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Federal Judge Issues National Preliminary Injunction against ACA Regulation Banning Gender Identity Discrimination

Posted on: January 1st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an eleventh-hour action, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor (N.D. Texas, Wichita Div.) issued a nationwide preliminary injunction on December 31, barring the federal government from enforcing part of a new regulation that was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2017, which interpreted the prohibition on discrimination because of sex under the Affordable Care Act to extend to discrimination because of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy.” Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, Civ. Action No. 7:16-cv-00108-O.  Judge O’Connor’s action echoed his earlier issuance, on August 21, 2016, of a nationwide preliminary injunction against the enforcement by the federal government of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect transgender schoolchildren from discrimination, in State of Texas v. United States of America, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Texas, August 21, 2016).  In both opinions, O’Connor rejected the Obama Administration’s position that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of “sex discrimination” that is illegal under federal laws, a question that the U.S. Supreme Court may address if it gets to the merits in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709 (4th Cir.), cert. granted, 136 S. Ct. 2442 (No. 16A52)(2016).  Judge O’Connor’s analytical task was “simplified” because the ACA anti-discrimination provision, Section 1557, incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX that was the subject of the judge’s prior preliminary injunction ruling.

The ACA authorizes the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to adopt regulations through the procedures of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) to give detailed substance to the broad terms of the statute. The ACA provides in Section 1557 that health programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance not discriminate on grounds prohibited by four federal statutes.  Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in educational programs receiving federal money, was one of the listed statutes and thus incorporated by reference into the ACA.  (Others deal with discrimination because of race, national origin or disability.)  The Title IX regulations adopted by the Education Department in the 1970s include an express religious exemption provision, so that religiously-controlled educational institutions are exempt from Title IX compliance to the extent that compliance would violate their religious tenets.  After the ACA was enacted in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services began the APA process, drafting proposed regulations, publishing them for comment, and publishing a final regulation that, with respect to the provisions in dispute in this case, was to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  During the Obama Administration, several different federal agencies responsible for interpreting and enforcing sex discrimination bans have been working through the issue of how these relate to gender identity.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was the first to issue a ruling, in the context of adjudicating a federal job applicant’s complaint, that gender identity discrimination was actionable under Title VII’s sex discrimination ban, but in so doing it was actually following earlier case law, most specifically from the 6th Circuit, which used sex stereotyping analysis first accepted by the Supreme Court in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, a Title VII case.  The HHS regulation drafters adopted similar reasoning to include “gender identity” in their proposed regulation, and included gender identity in the final Rule published in the federal register on May 18, 2016.  81 Fed. Reg. 31376-31473 (codified at 45 CFR Sec. 92).  By the time of that publication, the Education Department had taken the position that Title IX bans gender identity discrimination, in the context of a restroom access dispute in the %Gloucester County School District% case and a subsequent “Dear Colleague” letter published on its website and distributed to school districts nationwide.  However, HHS did not include in its proposed or final rule the religious exemption language from Title IX.

Several states and some religious health care providers joined together to challenge the new HHS Rule, not in its entirety but in a focused attack on the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the non-discrimination provisions. Blatantly forum shopping, they filed their suit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, an outpost of the Northern District of Texas where Judge O’Connor, the only judge assigned to that courthouse, sits a few days every month. (O’Connor’s chambers are in Fort Worth, the location of his home courtroom.)  Filing in a major city would subject the plaintiffs to a random assignment of a judge; filing in Wichita Falls guaranteed that their case would be heard by Judge O’Connor. O’Connor, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has a propensity to issue nationwide injunctions against regulatory actions of the Obama Administration on grounds that they exceed executive branch authority.  His August 21 preliminary injunction in the Title IX case was not his first.  There is no logical reason why this case should have been filed in the Wichita Falls court, but plaintiffs can claim proper venue there by pointing to local members of the co-plaintiff Christian Medical & Dental Association (CMDA), a national organization, who may reside within the geographical confines of the Wichita Falls court, or to local Texas state agencies whose operation in that area would be affected.  (The court does not engage in a venue analysis, despite the obvious forum-shopping.)  Other private plaintiffs are Franciscan Alliance, Inc. and its wholly owned entity Specialty Physicians of Illinois LLC.  The public plaintiffs are the states of Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Kentucky and Mississippi.  The heavy hand of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton looms over the litigation, since Paxton has said, in effect, that his job is to sue the federal government every day on behalf of the right of Texas to operate free of federal regulatory constraints. Plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment or, in the alternative, a preliminary injunction, on October 21, 2016, and the court agreed to expedite briefing and hearing so as to be able to rule, at least on the preliminary injunction, before the Rule could go into effect on January 1.

There is a basic argument between the parties as to the requirements imposed by the Rule. The plaintiffs argue that under the rule they would be required to provide gender transition surgery and abortions or suffer liability to patients and potential loss of federal funding eligibility.  They claim that this would violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and that the government’s interpretation of the ban on sex discrimination to cover “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” went beyond regulatory authority.  HHS argues that the rule does not compel either procedure in every case, merely banning discrimination on these bases.  Thus, for example, it could be argued, if a health care provider/institution performs mastectomies, it may not take the position that it will perform a mastectomy for a woman as a treatment for breast cancer but will not perform a mastectomy for a transgender man as part of his transition process, as this would be sex discrimination. Both women and transgender men are entitled to mastectomies.  Similar arguments are made for a variety of the component parts of procedures, including, for example, hormone therapy, sterilization procedures and the like.  A woman suffering an estrogen deficiency can receive hormone therapy, and so can a transgender woman; depriving the transgender woman of estrogen therapy because she was identified male at birth is sex discrimination.  In effect, argue the private plaintiffs, the non-discrimination requirement would inevitably require them to perform procedures that violate their religious views, and, argue the public plaintiffs, would require them to violate various state laws and regulations, such as banning the termination of pregnancies in state facilities or the use of state Medicaid funds for gender transition or pregnancy termination procedures.  Judge O’Connor agreed with the private plaintiffs that however the dispute over interpretation is resolved, there is a likelihood that their exercise of religion would be substantially burdened.

A portion of the decision, not detailed here, goes through the analysis of jurisdiction, ripeness and administrative exhaustion, finding that none of those doctrines would require a finding against the court’s jurisdiction to grant the requested relief on this motion. Proceeding to the merits, Judge O’Connor provided a detailed discussion of the tests for issuing a preliminary injunction.

First, as to likelihood of success on the merits, he found that Title IX does not on its face ban discrimination because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy.” Most of the discussion focuses on the “gender identity” issue, and channels the discussion accompanying his August 21 preliminary injunction against Title IX enforcement in gender identity cases.  The discussion regarding the abortion issue focuses on the failure of HHS to incorporate in its new regulation the religious and abortion exemptions in existing Title IX regulations, arguing that Congress’s wording of the Section 1557 non-discrimination provision led to the conclusion that such incorporation was intended by Congress.

“The precise question at issue in this case is: What constitutes Title IX sex discrimination?” he wrote. “The text of Section 1557 is neither silent nor ambiguous as to its interpretation of sex discrimination.  Section 1557 clearly adopted Title IX’s existing legal structure for prohibited sex discrimination.  42 U.S.C. sec. 18116(a).  For the reasons set out more fully below, this Court has previously concluded: the meaning of sex in Title IX unambiguously refers to ‘the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.’  Texas v. United States, No. 7:16-cv-00054, 2016 WL 4426495, at *14 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).”  Judge O’Connor reinforced this reference with a citation to the federal district court ruling in %Johnston v. Univ. of Pittsburgh of Com. Sys. of Higher Educ.%, 97 F. Supp. 3d 657, 674 (W.D. Pa. 2015), %appeal dismissed% (Mar. 30, 2016), rejecting a Title IX gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender college student with restroom access issues, but omits reference at this point to the contrary ruling the 4th Circuit in the Gloucester County case.  Because he finds Title IX unambiguous on this point, he concludes that the HHS Rule is not entitled to Chevron deference that would normally be accorded a regulation adopted under the APA, and proceeds to apply his own interpretation of the statute, in which he finds Congress’s “binary definition of sex” to be shown by references in the statute to “students of one sex,” “both sexes,” and “students of the other sex.”  He also appeals to “ordinary meaning,” to the failure of Congress to spell out any intent to cover “gender identity,” and to the fact that as of the time the ACA was enacted, federal agencies had not yet begun to treat “gender identity” discrimination as cognizable under sex discrimination statutes.

He wrote that “even if, as Defendants argue, the definition of sex discrimination was determined in 2010 when the ACA incorporated Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination, the Court is not persuaded it was passed with the Rule’s expansive scope in mind because: (1) Congress knew how but did not use language indicating as much, and (2) in 2010 no federal court or agency had interpreted Title IX sex discrimination to include gender identity.” (To this point he quoted a Washington Post article from 2015 stating that the new HHS Rule “for the first time includes bans on gender identity discrimination as a form of sexual discrimination, language that advocacy groups have pushed for and immediately hailed as groundbreaking.”)  And, of course, he notes that before the ACA was passed and “for more than forty years after the passage of Title IX in 1972, no federal court or agency had concluded sex should be defined to include gender identity” in a Title IX case.  In a footnote, he rejected the government’s attempt to bolster its case by reference to Price Waterhouse, pointing out that it was Title IX, not Title VII, which was incorporated by reference into the ACA.

As to the failure of the Rule to incorporate Title IX’s religious exemption language, he wrote, “The text of Section 1557 prohibits discrimination ‘on the ground prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (20 U.S.C. 1681 et seq.).’ . . . That Congress included the signal ‘et seq.’, which means ‘and the following,’ after the citation to Title IX can only mean Congress intended to incorporate the entire statutory structure, including the abortion and religious exemptions.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but exempts from this prohibition entities controlled by religious organizations when the proscription would be inconsistent with religious tenets.  20 U.S.C. sec. 1681(a)(3).  Title IX also categorically exempts any application that would require a covered entity to provide abortion or abortion-related services. 20 U.S.C. sec. 1688.  Therefore, a religious organization refusing to act inconsistent with its religious tenets on the basis of sex does not discriminate on the ground prohibited by Title IX,” and any attempt by HHS to impose the non-discrimination requirement without including the religious exemption violates Congressional intent.  O’Connor bolstered this point by invoking the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, finding that the Rule “places substantial pressure on Plaintiffs to abstain from religious exercise” by forcing them to provide services contrary to their religious tenets, and that the government’s desire to expand access to “transition and abortion procedures,” even if deemed a “compelling interest” for purposes of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was not the least restrictive alternative for providing such access, and thus failed under Hobby Lobby.  Taking his cue from Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in that case, O’Connor pointed out that the government could offer to pay for transition and abortion services to be provided by those who did not have religious objections to them in order to avoid burdening the Plaintiff’s religious rights.

In another point worth noting, O’Connor cited to an HHS study showing that the medical community is not unanimous on the value and necessity of performing transition procedures, particularly on minors, undermining the “compelling interest” that the government must show under RFRA to justify substantially burdening health care providers with sincere religious objections to performing such procedures.

Having concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their attack, O’Connor found that they easily satisfied the other requirements for preliminary injunctive relief, noting in particular that an ongoing investigation of the state of Texas’s practices made the potential of harm to the Plaintiffs more than hypothetical, as did the looming requirement for the private Plaintiffs to change the range of services they offer or risk loss of federal funding. More significantly, as to the scope of the injunction, he cited authority that “the scope of injunctive relief is dictated by the extent of the violation established, not by the geographical extent of the plaintiff class,” and that “a nationwide injunction is appropriate when a party brings a facial challenge to agency action under the APA.”  In this case, he pointed out, “CMDA’s membership extends across the country and the Rule applies broadly to ‘almost all licensed physicians,’” quoting the HHS description published in the Federal Register.  “Accordingly, the Rule’s harm is felt by healthcare providers and states across the country, including all of CMDA’s members, and the Court finds a nationwide injunction appropriate.”  Noting a severability provision in the Rule, he observed that the injunction only applied to the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” under the definition of sex discrimination, and did not bar enforcement of any other part of the Rule.  A preliminary injunction stays in effect until the court issues a ruling on the merits, unless it is reversed on appeal.  As of December 31, the Obama Administration had barely three weeks left in office, to be succeeded by an administration much less likely to defend the Rule, so while this is merely preliminary relief for the Plaintiffs, it signals a major and probably long-term setback to efforts by transgender people to obtain non-discriminatory health care, including coverage for medically-necessary transition procedures.