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United States Supreme Court Refuses to Review Transgender Bathroom Case from Boyertown, Pennsylvania

Posted on: May 28th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court announced on May 28 that it will not review a decision by the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which had rejected a constitutional and statutory challenge by cisgender students at Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Senior High School, who were upset that the School District decided to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District & Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, 897 F.3d 518 (3rd Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 2257330 (May 28, 2019).

The federal lawsuit stemmed from a decision in 2016 by the School District to permit transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.  Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and local attorneys affiliated with the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg filed suit on behalf of several cisgender students, proceeding under pseudonyms, contending that this decision violated their rights on three theories: constitutional right of bodily privacy under the 14th Amendment, creation of a “hostile environment” in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal funds, and violation of the right of privacy under Pennsylvania state common law.  Upon filing their complaint, the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith (E.D. Pa.) to issue a preliminary injunction to block the school district’s policy while the case was pending.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s National LGBT Rights Project joined the case, representing the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened as a co-defendant to help the School District defend its policy.

This case is part of a national campaign by ADF to preserve and defend restrictions on restroom and locker room use by transgender students, part of ADF’s overall goal – consistent with the Trump Administration’s anti-transgender policies – to deprive transgender people of any protection under federal law.  So far, ADF has lost a succession of “bathroom” cases, and the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in this case was one of its most notable defeats.  At the same time, however, the Education Department under the leadership of Trump’s appointee, Betsy De Vos, has reversed the Obama Administration’s policy and now refuses to investigate discrimination claims by transgender students under Title IX, leaving it up to individuals to file lawsuits seeking protection under the statute.

Judge Smith refused to issue the requested preliminary injunction on August 25, 2017, 276 F. Supp. 3d 324, writing an extensive decision that concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of any of their theories, and that mere exposure to transgender students was not going to impose an irreparable injury on them anyway.   Judge Smith was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, but it was noteworthy that at his Senate confirmation vote, he received more votes from Republican Senators than Democratic Senators.

Plaintiffs appealed to the 3rd Circuit, and suffered a loss before a unanimous three judge panel, which issued its decision on June 18, 2018.  The opinion was written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the panel were Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz, who was appointed by President Obama to fill the vacancy created by Circuit Judge Marion Trump Barry, President Trump’s sister, when she took senior status; and Senior Circuit Judge Richard Nygaard, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Judge McKee’s opinion set the stage with an extended discussion of gender identity based on the expert testimony offered by defendants in opposition to the motion for preliminary relief, including a much-cited amicus brief by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, which stated that policies excluding transgender students from “privacy facilities” consistent with their gender identities “have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health, safety, and well-being of transgender individuals.”  Judge McKee also quoted from an amicus brief filed by National PTA and Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), that forcing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity causes “severe psychological distress often leading to attempted suicide.”  In other words, the starting point for the court’s discussion was that the School District’s policy was responding to a serious problem faced by transgender students.

The court noted that as part of its policy the School District had renovated its “privacy facilities” to increase the privacy of individual users, and had provided single-user restrooms open to any student so that students who did not want to share facilities with others because of their gender identity would not be forced to do so.   The District also required that students claiming to be transgender meet with counselors trained to address the issue, and go through a process of being approved to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  “Once a transgender student was approved to use the bathroom or locker room that aligned with his or her gender identity,” wrote Judge McKee, “the student was required to use only those facilities,” although any student was allowed to use the single-user restrooms.  “The student could no longer use the facilities corresponding to that student’s birth sex.”

The plaintiffs claimed that their right to privacy was violated because the school’s policy permitted them to be viewed by members of the opposite sex while partially clothed.  The 3rd Circuit found that Judge Smith “correctly found that this would not give rise to a constitutional violation because the School District’s policy served a compelling interest – to prevent discrimination against transgender students – and was narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The court pointed out that privacy rights under the Constitution are not absolute.  Furthermore, wrote McKee, “the School District’s policy fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and that, as the National Education Association’s amicus brief “convincingly explains, these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.”

While the court empathized with cisgender students who experienced “surprise” at finding themselves “in an intimate space with a student they understood was of the opposite biological sex” – an experience specifically evoked in the plaintiffs’ brief in support of their motion – the court said, “We cannot, however, equate the situation the appellants now face with the very drastic consequences that the transgender students must endure if the school were to ignore the latter’s needs and concerns.”  And, the court pointed out, cisgender students “who feel that they must try to limit trips to the restroom to avoid contact with transgender students can use the single-user bathrooms in the school.”  The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the best solution to the issue was to require transgender students to use the handful of single-user restrooms, finding that this would “significantly undermine” the District’s compelling interest in treating transgender students in a non-discriminatory manner.

The court also pointed out that the plaintiffs’ privacy arguments sought to push that doctrine far beyond anything supported by existing case law. The court rejected analogies to cases involving inappropriate strip searches and peeping toms.  “Those cases involve inappropriate conduct as well as conduct that intruded into far more intimate aspects of human affairs than here.  There is simply nothing inappropriate about transgender students using the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity” under the School District’s policy, insisted the court, which also found that the “encounters” described by the plaintiffs did not involve transgender students doing “anything remotely out of the ordinary” while using the “privacy facilities” at the school.

As a result of these findings, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their privacy claims under Title IX, the Constitution, or Pennsylvania tort law.  Further, looking to “hostile environment sex discrimination” claims under Title IX (and the more developed hostile environment case law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers employment discrimination and serves as a resource for courts interpreting Title IX), the court found that the possibility of encountering transgender students in a restroom failed to meet the high test set by the courts of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”  The possibility of occasionally encountering one of a handful of transgender students in a “privacy facility” fell far short of meeting that test.

Furthermore, the court found that the District’s policy was “sex-neutral” in that it applied to everybody, and asserted that plaintiffs had not “provided any authority” for the proposition that a “sex-neutral policy” would violate Title IX.  “The School District’s policy allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity,” wrote McKee. “It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not violate Title IX.”

The court drew support for its conclusion from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit against the Kenosha, Wisconsin, school district, where the court found that excluding a transgender boy from using the boys’ restroom facilities did violate Title IX.  See Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017). Consistent with that ruling, the Boyertown School District’s policy could be seen as mandated by its obligation under Title IX to provide equal educational access and opportunities to transgender students.  The court also noted transgender rights rulings by the 1st, 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits, concluding that anti-transgender discrimination in a variety of contexts violates federal laws forbidding sex discrimination.  There is an emerging consensus among federal courts of appeals along these lines.  The validity of this reasoning will be up for Supreme Court debate next Term when the Court reviews the 6th Circuit’s decision in favor of Aimee Stephens, the transgender employment discrimination plaintiff in the Harris Funeral Homes case, to be argued in the fall.

The plaintiff’s petition to the Supreme Court to review the Boyertown decision posed two questions to the Court: “Whether a public school has a compelling interest in authorizing students who believe themselves to be members of the opposite sex to use locker rooms and restrooms reserved exclusively for the opposite sex, and whether such a policy is narrowly tailored,” and “Whether the Boyertown policy constructively denies access to locker room and restroom facilities under Title IX ‘on the basis of sex.’”  These questions were phrased by ADF to incorporate its religiously-based beliefs seeking to discredit the reality of transgender existence, similar to attempts by the Trump Administration in its proposed regulations and policy statements.  If the Court had been tempted to grant this petition, it would likely have reworded the “Questions Presented,” as it pointedly did when it granted ADF’s petition to review the Harris Funeral Homes decision on April 22.

Although the decision not to review a court of appeals case does not constitute a ruling on the merits by the Supreme Court and does not establish a binding precedent on lower courts, it sends a signal to the lower courts, the practicing bar, and the parties.  In this case, the signal is important for school districts to hear as they try to navigate between the rulings by courts in favor of transgender student claims and the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama Administration policy on this issue.  The question whether Title IX mandates the Boyertown School District’s access policy was not squarely before the Court in this case, and the justices may have denied review because they were already committed to consider whether federal sex discrimination laws cover gender identity discrimination in the Harris Funeral Homes case.

The Court normally provides no explanation why it grants or denies a petition for review although, interestingly, in another announcement on May 28, the Court did provide such a rare explanation in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, 2019 WL 2257160 (Sup. Ct., May 28, 2019).  In Box, the Court denied review of a decision by the 7th Circuit striking down on constitutional grounds an Indiana law that prohibits health care providers from providing abortions that are motivated solely by the sex, race or disability of the fetus, stating: “Only the Seventh Circuit has thus far addressed this kind of law.  We follow our ordinary practice of denying petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals.”  The implication for the Boyertown case is that the 3rd Circuit opinion may have been denied review because it was the only federal appeals court ruling to address the precise question before the Court.

Federal Appeals Court Renders Decisive Win for Transgender Students in Pennsylvania

Posted on: July 1st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued an extensive written opinion on June 18, explaining the decision it had announced on May 24 to reject a legal challenge by some students and parents to the Boyertown School District’s decision to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, is a total victory for the school district and its transgender students, upholding the trial court’s refusal to enjoin the District’s trans-friendly policies while the case is being litigated.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 16323, 2018 WL 3016864.

This lawsuit was originally filed in March 2017 by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian law firm that specializes in opposing policies protective of LGBT rights, representing some students at the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, schools, who objected to sharing facilities with transgender students. Some of the students’ parents or guardians are also plaintiffs in the case.  Citing an incident where one of the plaintiffs actually encountered a transgender student in a restroom, they claim that the District’s policy creates a “hostile environment” for the non-transgender students, violating their rights under Title IX, the Constitution, and the Pennsylvania common law right of privacy.

Title IX is a federal statute that provides that students at schools that receive federal financial assistance may not be deprived of equal educational opportunity on account of sex. In addition, the 14th Amendment has been interpreted to forbid sex discrimination by public institutions, as well as to protect the privacy rights of individual citizens from invasion by the government.  Pennsylvania’s common law recognizes a legal theory of unreasonable intrusion on the seclusion of another as a wrongful invasion of privacy.

The plaintiffs in this case argue that their equality and privacy rights were abridged by the School District’s policy allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The District undertook renovations of restroom and locker room facilities to increase individual privacy, and  has provided several single-user restrooms at the high school to accommodate any students who might feel uncomfortable using shared facilities to relieve themselves or change clothes.

U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith issued a ruling last August denying a preliminary injunction that the plaintiffs requested to block the school’s policy while the case was litigated. Judge Smith found that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim, and that granting the injunction would cause more harm to transgender students than any benefit to the plaintiffs.

McKee began his analysis by discussing the plaintiffs’ constitutional privacy claim. He acknowledged past cases holding that “a person has a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his or her partially clothed body,” but, he wrote, “the constitutional right to privacy is not absolute.  It must be weighed against important competing governmental interests.  Only unjustified invasions of privacy by the government are actionable.”  In this case, District Judge Smith had found that the Boyertown School District’s policy served “a compelling state interest in not discriminating against transgender students,” and that the policy was “narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The 3rd Circuit panel agreed with this conclusion.

The court found that “transgender students face extraordinary social, psychological, and medical risks and the School District clearly had a compelling state interest in shielding them from discrimination.” The court described expert testimony about the “substantial clinical distress” students could suffer as a result of gender dysphoria, which “is particularly high among children and may intensify during puberty.  The Supreme Court has regularly held that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors,” McKee continued.  “When transgender students face discrimination in schools, the risk to their wellbeing cannot be overstated – indeed, it can be life threatening.  This record clearly supports the District Court’s conclusion that the School District had a compelling state interest in protecting transgender students from discrimination.”

The court also observed that the challenged policy “fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and specifically noted the amicus brief filed by the National Education Association, explaining how “these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.” Thus, the policy benefits not only transgender students but “it benefits all students by promoting acceptance.”

The court also pointed out that the District had gone out of its way to accommodate the privacy concerns of cisgender students by renovating the restrooms and locker rooms to enhance privacy and by making single-user restrooms available. “To the extent that the appellants’ claim for relief arises from the embarrassment and surprise they felt after seeing a transgender student in a particular space,” wrote McKee, “they are actually complaining about the implementation of the policy and the lack of pre-implementation communication.  That is an administrative issue, not a constitutional one.”

Thus, the court concluded, even if the policy is subject to “strict scrutiny” because it may involve a fundamental privacy right, it survives such scrutiny because of the compelling state interest involved and the way the District went about implementing it. The court observed that requiring the transgender students to use the single-sex facilities would not satisfy the state’s compelling interest, but would actually “significantly undermine it” since, as the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stated last year in the case of transgender high school student Ash Whitaker, “a school district’s policy that required a transgender student to use single-user facilities ‘actually invited more scrutiny and attention from his peers.’”  McKee observed that “adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as a price of attending their public school.”

Furthermore, the court pointed out, the District’s policy “does not force any cisgender student to disrobe in the presence of any student – cisgender or transgender,” since the District has provided facilities “for any student who does not feel comfortable being in the confines of a communal restroom or locker room.” The renovation included “privacy stalls” and single-user facilities “so that any student who is uneasy undressing or using a restroom in the presence of others can take steps to avoid contact.”

But, said the court, it had never recognized an expansive constitutional right of privacy to the extent demanded by the plaintiffs in this case, and “no court has ever done so.” “School locker rooms and restrooms are spaces where it is not only common to encounter others in various stages of undress, it is expected.” Even the Supreme Court has commented that “public school locker rooms are not notable for the privacy they afford.”  So the court was unpersuaded that the plaintiffs’ demand in this case had any support in constitutional privacy law.

The 3rd Circuit panel also endorsed Judge Smith’s conclusion that there was no Title IX violation here.  As Smith found, “the School District’s policy treated all students equally and therefore did not discriminate on the basis of sex.”  Judge Smith had also found that the factual allegations did not rise to the level of a “hostile environment” claim, and the 3rd Circuit panel agreed with him.

Judge McKee pointed out that the Title IX regulations upon which plaintiff was relying do not mandate that schools provide “separate privacy facilities for the sexes,” but rather state permissively that providing separate facilities for male and female students will not be considered a violation of Title IX provided the facilities are equal. Furthermore, in order to find a hostile environment, the court would need evidence of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that ‘so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.’”  The plaintiffs’ allegations in this case came nowhere near meeting that standard.

Furthermore, the denial of equal access must be based on sex to violate Title IX. “The appellants have not provided any authority to suggest that a sex-neutral policy can give rise to a Title IX claim,” wrote Judge McKee.  “Instead, they simply hypothesize that ‘harassment’ that targets both sexes equally would violate Title IX; that is simply not the law.” He observed that the School District’s policy “allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.  It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not offend Title IX.”

The School District argued in response to the plaintiffs’ arguments that “barring transgender students from using privacy facilities that align with their gender identity would, itself, constitute discrimination under a sex-stereotyping theory in violation of Title IX.” This was the argument accepted by the 7th Circuit in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit, and Gavin Grimm’s continuing lawsuit against the Gloucester County, Virginia, school district under Title IX, also advancing this theory, recently survived a motion to dismiss in the federal district court there.

But, wrote McKee, “We need not decide that very different issue here,” although he characterized the 7th Circuit’s decision in Whitaker’s case as “very persuasive” and said, “The analysis there supports the District Court’s conclusion that appellants were not likely to succeed on the merits of their Title IX claim.”

The court also agreed with Judge Smith’s conclusion that separate state tort law claims asserted by the plaintiffs were unlikely to be successful, having found that “the mere presence of a transgender individual in a bathroom or locker room is not the type of conduct that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” which is the standard for the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” in Pennsylvania. The court also approved Smith’s finding that denying the preliminary injunction would not cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, as the District has taken reasonable steps to protect their privacy.

Thus, the District’s trans-supportive policy will remain in effect while this case is litigated. The likely next step, if ADF does not slink away in defeat, would be to litigate motions for summary judgment if the parties agree that there is no need for a trial over disputed facts.  However, ADF is likely to sharply contest the facts, so it may be that an actual trial is needed to resolve this case.

Levin Legal Group of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, represents the School District, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, with volunteer attorneys from the law firm Cozen O’Connor, represent the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened in the case to protect the interests of transgender students in the Boyertown District.