymous sperm donor, who had no relationship to the child, could not possibly be considered its legal parent.

The Mississippi Supreme Court was in agreement with Christina’s argument that the sperm donor is really out of the picture and should not be considered a parent.  Justice Ishee’s opinion, for himself and Justices Kitchens, King and Beam, declared that Judge Grant’s finding that the sperm donor was the child’s “natural father” was erroneous as a matter of law.  “At the outset,” he wrote, “we are cognizant of the fact that we never before have determined what parental rights, if any, anonymous sperm donors possess in the children conceived through the use of their sperm.  As such, this is an issue of first impression.”

That is a startling statement for a state Supreme Court to make in 2018, when donor insemination has been around for half a century and most states have adopted legislation on the subject.  But, wrote Justice Ishee, there is only one provision of Mississippi law relating to donor insemination, a statute providing that a father cannot seek to disestablish paternity when a child was conceived by “artificial insemination” during the marriage to the child’s mother.  That’s it.  However, wrote Ishee, “Reading this provision, in light of the context before us, the logical conclusion – while not explicit – is that the Legislature never intended for an anonymous sperm donor to have parental rights in a child conceived from his sperm – irrespective of the sex of the married couple that utilized his sperm to have that child.”

“How,” asked Ishee, “on the one hand, can the law contemplate that a donor is a legal parent who must have his rights terminated, while at the same time prohibiting the non-biological father of a child conceived through AI from disestablishing paternity?  These two policies cannot co-exist.”

Ishee rejected Kimberly’s argument that “all of the non-biological parents of children conceived through AI should be required to terminate the sperm donor’s parental rights and then establish parentage through the adoptive process.”  Ishee’s plurality (4 justices) rejected this process as “intrusive, time-consuming, and expensive,” including a ridiculous waste of time for a judge to have to determine that an anonymous sperm donor, who never intended to be the parent of the child, had “abandoned” the child, thus making the child available for adoption by its mother’s spouse.

When a father is “absent” at the time a child is born, the usual process is to try to locate the missing father and inform him of his obligations, but in the case of an anonymous donor, neither the mother nor the court has the necessary information.  In a case like this one, publishing such a notice in a newspaper – the standard way for courts to give notice to missing parties – makes no sense.

On appeal, Christina raised alternative arguments in support of her claims to be Z.S.’s parent.  First, she asked the court to determine a question not addressed by Mississippi statutes: “Whether children born to married parents who give birth to a child via A.R.T. with sperm from an anonymous donor are entitled to the marital presumption that both spouses are their legal parents.”  Alternatively, she asked “Whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges requires Mississippi to apply laws relating to the marital presumption of parentage in a gender-neutral manner so as to apply equally to married same-sex couples.”  As another alternative, she asked whether the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” could be used to preclude a birth mother from trying to “disestablish her spouse’s parentage of the couple’s marital child based solely on the absence of a genetic relationship, when the child was born as a result of anonymous donor insemination, to which both spouses consented.” Christina argued that Judge Grant’s order violated constitutionally protected liberty and equality interests by failing to recognize Christina’s parental relationship with Z.S.

Justice Ishee’s opinion ignored all of these arguments except “equitable estoppel,” a doctrine which he explained that Mississippi courts have defined “as the principle by which a party is precluded from denying any material fact, induced by his words or conduct upon which a person relied, whereby the person changed his position in such a way that injury would be suffered if such denial or contrary assertion was allowed.”  Ishee concluded that the doctrine fits this case, and rejected Kimberly’s argument that the decision to have a child through donor insemination was solely hers and the fact that she was married to Christina at the time was irrelevant.  Ishee found that “the evidence in the record belies this assertion,” and cited chapter and verse, right down to the birth announcements the women sent out, which identified the women as “two chicks” who had “hatched” the child.

Since Kimberly represented to Christina all along that Christina would be a parent of Z.S., the doctrine of equitable estoppel blocks her from arguing to the contrary in the context of this divorce proceeding. Judge Grant’s award of “in loco parentis” status to Christina was insufficient, in Ishee’s view, to protect her legitimate interests.  For example, suppose Kimberly married somebody else and petitioned for her new spouse to adopt Z.S.  Christina’s “in loco parentis” status would not entitle her to prevent such an adoption. But if the court recognizes her as a parent, she could.

Thus, without ever mentioning the parental presumption, the plurality opinion, purporting to be speaking for the court as a whole because of the concurring opinions, reversed the chancery court’s ruling that Christina acted “in loco parentis” but “was not an equal parent with parental rights to Z.S.” They sent the case back to Rankin County Chancery Court to determine custody using the multifactorial test that is generally used in a custody contest between legal parents to determine what would be in the best interest of the child, with a “guardian ad litem” appointed to represent Z.S. in the proceedings.

Chief Justice William Waller, Jr., joined “in part” by Justices Randolph, Coleman, Maxwell and Chamberlin, “concurred in part and in the result.” “The narrow issue before the Court,” wrote Waller, “is whether two people legally married who jointly engage in a process of assisted reproduction technology resulting in the natural birth by the gestational mother are both considered parents for purposes of divorce and determination of parental rights of the minor child.  I conclude that they are and that the decision of the chancellor should be reversed and remanded.”  After briefly referring to equitable estoppel, he wrote, “While this Court can use common-law principles to render a decision here, the Legislature should speak directly to the recognition of the legal status of children born during a marriage as a result of assisted reproductive technology.”

Justice Josiah Coleman, concurring in part and dissenting in part, pointed out that the doctrine of “equitable estoppel” had not been argued to Judge Grant, so it should not be a basis for the court’s decision. Thus, he was only joining Judge Waller’s opinion to the extent that Waller agreed that the chancellor erred by according any parental status to the sperm donor.  He would remand the case to the trial court, having reversed that part of the holding, “to allow the parties to present whatever evidence and arguments they wished that accord with the Court’s holding.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Maxwell.

Justice James Maxwell, also concurring in part and dissenting in part, insisted that “what parental rights a sperm donor may or may not have is a policy issue for the Legislature, not the Court,” and since there was no statute on point, “we should be extremely hesitant to draw conclusions about the disestablishment-of-paternity statute, when that statute is wholly inapplicable here. Indeed,” he argued, “it is dangerous for the plurality to weigh in so heavily with what it views to be the best policy, since we all agree the chancellor erroneously inserted this issue into the case.”  His opinion was joined “in part” by Justices Randolph and Coleman.

Finally, Justice Michael Randolph dissented, joined in part by Justices Coleman, Maxwell, and Chamberlin. Randolph said the court should never have addressed equitable estoppel, because that argument was presented for the first time on appeal.  Next, although he agreed that the chancellor erred in declaring an anonymous sperm donor to be the child’s “natural father,” he thought that the “plurality’s blanket assertion that in any case, no anonymous sperm donor will be accorded the burdens and benefits of natural fathers” went too far. He though there was a constitutional issue here, where no attempt had been made to identify and contact the sperm donor.  He also pointed out that the “disestablishment” statute cited by Justice Ishee and then used to support the plurality’s ruling “never was quoted or argued by either party at the trial level,” so also should not have been relied upon in any way by the Supreme Court.  He also found no basis in the record for setting aside the chancellor’s determination that it was “not in the best interest of either child for Christina to have custody.” He pointed out that the chancellor had neglected to address all of the factors specified by Mississippi courts on the record, so the correct approach would be to remand the case to the chancellor “to examine the record and the chancellor’s notes and issue a final decree consistent with this dissent.

This appears to be a victory for Christina, to the extent that enough members of the court agreed with the equitable estoppel approach to make that part of the holding of the court, tossing the case back to the trial court to decide anew whether it is in the best interest of Z.S. for Christina to have joint or primary custody of him as a parent. (Christina is not seeking custody of E.J., just visitation rights.)  But the fractured ruling falls short of the appropriate analysis that would be more beneficial for married LGBT couples in Mississippi: a straightforward acknowledgement that when a married lesbian couple has a child through donor insemination, both of the women will be presumed to be the legal parents of that child, without any need to make a factual showing required for the application of equitable estoppel should any dispute later arise about custody or visitation.  One wonders whether fear of political retribution may have motivate all nine justices to avoid mentioning the parental presumption or invoking Obergefell in support of its application in their various opinions.

Christina is represented by Mississippi attorney Dianne Herman Ellis and Lambda Legal staff attorney Elizabeth Lynn Littrell. Kimberly is represented by Prentiss M. Grant.

TWO MORE LGBTQ-RELATED CONTROVERSIES DROP OFF THE SUPREME COURT DOCKET

Posted on: January 10th, 2018 by Art Leonard 2 Comments

As the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 Term began in October, it looked like a banner term for LGBTQ-related cases at the nation’s highest court. Petitions were pending asking the Court to address a wide range of issues, including whether LGBTQ people are protected against discrimination under federal sex discrimination laws covering employment (from Georgia) and educational opportunity (from Wisconsin), whether LGBTQ people in Mississippi had standing to seek a federal order to prevent a viciously anti-gay religiously-motivated law from going into effect, and whether the Texas Supreme Court erred in holding that Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), did not necessarily require a municipal employer to treat same-sex married couples the same as different-sex married couples in their employee benefits plans.  The Court had already granted review in a “gay wedding cake” case from Colorado (Masterpiece Cakeshop, which was argued on December 5), and another petition involving a Washington State florist who refused to provide floral decorations for a same-sex wedding was waiting in the wings.

 

But the hopes for a blockbuster term have rapidly faded. In December, the Court declined to hear the employee benefits case and the Title VII employment discrimination case.  And now in January, the Court has declined to hear the Mississippi cases, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, and the Wisconsin case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, has settled, with the school district agreeing to withdraw its Supreme Court petition.   It may be that the only LGBTQ-related issue that the Court decides this term is the one it heard argued in December: whether a business owner’s religious objections to same-sex marriage or his right to freedom of speech would privilege him to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  An opinion expected sometime in the coming months.

On January 8, the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barber v. Bryant, 860 F.3d 345 (5th Cir.), petition for rehearing en banc denied, 872 F.3d 671 (2017), which had dismissed a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s infamous H.B. 1523, a law enacted in 2016 that protects people who discriminate against LGBTQ people because of their religious or moral convictions.  The 5th Circuit had ruled that none of the plaintiffs – either organizations or individuals – in two cases challenging the Mississippi law had “standing” to bring the lawsuits in federal court.

H.B. 1523, which was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016, identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and protects against “discrimination” by the state anybody who acts in accord with those beliefs in a wide range of circumstances. The beliefs, as stated in the statute, are: “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”  Among other things, the law would protect government officials who rely on these beliefs to deny services to individuals, and would preempt the handful of local municipal laws in the state that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, so that victims of discrimination would have no local law remedy.  Mississippi does not have a state law banning sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, so H.B. 1523 in relation to private businesses and institutions was mainly symbolic when it came to activity taking place outside of the cities of Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford, or off the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Two groups of plaintiffs brought constitutional challenges against the law in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, where the case came before Judge Carlton W. Reeves, the same judge who ruled for plaintiffs in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage a few years earlier. He issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of H.B. 1523 on June 30, 2016, the day before it was to go into effect, finding that it would violate the 1st Amendment by establishing particular religious beliefs as part of the state’s law.  The plaintiffs also challenged it on Equal Protection grounds. Judge Reeves refused to stay his preliminary injunction, and so did the 5th Circuit.

The state appealed the grant of preliminary injunction to the 5th Circuit, where a unanimous three-judge panel ruled on June 22, 2017, that the district court did not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction because, according to the opinion by Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, none of the plaintiffs could show that they had suffered or were imminently likely to suffer a “concrete and particularized injury in fact,” which was necessary to confer the necessary “standing” to challenge the law in federal court.  In the absence of standing, he wrote, the preliminary injunction must be dissolved and the case dismissed.

The plaintiffs asked the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the ruling en banc, but the circuit judges voted 12-2 not to do so, announcing that result on September 29.  The dissenters, in an opinion by Judge James L. Dennis, bluntly stated that “the panel decision is wrong” and “misconstrues and misapplies the Establishment Clause precedent.”  Indeed, wrote Judge Dennis, “its analysis creates a conflict between our circuit and our sister circuits on the issue of Establishment Clause standing.”

Judge Dennis pressed home the point by citing numerous cases from other circuits which, he held, would support allowing the plaintiffs in this case to seek a preliminary injunction blocking the law from going into effect.  This gave hope to the plaintiffs that they might be able to get the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 5th Circuit, since one of the main criteria for the Supreme Court granting review is to resolve a split in authority between the circuit courts on important points of federal law.

However, on January 8 the Court denied the petitions the two plaintiff groups had filed, without any explanation or open dissent, leaving unresolved important questions about how and when people can mount a federal court challenge to a law of this sort. In the meantime, shortly after the 5th Circuit had denied reconsideration, H.B. 1523 went into effect on October 10.

A challenge to H.B. 1523 continues in the District Court before Judge Reeves, as new allegations by the plaintiffs require reconsideration of their standing and place in question, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2017 ruling, Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075, whether the law imposes unconstitutional burdens on LGBTQ people seeking to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights.

Two days after the Court announced it would not review the 5th Circuit ruling, the parties in Whitaker, 858 F. 3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), involving the legal rights of transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, announced a settlement.  Under their agreement the school district will withdraw its cert petition.

The Supreme Court had been scheduled to hear a similar transgender student case last March, Gloucester County School Bd. v. G. G. ex rel. Grimm, but that case was dropped from the docket after the Trump Administration withdrew a Guidance on Title IX compliance that had been issued by the Obama Administration.  Since the 4th Circuit’s decision in Gavin Grimm’s case had been based on that Guidance rather than on a direct judicial interpretation of the statute, the Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit’s ruling and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration. See 137 S. Ct. 1239 (Mar. 6, 2017). That court, in turn, sent it back to the district court, which dismissed the case as moot since Grimm had graduated in the interim.

Ashton Whitaker is a transgender boy who graduated from Tremper High School in the Kenosha School District last June. His case would have given the Supreme Court a second chance to address the Title IX issue.  Whitaker transitioned while in high school and asked to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom facilities, but district officials told him that there was an unwritten policy restricting bathroom use based on biological sex.  He sued the district under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  U.S. District Judge Panela Pepper (E.D. Wisconsin) issued a preliminary injunction on Whitaker’s behalf in September 2016, and refused to stay it pending appeal.  See 2016 WL 5239829 (Sept. 22, 2016).

On May 30, 2017, the 7th Circuit upheld Judge Pepper’s ruling, finding that even though the Trump Administration had withdrawn the prior Title IX Guidance, both Title IX and the 14th Amendment require the school to recognize Whitaker as a boy and to allow him to use boys’ restroom facilities.  The school district petitioned the Supreme Court on August 25 to review the 7th Circuit’s decision, even though Whitaker had graduated in June.

In the meantime, Judge Pepper ordered the parties to mediation to attempt a settlement. Whitaker’s graduation in June undoubtedly contributed to the pressure to settle, and the parties asked the Supreme Court several times to extend the deadline for Whitaker to file a formal response to the petition as the negotiations continued.  According to press reports on January 10, the case settled for $800,000 and an agreement that the district would withdraw its petition.

The settlement and withdrawal of the petition leaves the 7th Circuit’s opinion standing as the first federal circuit court ruling to hold on the merits that Title IX and the 14th Amendment require public schools to respect the gender identity of their students and to allow students to use sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  However, lacking a Supreme Court ruling on the point this decision is only binding in the three states of the 7th Circuit: Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, the same three states bound by another 7th Circuit last year holding that employment discrimination because of sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.