New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972’

Gavin Grimm Victorious: U.S. Appeals Court Reject’s School Board’s Anti-Trans Restroom Policy

Posted on: August 29th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

Capping litigation that began in 2015, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on August 26 that the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board violated the statutory and constitutional rights of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, when it denied him the use of boys’ restrooms at Gloucester County High School.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 27234, 2020 Westlaw 5034430.

This may sound like old news, especially since other federal appellate courts, most notably the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, have either ruled in favor of the rights of transgender students or rejected arguments against such equal access policies by protesting parents and cisgender students. But Grimm’s victory is particularly delicious because the Trump Administration intervened at a key point in the litigation to switch sides in the case after the Obama Administration had supported Grimm’s original lawsuit.

Grimm, identified as female at birth, claimed his male gender identity by the end of his freshman year, taking on a male name and dressing and grooming as male. Before his sophomore year, he and his mother spoke to the high school principal and secured agreement that he could use boys’ bathrooms, which he did for several weeks without incident.  But as word spread that a transgender boy was using the facilities, parents became alarmed and deluged the school board with protests, leading to two stormy public meetings and a vote that transgender students in the district (of which Grimm was then the only known one) were restricted to using a single-occupant restroom in the nurse’s office or restrooms consistent with their “biological sex,” which the district defined as the sex identified at birth.

After Grimm filed his lawsuit represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeking a court order to allow him to resume using the boys’ restrooms in his school, the Obama Administration weighed in with a letter to the court siding with Grimm’s argument that the school board’s policy violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination against students.  Despite this positive letter, the district judge granted the school board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Grimm appealed the dismissal.  A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit then ruled that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and not dismissed that claim.  The school board sought review from the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the petition and scheduled the case for argument in March 2017.  The timing of this argument guaranteed that Grimm would never get to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school before graduating that spring.

After the Trump Administration took office in January 2017, the Justice and Education Departments announced that they were “withdrawing” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX.  Without taking a formal position on the interpretive question, they criticized the Obama Administration as inadequately reasoned.  But subsequently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his disagreement with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and more generally the prior administration’s position that transgender people are protected by all federal laws banning sex discrimination.  In an October 2017 memorandum to all executive agencies, Sessions announced that laws banning sex discrimination apply only narrowly to a claim that an individual suffered discrimination because he was a biological male or she was a biological female, defined by how they were identified at birth.

Since the 4th Circuit had premised its reversal of the dismissal of Grimm’s Title IX claim on its conclusion that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation, the basis for that ruling was effectively gone.  The Solicitor General formally notified the Supreme Court, which cancelled the scheduled hearing, vacated the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sent the case back to the District Court without any ruling by the Supreme Court.  In the interim, the district court had responded to the 4th Circuit’s decision by issuing an injunction requiring the school board to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but that was stayed while the appeal was pending in the Supreme Court and within months of the Supreme Court’s action of March 2017, Grimm had graduated from high school.

The Gloucester County School Board than urged the district court to dismiss the case as moot, since Grimm was no longer a student.  Grimm insisted that the case should continue, because he should be entitled to seek damages for the discrimination he suffered and he wanted to be able to use the male facilities if he returned to the school as an alumnus to attend events there.  The mootness battle raged for some time, the complaint was amended to reflect the new reality that Grimm was no longer a student, and a new issue emerged when Grimm requested that the school issue him an appropriate transcript in his male name identifying him as male, since he was stuck in the odd situation of being a boy with a high school transcript identifying him as a girl.  By this time, he had gotten a court order approving his name change and a new birth certificate, but the school persisted in denying him a new transcript, raising frivolous arguments about the validity of the new birth certificate.

Thus repurposed, the case went forward.  Ultimately the district court ruled in Grimm’s favor on both his statutory and constitutional claims, but the school board was not willing to settle the case, appealing again to the 4th Circuit.  The August 26, 2020, ruling is the result.

The ACLU publicized this case heavily from the beginning, winning national media attention and an army of amicus parties filing briefs in support of Grimm’s claim along the away.  On May 26, 2020, the case was argued in the 4th Circuit before a panel of two Obama appointees, Judge Henry Floyd and Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., and an elderly George H.W. Bush appointee, Judge Paul Niemeyer (who had dissented from the original 4th Circuit ruling in this case).  In light of the rulings by other courts of appeals on transgender student cases and the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, on June 25, 2020, holding that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the result in this new ruling was foreordained.

Judge Floyd’s opinion for the panel, and Judge Wynn’s concurring opinion, both go deeply into the factual and legal issues in the case, constituting a sweeping endorsement of the right of transgender students to equal treatment in schools that receive federal funding, a prerequisite for coverage under Title IX.  Furthermore, public schools are bound by the Equal Protection Clause, and the court’s ruling on the constitutional claim was just as sweeping.

The court first rejected the school board’s argument that the case was moot, with Grimm having graduated and now being enrolled in college.  Since damages are available for a violation of Title IX, it was irrelevant that Grimm was no longer a student.  He had been barred from using the boys’ restrooms for most of his sophomore and all of his junior and senior years.  Even though the district court granted him only nominal damages, his claim for damages made this a live controversy, as did the school’s continuing refusal to issue him a proper transcript, which the court held was also illegal.

Turning to the merits, Judge Floyd first tackled the Equal Protection claim.  The court rejected the School Board’s argument that there was no discrimination against Grimm because he was not “similarly situated” to cisgender boys.  Judges Floyd and Wynn firmly asserted that Grimm is a boy entitled to be treated as a boy, regardless of his sex as identified at birth.  This judicial endorsement of the reality of gender identity is strongly set forth in both opinions.

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent rests on a Title IX regulation, which Grimm did not challenge, providing that schools could maintain separate single-sex facilities for male and female students, and the judge’s rejection that Grimm is male for purposes of this regulation.  Niemeyer insisted that Title IX only prohibits discrimination because of “biological sex” (a term with the statute does not use).  As far as he was concerned, the school did all that the statute required it to do when it authorized Grimm to use the nurse’s restroom or the girls’ restrooms.  But the majority of the panel accepted Grimm’s argument that the school’s policy subjected him to discriminatory stigma, as well as imposing physical disadvantages.  As a boy, he would not be welcome in the girls’ restroom, and the nurse’s restroom was too far from the classrooms for a break between classes.  As a result, he generally avoided using the restroom at school, leaving to awkward situations and urinary tract infections.

As the case unfolded, the school constructed additional single-user restrooms open to all students regardless of sex and made some modifications to the existing restrooms to increase the privacy of users, but the single-user restrooms were not conveniently located and cisgender students did not use them, reinforcing the stigma Grimm experienced.  Stigma due to discrimination has long been recognized by the federal courts as the basis for a constitutional equal protection claim.

The school’s actions undermined Judge Niemeyer’s argument that the school board policy was justified by the need to protect the privacy of cisgender students, an argument that has been specifically rejected by the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases when they rejected cases brought by parents and cisgender students challenging school policies that allowed transgender students to use appropriate restrooms.  Judge Niemeyer colorfully wrote, “we want to be alone — to have our privacy — when we ‘shit, shower, shave, shampoo, and shine.’”  (Do high school buys shave in the boys’ room as a general practice?)  But the panel smajority was not persuaded that it was necessary to exclude Grimm from the boys’ restrooms to achieve this goal.  After all, the only way Grimm as a transgender boy could relieve himself was by using an enclosed stall, lacking the physical equipment to use a urinal, so he would not be disrobing in front of the other students.  (Let’s be real here.)

Judge Floyd’s opinion did not rely on the Bostock ruling for its constitutional analysis, instead noting that many circuit courts of appeals have accepted the argument that government policies discriminating because of gender identity are subject to heightened scrutiny, and are thus presumptively unconstitutional unless they substantially advance an important state interest.  The majority, contrary to judge Floyd, did not think that excluding Grimm advanced an important state interest, especially after the School Board had altered the restrooms to afford more privacy, an obvious solution to any privacy issue.

Turning to the statutory claim, Judge Floyd pointed out that judicial interpretation of Title IX has always been informed by the Supreme Court’s Title VII rulings on sex discrimination, so the Bostock decision carried heavy precedential weight and the school board’s arguments on the constitutional claim were no more successful on this claim.  The School Board lacked a sufficient justification under Title IX to impose unequal access to school facilities on Grimm.

At this point, the Gloucester County School Board can read the writing on the wall and concede defeat, or it can petition the 4th Circuit for en banc review (review by the full 15-judge bench of the circuit court), or it can seek Supreme Court review a second time.  As to the en banc situation, the 4th Circuit is one of the few remaining federal circuit courts with a majority of Democratic appointees, as several of Bill Clinton’s appointees are still serving as active judges and all six of Obama’s appointees are still serving, leaving a majority of Democratic appointees on the full bench, so seeking en banc review, which requires that a majority of the active judges vote to review the case, would be a long shot.

On the other hand, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s decision for the Supreme Court in Bostock refrained from deciding – since it wasn’t an issue in that case – whether excluding transgender people from restroom facilities violates sex discrimination laws, and this case would provide a vehicle for addressing that issue.  It takes only four votes on the Supreme Court to grant review of a lower court case, so there may be another chapter in the saga of Grimm’s legal battle. It is also possible that the St. Johns County School District in Florida, which lost in the 11th Circuit in a virtually identical ruling, might also seek Supreme Court review, so one way or another, this issue may yet get on to the Court’s Docket this term or next.

ACLU attorney Joshua Block has been representing Grimm throughout the struggle, but the case was argued in May by cooperating attorney David Patrick Corrigan, a litigation specialist at the Richmond firm of Harman Clayton Corrigan & Wellman.  A local Richmond firm represented the School Board, confronting Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring supporting Grimm with an amicus brief.  The overwhelming majority of amicus briefs filed, many by state attorneys general, sided with Grimm.

Federal Court Blocks Trump Regulation Revoking Health Care Protections for Transgender People

Posted on: August 18th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Frederic Block ruled on August 17 that a new Trump Administration Rule that rescinded the Obama Administration’s Rule prohibiting gender identity discrimination in health care will not go into effect on August 18, its scheduled date, and he granted a preliminary injunction against the new Rule’s enforcement.  Judge Block sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn. Walker v. Azar, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148141.

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to adopt a rule providing an official interpretation of the non-discrimination requirements contained in Section 1557 of that statute.  Section 1557 incorporates by reference a provision of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids discrimination because of sex in educational institutions that get federal funding.  In the past, HHS and federal courts have looked to decisions interpreting the sex discrimination provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, in interpreting Title IX.

By the time HHS had finished writing its rule in 2016, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several federal appeals courts had interpreted Title VII to ban discrimination because of an individual’s gender identity.  The Obama Administration followed these precedents and included a prohibition on gender identity discrimination in its ACA rule.  Several states and a religious health care institution then joined together to challenge the rule before a federal district judge in Fort Worth, Texas, who was notoriously receptive to issuing nationwide injunctions against Obama Administration policies, and the court was true to that practice, holding that the inclusion of gender identity was contrary to the “original meaning” of the term “because of sex” when it was adopted by Congress in Title IX back in 1972.  The case is Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, 227 F. Supp. 3d 660 (N.D. Tex. 2016).

The new Trump Administration rule that was challenged in the August 17 ruling was intended by the Department of Health and Human Services to codify the decision by district court in Franciscan Alliance.  Franciscan Alliance was issued in December 2016, just weeks before the Trump Administration took office.  Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, the incoming administration would likely have appealed the Fort Worth decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. But the Trump Administration informed the district court that it was not appealing and instead would not enforce the Obama Administration rule and would eventually replace it.

Judge Block emphasized this history as he set out his reasons for finding that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and its volunteer attorneys from Baker & Hostetler LLP, were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Trump Rule was both inconsistent with the ACA, and that HHS was “arbitrary and capricious” in adopting this new Rule and publishing it just days after the Supreme Court had ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination against a person because of their transgender status was “necessarily discrimination because of sex.”

The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in the Bostock case, which concerned the interpretation of Title VII, on October 8, 2019, while HHS was working on its proposed new rule.  The HHS attorneys knew that the Supreme Court would be issuing a decision by the end of its term, most likely in June 2020.  One of the three cases consolidated in Bostock involved a gender identity discrimination claim by Aimee Stephens against Harris Funeral Homes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had sued the employer on Stephens’ behalf.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Stephens for transitioning, and the Supreme Court granted review on the specific question whether discrimination because of transgender status violates Title VII.  HHS concedes in the “preamble” of its new rule that interpretations of Title IX (and thus Section 1157) generally follow interpretations of Title VII.

October 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum to the Executive Branch explaining the Trump Administration’s position that bans on sex discrimination in federal law did not extend to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Thus, although the U.S. Solicitor General normally represents federal agencies such as the EEOC when their decisions are appealed to the Supreme Court, that office actually joined in  arguing on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, leaving it to the ACLU LGBT Rights Project to represent Aimee Stephens before the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration was so confident that the Court would rule against Stephens that it decided to go ahead with its new Rule, effectively revoking the Obama Administration’s Rule, although the “preamble” did acknowledge that a decision by the Supreme Court in the Title VII case could affect the interpretation of Section 1557.  LGBTQ rights advocates waited impatiently for a ruling in the Bostock case as the Court began to wind up its Term in June.  The Trump Administration was no more patient, announcing its new Rule a few days before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Bostock, apparently assuming that the Court would rule against Stephens.  Without publicly reacting to the Supreme Court’s opinion, or even revising its new Rule to acknowledge that the Trump Administration’s interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” had been rejected by the Supreme Court (in an opinion by Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch), HHS went ahead and published the new Rule five days later.

Over the following weeks, challenges to the new Rule were filed in four different federal courts.  HRC filed suit on behalf of two transgender women who had encountered discrimination from health care institutions covered by the ACA.  Judge Block found that their experiences gave them formal standing to challenge the new Rule. Judge Block reached his decision the day before the new Rule was to go into effect.

He found that the well established practice of following Title VII interpretations in sex discrimination cases was likely to be followed under the ACA, just as it was under Title IX, and thus the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claim that the new Rule was inconsistent with  the statute.  He noted that just two weeks earlier, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had followed the Bostock decision in finding that a Florida school district violated Title IX by denying appropriate restroom access to a transgender student.

Furthermore, the failure of the new rule, published after the Bostock decision, to mention that ruling or to offer any reasoned explanation why it should not be followed, was likely to be found to be “arbitrary and capricious,” so the adoption of the new Rule probably violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the federal law that details how federal agencies are to proceed in adopting new rules and regulations or rescinding old ones.

Because of the December 2016 ruling in Franciscan Alliance and the subsequent non-enforcement policy by the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration’s Rule has not been enforced by HHS since December 2016.  But the ACA allows individuals who suffer discrimination to sue on  their own behalf to enforce the statute, and there have been numerous lawsuits under Section 1557 successfully challenging exclusion of transgender health care from coverage under health insurance policies that are subject to the ACA.

Judge Block’s stay of the effective date and injunction against enforcing the new Rule gives the green light to HHS to resume enforcing Section 1557 in gender identity discrimination cases consistent with the Bostock ruling.  While there are probably plenty of career agency officials in the HHS Office of Civil Rights who would like to do so, any significant effort in that direction seems unlikely so long as Trump remains in office.  For now, the main impact of Judge Block’s order will be to clear a potential obstacle for transgender litigants under Section 1557, as the opinion persuasively explains how Justice Gorsuch’s reasoning in Bostock compels protecting transgender health care patients under the ACA.

The  practical effect of Judge Block’s ruling now is to place the burden on HHS if it wants to  continue defending its new Rule.  HHS must provide a reasoned explanation to the Court about why the Bostock interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” should not be followed under Section 1557.  The simplest way for HHS to proceed consistent with the court’s order would be to strike those portions of the preamble discussing this subject, and to substitute a simple statement that Section 1557’s ban on discrimination because of sex includes claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation  or gender identity consistent with  the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of similar statutory language in the Bostock case.

Texas Federal Court Vacates Transgender Protection under Obamacare

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

Reed O’Connor, a federal trial judge in the Northern District of Texas, ruled on October 15 in Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177871, 2019 WL 5157100, that the Obama Administration’s regulation providing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a/k/a “Obamacare”) prohibits health care providers and institutions from discriminating against patients because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy” is invalid.  The judge “vacated” the rule, effectively ordering the government not to enforce it, although he declined to issue an injunction to that effect.

Government agencies and courts in several states have relied on the regulation, “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs & Activities,” 45 C.F.R. Sec. 92, in several important cases, ruling, for example, that state Medicaid programs and the insurance coverage that states provide to their employees had to provide coverage for medically necessary gender transition treatment.  The regulation has also been invoked in lawsuits challenging the refusal of private employers to cover such treatment, and theoretically also could be invoked to challenge refusals by health care providers to perform abortions, although it is uncertain whether it could apply to such refusals.

O’Connor’s ruling was not a real surprise, since he issued a “nationwide” preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the regulation on December 31, 2016, just as it was set to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  Consequently, it is uncertain how federal enforcement proceedings would have fared in the courts.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally adopted the regulation on May 16, 2016, as an official interpretation of the ACA’s anti-discrimination language, which mentions neither gender identity nor abortions.  Unlike most federal anti-discrimination statutes that list the prohibited grounds of discrimination, the ACA instead listed four other federal anti-discrimination laws, and provided in Section 1557 that “an individual shall not, on the grounds prohibited under” the listed statutes, “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The statutes listed were Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that received federal funds, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against people aged 40 or older by companies that employ 20 or more people, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits unjustified discrimination against people with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding.  HHS interpreted Title IX’s sex discrimination ban to include discrimination against an individual because of their “gender identity” or “termination of a pregnancy” in the context of the ACA.

Franciscan Alliance, an operator of faith-based health care institutions, and two other private sector plaintiffs, joined together with eight states to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas, shortly after the regulation was published, challenging HHS’s adoption of the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Franciscan Alliance specifically alleged that providing gender transition treatment violated its religious beliefs, and that the regulation would require them to perform abortions, also against their religious beliefs. The state plaintiffs, as well as Franciscan Alliance, argued that the regulation was not based on a legitimate interpretation of the discrimination prohibited by Title IX. They also raised constitutional arguments that the court didn’t have to address, since it found the regulation to be invalid under these two federal statutes.

Concerned that the new regulations might be struck down, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU) and River City Gender Alliance (RCGA) filed motions in September 2106 to intervene as parties to help defend the regulation.  Judge O’Connor reserved judgment on this motion pending the filing of answer to the complaint by the federal government, but allowed ACLU and RCGA to participate as amicus parties and file briefs on the pending preliminary injunction motion.

Judge O’Connor developed a reputation during the Obama Administration for his willingness to issue nationwide preliminary injunctions against Obama Administration initiatives, usually at the behest of conservative state governments or faith-based organizations.  Because he is the only judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas who is assigned to sit several days a month in the satellite courthouse in Wichita Falls, Texas, a small city with a population of about 100,000 (roughly the size of South Bend, Indiana, for example), Judge O’Connor’s judicial propensities help to explain why several cases of national importance were filed by conservative opponents of the Obama Administration in that rather obscure courthouse.  Lawyers call this “forum shopping” — seeking out a particular court or judge because they are highly likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs based on their past performance.

While this litigation was going on, Judge O’Connor became embroiled in a Title IX lawsuit brought by states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation guidance to school districts concerning their obligations to transgender students.  In that litigation, he found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that Title IX did not apply to gender identity discrimination, issuing a nation-wide preliminary injunction barring the Education Department from requiring school districts to refrain from discriminating against transgender students.

When he issued his preliminary injunction in this case, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in showing that the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX did not extend to gender identity discrimination (as he held in the schools case), and that failing to incorporate religious exemption language from Title IX in the regulation violated the intent of Congress in its method of specifying prohibited grounds for discrimination under the ACA.  He also ruled that it was likely that attempts by the  government to enforce the regulation against faith-based health care providers would burden their free exercise of religion without sufficient justification under RFRA.  If the agency exceeded its statutory authority, its adoption of the regulation would violate the APA.

Just weeks after O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, Donald Trump took office and appointed new leadership for the various federal agencies that interpret and enforce the federal anti-discrimination statutes.   On May 2, 2017, the new leadership at HHS filed a motion asking the court to “remand” the challenged regulation back to the agency, because the new administration was going to be reviewing all of the Obama Administration’s regulatory actions and might make the case “moot” by rescinding the regulation.  Judge O’Connor granted that motion on July 10, 2017, and said he would “stay” further proceedings in the case while HHS decided whether to revoke the regulation.

Surprisingly, in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memorandum from the fall of 2017 opining that federal laws banning sex discrimination do not ban gender identity discrimination, as well as the Trump Administration’s repeatedly articulated hostility toward abortion, HHS has not yet undertaken the formal steps necessary under the APA to repeal or amend the challenged regulation, and evidently Judge O’Connor finally lost patience and decided to issue a ruling on the merits.  Having received briefing by the parties on the legal questions involved, he determined that he could render a ruling on the government’s motion for summary judgment, producing the decision published on October 15.

He referred back to his earlier preliminary injunction ruling, doubling down on his conclusion that when Congress passed Title IX in 1972, it knew that the EEOC and federal courts had been rejecting transgender individuals’ sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so as of 1972 Congress would believe that passing a new federal statute outlawing sex discrimination would not outlaw discrimination because of gender identity.

Getting further into the RFRA analysis, he found that the government does have a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in health care, but that the regulation did not impose the “least restrictive alternative” as required by that statute. Because there are non-faith based health care providers who will provide gender transition treatment and abortions, he wrote, it is not necessary to burden faith-based providers in order to make it possible for individuals to get those treatments.  They can just go elsewhere.

Thus, Judge O’Connor extended his earlier opinion to hold, as a final ruling on the merits, that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the regulation exceeded the interpretive authority of HHS in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and that enforcement of those provisions against faith-based health care providers would violate their rights under RFRA.

Judge O’Connor found that because the defendants (the Trump Administration) was no longer affirmatively defending the regulation, ACLU and RGCA were entitled as of right to intervene as co-defendants in order to provide a defense. This was an important step, since only an actual party can appeal a decision. However, Judge O’Connor pointed out that the intervenors will have to establish individual standing to do so if they want to take this case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The district court could just rely on their allegations that they have members who would be adversely affected by the regulation being struck down in order to grant their intervention motion, but their standing to appeal the ruling might be challenged in the 5th Circuit which, for example, has vacated a ruling against Mississippi’s draconian anti-LGBT statute on grounds that the organizational plaintiffs did not have “standing” to challenge the law before it had gone into effect.

Judge O’Connor did not strike down the regulation in full, merely holding that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” was not authorized by the statute and thus that those portions of the regulation are “vacated.”  He refrained from issuing a nationwide injunction, presumably because the defendant – formally, the Trump Administration – is clearly going to comply, since it is no longer arguing that the regulation is lawful in light of the Sessions memorandum and the position it is arguing in the Harris Funeral Homes case at the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s action immediately raises the question whether his ruling is binding outside the Northern District of Texas.  Striking down the “unlawful” portions presumably does not just mean for purposes of one federal district.  Normally, the government would appeal such a ruling, but in this case, it seems unlikely that HHS or the Justice Department is going to appeal this ruling, which leaves that determination up to the ACLU of Texas and RGCA, in light of all the circumstances, including a national election just a year from now.

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.

 

Federal District Court Denies Preliminary Injunction Requiring School District to Segregate Restroom and Locker Facilities by Biological Sex of Students

Posted on: December 31st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

Accepting a report and recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey T. Gilbert, U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso ruled on December 29, 2017, that a group of parents and cisgender students are not entitled to a preliminary injunction blocking Illinois’s Township High School District 211 from allowing transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Students and Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213091 (N.D. Ill., E.D.).

The dispute grew out of prior legal action by a transgender girl at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinios, a suburb of Chicago, seeking to use the girls’ facilities. During the Obama Administration, the U.S. Education Department responded to the student’s complaint by negotiating a settlement agreement with the school district under which Student A, as she was identified, would be allowed to use these facilities.  The school district’s willingness to settle turned on a formal Guidance issued by the U.S. Education and Justice Departments construing Title IX to require such a policy.

Reacting to the settlement, an ad hoc group of parents of students at Fremd High School, together with some girls who attend the high school, brought this suit in May 2016, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, asserting that the girls had a constitutional and statutory right not to have “biological boys” present in their restroom and locker room facilities where they could see girls in a state of undress. The lawsuit targeted the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice for issuing the Guidance and negotiating the settlement.  The school district was also named as a defendant.  Student A, together with two other transgender students in the district and their parents, were granted intervenor status as defendants.

Magistrate Judge Gilbert, to whom the motion for preliminary injunction had been referred by Judge Alonso, issued his report on October 18, 2006, concluding that plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their claims, and recommending that the motion be denied. Plaintiffs filed objections with Judge Alonso.

While the objections were pending there were several developments significantly affecting the case. Donald J. Trump was elected president a few weeks after the Magistrate Report was issued, and he then appointed new leadership to the two Departments after his term began on January 20, 2017.  The two Departments then jointly withdrew the Obama Administration Title IX Guidance, opining that it had not been properly issued and that the matter required more study, but not taking any position on whether transgender students had such protection under Title IX, commenting that these issues should be decided at the local level.  Thus, the Trump Administration was, at least as of then, “neutral” on the question, although since then Attorney General Sessions and the Justice Department have gone on record as opposing an expansive interpretation of Title IX to embrace gender identity (and sexual orientation) discrimination claims.

However, shortly after the withdrawal of the Guidance, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a similar case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017) (petition for certiorari pending), that Title IX does extend to gender identity discrimination claims, and upheld an injunction ordering a Wisconsin school district to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ restroom facilities at a public high school.

The Trump Administration actions mooted the part of the lawsuit against the federal government defendants, as the policy the plaintiffs are challenging was no longer federal executive branch policy. Thus, the plaintiffs agreed to drop the federal defendants from the case.  Also, because Student A has graduated, the plaintiffs’ specific objection to District 211’s agreement with the Education Department concerning facilities access for that student was mooted as well.  However, Intervenor Students B and C and their parents, and possibly other transgender students in District 211, would present the same access issues, so the plaintiffs’ claims against the District under Title IX and the Constitution continue so long as the District does not disavow the access policy to which it had agreed.

In essence, Plaintiffs’ Title IX complaint relies on a long-standing Title IX regulation that authorizes schools to maintain sex-separate restroom and locker room facilities, provided that the facilities are comparable in scope and quality. Plaintiffs argue that this authorization of sex-segregated facilities recognizes the privacy concerns of the students (and their parents), and that requiring students to have to share such facilities with transgender students of a different “biological” sex contradicts those privacy concerns.  The Magistrate had rejected this argument in October 2016, and the 7th Circuit’s Whitaker decision subsequently confirmed the Magistrate’s understanding of this issue.

Wrote Judge Alonso, “Discrimination against transgender individuals is sex discrimination under Price Waterhouse, the 7th Circuit explained, because ‘by definition, a transgender individual does not conform to the sex-based stereotypes of the sex that he or she was assigned at birth.’  Following Price Waterhouse and its progeny, the Court reasoned that a ‘policy that requires an individual to use a restroom that does not conform with his or her gender identity punishes that individual for his or her gender non-conformance which in turn violates Title IX.  Providing a gender-neutral alternative was insufficient to relieve the school district from liability under Title IX, the Seventh Circuit explained, because it was ‘the policy itself which violates the Act.”

The plaintiffs tried to distinguish the Whitaker case because it addressed only restrooms, not locker rooms, and because, they insisted, the decision was so “astonishingly wrong” that its reasoning undercuts its “worth even as persuasive authority.”  The problem with that, of course, is that Illinois is in the same 7th Circuit as Wisconsin, so Whitaker is not just persuasive authority; it is binding on Judge Alonso.

The judge insisted that nothing in Whitaker “suggests that restrooms and locker rooms should be treated differently under Title IX or that the presence of a transgendered student in either, especially given additional privacy protections like single stalls or privacy screens, implicates the constitutional privacy rights of others with whom such facilities are shared.  Plaintiffs’ critiques notwithstanding,” he continued, “Whitaker reflects a straightforward application of the long-standing line of sex stereotyping decisions, fully in line with the Supreme Court’s guidance on sex discrimination claims.”  Thus, under Whitaker, plaintiffs could not meet the first test for preliminary injunctive relief: showing the probability that they would prevail on the merits of their claim.  Judge Alonso devoted several paragraphs to explaining why the plaintiffs’ attempts to distinguish or disparage Whitaker were unavailing in meeting their burden under the motion.

“Furthermore,” he wrote, “even if Plaintiffs had shown a likelihood of success on the merits, they would still not be entitled to a preliminary injunction because they have not shown they are likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, or that they lack an adequate remedy at law in the event that they ultimately succeed on their claims.” Indeed, as far as demonstrating harm goes, “the only specific harm to which they point is the risk of running late to class by using alternate restrooms to avoid sharing with a transgender student and the ‘embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, fear, apprehension, stress, degradation , and loss of dignity’ allegedly felt by Student Plaintiffs arising from such sharing.”  The Magistrate [Judge Gilbert] had found that these were insufficient to establish irreparable injury, because courts routinely award monetary damages for emotional distress, and “the risk of being late to class has not been shown to have any meaningful impact on Student Plaintiffs’ education.”

Judge Alonso considered it worth nothing that the District’s practice of letting transgender students use appropriate facilities had been going on for nearly three years when this lawsuit was filed, but “either Student Plaintiffs did not notice that transgender students were using restrooms consistent with their gender identity, or they knew and tolerated it for several years,” as no examples of actual incidents were proffered in support of their motion. “The passage of time therefore further undermines Plaintiffs’ claim of irreparable harm,” wrote Alonso.  “This Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge’s assessment, ‘there is no indication that anything has negatively impacted Girl Plaintiffs’ education.”  Judge Alonso overruled the objections, and accepted the Magistrate’s recommendation to deny the preliminary injunction.

Now that pretrial motions have been disposed of, the court gave the defendants until January 30, 2018, to file an answer to the complaint, and set a status hearing for February 8. In light of the Whitaker case and Judge Alonso’s strongly-worded opinion, one would expect the school district to promptly file a motion for summary judgment, if ADF does not decide within the next few weeks to fold up its tent and steal away.  Of course, what could change the situation dramatically would be a grant of certiorari by the Supreme Court of the school district’s petition in the 7th Circuit Whitaker case.  But the parties in that case were reportedly close to a settlement and had asked the Supreme Court to extend the time for Whitaker’s counsel to file a response to the cert petition, so it appears likely that a cert grant will not be forthcoming during the month of January leading up to School District 211’s court-imposed deadline to respond to the complaint in this case.

The transgender student Intervenors are represented by the ACLU of Illinois and the national ACLU Foundation, with pro bono attorneys from Mayer Brown LLP.

7th Circuit Says Federal Law Protects Transgender Students

Posted on: May 31st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a trial court’s preliminary injunction that requires a Wisconsin school district to allow Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school during his senior year.   Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9362, 2017 WL 2331751.  Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote the court’s opinion, joined by Circuit Judges Diane Pamela Wood and Ilana Rovner.  This May 30 decision is a landmark ruling: For the first time, a federal appeals court has ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by educational institutions that get federal money, prohibits discrimination against transgender students. The court also ruled that a transgender student subjected to discriminatory treatment by a public school could sue under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In a prior ruling involving Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who is about to graduate from a Virginia high school, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal courts should defer to the Obama Administration’s “reasonable” interpretation of Title IX providing protection to transgender students, but that ruling was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court recently after the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama Administration’s interpretation after the Court had agreed to review the 4th Circuit’s decision.  Gavin Grimm’s appeal from a district court’s denial of his Title IX claim is still pending before the 4th Circuit, although the case may be mooted by his graduation.

Judges Williams and Wood were appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton. Judge Rovner was appointed by President George H. W. Bush. Throughout the opinion, Williams refers to the plaintiff as “Ash,” using the name he prefers and used throughout the papers filed in this lawsuit.

Judge Williams succinctly summarized what the case is about in her matter-of-fact opening sentence: “Ashton (‘Ash’) Whitaker is a 17 year-old high school senior boy who has what would seem like a simple request: to use the boys’ restroom while at school.” The request did not seem simple to Kenosha school authorities, however, because Whitaker is a transgender boy and, as far as the school district is concerned, should be treated as a girl unless or until Ash presents documentation of a completed surgical gender transition resulting in a new birth certificate designating him as male.  However, under the recognized standard of care for gender dysphoria, genital surgery may not be performed until the individual reaches age 18, and his birth state of Wisconsin will not issue such a birth certificate without proof of surgical sex reassignment, so there is no way that Ash Whitaker can satisfy the district’s unwritten policy for being treated as a boy while he is a student there.

According to the court’s opinion, Ash was in the 8th grade when he told his parents that “he is transgender and a boy.”  When he entered Tremper High School as a freshman in the fall of 2013, he identified himself as a boy, cutting his hair short, wearing masculine clothing, and using the name Ashton and male pronouns to refer to himself.  “In the fall of 2014, the beginning of his sophomore year, he told his teachers and his classmates that he is a boy and asked them to refer to him as Ashton or Ash and to use male pronouns,” wrote Williams.  He also began to see a therapist, who formally diagnosed him with gender dysphoria.  After his junior year, he began hormone replacement therapy under the supervision of an endocrinologist and petitioned a local court for a legal name change, which was granted in September 2016.

Ash and his mother began to meet with school authorities in the spring of his sophomore year to request that he be permitted to use the boys’ restrooms at school, but the authorities were resistant. Although the school district has no written policy on the matter, the administration informed him that he was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom, and that they would make an exception to the usual rules and allow him to use a gender-neutral restroom in the school’s main office.  This was not particularly helpful to him, since the main office was “quite a distance from his classrooms.”  Using that restroom between classes would make him late for class.  And, explained Judge Williams, “because Ash had publicly transitioned, he believed that using the girls’ restrooms would undermine his transition.”  And since he was the only student authorized to use the gender-neutral bathroom in the office, “he feared that using it would draw further attention to his transition and status as a transgender student at Tremper.”

There was also a medical complication. Ash has been diagnosed with vasovagal syncope, a condition that makes him susceptible to fainting or seizures if he becomes dehydrated, so he has to drink liquids frequently, which means he needs those bathroom breaks between classes and he can’t easily get by with “holding his water” throughout the day.  In an attempt to avoid having to use bathrooms during the day, he did attempt to restrict his water intake, but with predictable results: fainting and dizziness. In addition, the restrictions placed on him led him to suffer stress-related migraines, depression, and anxiety.  “He even began to contemplate suicide,” wrote Williams.

When he began his junior year in the fall of 2015, he decided to take a risk and use the boys’ restrooms, hoping not to be caught or disciplined. “For six months, he exclusively used the boys’ restrooms at school without incident,” wrote Williams, “but, in February 2016, a teacher saw him washing his hands at a sink in the boys’ restroom and reported it to the school’s administration.”  A guidance counselor contacted his mother and reiterated the restrictive restroom policy.  Ash and his mother met with the assistant principal, who stood firm, pointing out that Ash was listed on the school’s official records as female and any change would require “legal or medical documentation.”  Subsequent correspondence eventually clarified that written certification of his gender dysphoria and of his name change would not be sufficient for the school.  They wanted a male-designated birth certificate before they would make any change.

Despite this incident, Ash continued to use the boys’ restrooms, causing him anxiousness and depression. From the court’s description, it sounds like a “cat and mouse game” was going on at the high school, as security guards were “instructed to monitor Ash’s restroom use” and he sought to evade their gaze.  He was caught a few times and removed from classes to get dressed down by administrators, however, leading classmates and teachers to ask about what was going on.  In April 2016, the school expanded Ash’s restroom access to include two single-user, gender-neutral locked restrooms on the opposite side of the campus from where his classes were held.  He was the only student issued a key to these restrooms.  But again, due to their location they were of little use to him if he wanted to avoid being late for classes, and he felt further stigmatized, avoiding these restrooms entirely.  “In addition,” wrote Williams, “Ash began to fear for his safety as more attention was drawn to his restroom use and transgender status.”  He also began to suffer various other kinds of discrimination connected with the school’s insistence on treating him as a girl, but when he decided to take legal action he restricted his complaint to the bathroom issue.

Ash found a lawyer, who sent a demand letter to the school district, which declined to change its position. Then Ash filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging a violation of Title IX.  But when it became clear that the administrative process would take too much time to provide relief for him before his senior year began, he withdrew the complaint and filed his lawsuit, seeking a preliminary injunction that would get him restroom access for his senior year.

The school district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that neither Title IX nor the Constitution provided a legal cause of action for Ash. District Judge Pamela Pepper denied the motion to dismiss and granted Ash’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would allow him to use the boys’ restrooms at school while the case was pending.  A prerequisite for issuing the injunction was Judge Pepper’s determination that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause both gave Ash legal claims on which he had a “better than negligible” chance of succeeding and that he would suffer irreparable injury, greater than any injury suffered by the school district, if he was denied this relief.

The school district attempted to appeal Judge Pepper’s denial of its motion to dismiss, but the 7th Circuit refused to consider that appeal last year.  A denial of a motion to dismiss a lawsuit is not a final judgment, because it just means that the lawsuit will continue, and if the defendant loses, then the defendant can appeal the final judgment.  Although there is a narrow set of circumstances in which a court of appeals will consider an appeal by a defendant whose motion to dismiss has been denied, this case did not fit within them, a point the court reiterated in its May 30 ruling.  The school district also appealed from Judge Pepper’s preliminary injunction, but the 7th Circuit panel unanimously affirmed Judge Pepper.

The court easily rejected the school district’s argument that Ash would not suffer irreparable harm because the district had made available to him gender-neutral restrooms. The school district also contested the expert testimony offered by a psychologist about the harm that its policies were inflicting on Ash.  Judge Williams quoted Dr. Stephanie Budge’s testimony that the district’s treatment of Ash “significantly and negatively impacted his mental health and overall well-being.”  Clearly, such an effect could not be compensated by an award of monetary damages at a later date, and was thus “irreparable” as that term is used by the courts.  Dr. Budge testified that the school district’s actions, including its bathroom policy, which identified Ash as transgender and therefore, “different,” were “directly causing significant psychological distress and place him at risk for experiencing life-long diminished well-being and life-functioning.”  The court of appeals found no clear error in Judge Pepper’s reliance on this expert testimony, which was not effectively rebutted by the school district.   Furthermore, his experience of using the boys’ restrooms for six months without any incident or complaints from students or teachers belied the school district’s argument that it would suffer serious injury if he were allowed to use those restrooms.

As to the likelihood that Ash would prevail on the merits of his claim at trial, the court did not have to strain much to reach that conclusion. Judge Williams noted that the 7th Circuit, like other courts of appeals, has looked to cases decided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to determine the scope of the ban on sex discrimination.  On April 4, the 7th Circuit ruled in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339, an employment discrimination case, that a lesbian who was denied a faculty position because of her sexual orientation could bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.  That ruling was heavily based on a line of federal cases under Title VII that had adopted a broad interpretation of “discrimination because of sex,” and Judge Williams found that the logic of those cases had clearly overruled the 7th Circuit’s decision in Ulane v. Eastern Airlines, 742 F.2d 1081 (7th Cir. 1984), in which it had denied a Title VII claim by a transgender airline pilot.  The Ulane case predated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), where the Court found that discrimination against a person because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes could be found to violate Title VII.  In effect, the Court said that Title VII applied to discrimination because of gender, not just because of biological sex.

“By definition,” wrote Williams, “a transgender individual does not conform to the sex-based stereotypes of the sex that he or she was assigned at birth.” The judge cited a long list of federal court rulings that have reached this conclusion and applied Title VII to cases of gender identity discrimination.  The court rejected the school district’s argument that Congress’s failure to amend Title IX or Title VII to expressly protect people based on their transgender status required a different conclusion, and held that “Ash can demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of his claim because he has alleged that the School District has denied him access to the boys’ restroom because he is transgender.”  She also pointed out that the school district was misrepresenting Ash’s claim when it argued that he may not “unilaterally declare” his gender, ignoring the medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

“Since his diagnosis,” wrote Judge Williams, “he has consistently lived in accordance with his gender identity. This lawsuit demonstrates that the decision to do so was not without cost or pain.  Therefore, we find that Ash has sufficiently established a probability of success on the merits of his Title IX claim.”  The court held similarly regarding Ash’s alternative constitutional equal protection claim, rejecting the school district’s argument that because it has a “rational basis” for adopting its restroom access rule – protecting the privacy of male students who did not want to use a restroom with a girl – it could prevail over Ash on the constitutional claim.  Because the court had concluded that a gender identity discrimination claim is in actuality a sex discrimination claim, it followed that the level of judicial review would be the same that courts use for sex discrimination claims: heightened scrutiny.  Under this standard, the discriminatory policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the school district has the burden to show that it has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for adopting the policy.

Such a justification cannot rely on “sheer conjecture and abstraction,” but that’s all the school district had. Judge Williams observed that the administration had never received any complaint from other students about Ash using the boys’ restrooms.  “This policy does nothing to protection the privacy rights of each individual student vis-à-vis students who share similar anatomy and it ignores the practical reality of how Ash, as a transgender boy, uses the bathroom: by entering a stall and closing the door.”  Indeed, Williams might have gone on to write, it would be ludicrous to suggest that a transgender boy is going to expose himself at a urinal, or stand at a urinal and glance over at other boys using the adjacent facilities.

“A transgender student’s presence in the restroom provides no more of a risk to other students’ privacy rights than the presence of an overly curious student of the same biological sex who decides to sneak glances at his or her classmates performing their bodily functions,” wrote the judge. “Or for that matter, any other student who uses the bathroom at the same time.  Common sense tells us that the communal restroom is a place where individuals act in a discreet manner to protect their privacy and those who have true privacy concerns are able to utilize a stall.”

In an interesting excursion into the hotly contested science of sexual identity, Williams added that the school administration’s insistence on treating people in accord with sex markers on birth certificates would not necessarily address their concerns. “The marker does not take into account an individual’s chromosomal makeup, which is also a key component of one’s biological sex,” she wrote.  “Therefore, one’s birth certificate could reflect a male sex, while the individual’s chromosomal makeup reflects another.  It is also unclear what would happen if an individual is born with the external genitalia of two sexes, or genitalia that are ambiguous in nature.  In those cases, it is clear that the marker on the birth certificate would not adequately account for or reflect one’s biological sex, which would have to be determined by considering more than what was listed on the paper.”

She also noted the lack of consistency among the various states in what they require to change birth certificates. Depending where a transgender student was born, they might be able to get a new certificate without a surgical sex reassignment procedure, thus defeating the school’s underlying purpose in relying on the birth certificate.  She also pointed out that the school district did not have a policy requiring newly registering students to present birth certificates, allowing them to present passports as identification as an alternative. The U.S. State Department no longer requires proof of sex-reassignment surgery for a transgender man to get a passport correctly identifying his gender, so a transgender boy who had obtained an appropriate passport could register in the Kenosha School District as a boy.

Thus, having found that Ash’s allegations fulfilled all the tests required for obtaining a preliminary injunction, the court denied the school district’s appeal and affirmed the injunctive relief. There were no immediate indications that the school district would seek en banc review or petition the Supreme Court for a stay.

Ash is represented by Robert Theine Pledl of Pledl & Cohn, Milwaukee; Joseph John Wardenski and Sasha M. Samberg-Champion, of Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, Washington D.C.; and Shawn Thomas Meerkamper, Alison Pennington and Ilona M. Turner, with the Transgender Law Center of Oakland, California. Amicus briefs in support of Ash’s case were received from a variety of groups representing school administrators, parents, students, and LGBT rights organizations.  Among those joining in were Lambda Legal, PFLAG, Gay-Straight Alliances, and women’s rights groups, with several major law firms stepping up to author the amicus briefs.  The only amicus support for the school district came from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay religious litigation group that has championed lawsuits attacking school districts for allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Autistic Student Subjected to Homophobic Bullying May Proceed on Title IX and Equal Protection Claims

Posted on: April 30th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an early application of the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (Apr. 4, 2017), U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson of the Western District of Wisconsin (which is in the 7th Circuit) ruled that an autistic man who used to be a student in the Eau Claire Area School District can maintain his action under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause on a claim that he was subjected to harassment based on sex-stereotyping and a perception by other students that he was gay, and that school authorities who were informed of the harassment did not take any reasonable steps to address the situation.  Bowe v. Eau Claire Area School District, 2017 WL 1458822, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61496 (D. Wis., April 24, 2017).

Connor Bowe also asserted claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Wrote Judge Peterson, summarizing the complaint, “Bowe’s schoolmates bullied him for many years.  They called him names, such as ‘gay,’ ‘queer,’ ‘fag,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘butt boy.’  They shoved him and threw things at him.  ‘At some point prior to’ February 2011, when Bowe was about to turn 14, [Principal Tim O’Reilly] and non-party Kevin Stevens, another District official, told some of Bowe’s classmates that Bowe suffered from autism.  Bowe’s parents did not consent to the disclosure of Bowe’s disability.  The bullying continued, and in fact grew more serious.  Between February 2011 and February 2014, Bowe’s classmates called him ‘stupid,’ ‘fat,’ ‘weak,’ ‘fag,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘shit stain,’ and ‘bubble butt.’  They accused him of having ‘mental deficiencies’ and told him to ‘go fucking die.’  They threw things at him, threatened to hurt him, ‘physically assaulted him,’ threw eggs at his house, and left a bag of feces at his house.  Bowe and his parents complained to [Principal David] Oldenberg, O’Reilly, and other District officials about the bullying multiple times a year each year from 2010 to 2015, but no District official took any action to end the bullying.  Because of the bullying, Bowe’s grades fell significantly and he was prevented from fully participating in some of his classes.”  We have reproduced the court’s summary in full so that readers can appreciate the severity of abuse Bowe claims to have suffered.

Bowe filed his complaint on November 14, 2016. The defendants moved to dismiss.  They argued, as to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, that Bowe had not alleged “facts sufficient to show that he was harassed based on his disability or that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive,” according to Judge Peterson’s description of the motion.  Who are they kidding?  They tried to argue that because just a few of the items of verbal harassment might be linked to Bowe’s autism, he could not state a claim under the disability discrimination laws.  Peterson rejected that argument.  “When some incidents of harassment are alleged to be based on the plaintiff’s protected status, the court may consider allegations of other, more generalized harassment when determining whether the alleged harassment was severe enough to state a peer-harassment claim.  One may reasonably infer from Bowe’s allegations that the totality of the harassment he endured was so severe that it changed the conditions of his education and created an abusive education environment.”

As to the Title IX sex discrimination claim, Peterson rejected the defendants’ argument that “Bowe has not plausibly alleged that he was harassed on the basis of sex.” To the contrary, he wrote, “As both parties recognize, allegations that a plaintiff was ‘harassed because of a failure to adhere to specific sexual stereotypes’ are sufficient to satisfy this element,” citing Hively.  He noted a district court decision from Indiana that found that it was reasonable to infer harassment because of “failure to adhere to traditional male stereotypes” when a victim was called “gay” and “faggot” by bullies.  While conceding the defendants’ contention that some courts have described as a “subtle” issue under Title IX the inference to be drawn when “young children” use “gendered words” to bully other children, Peterson pointed out that the cases defendants were relying on “show that the use of such words by middle- and high-school students may constitute sexual harassment.”  Here, he wrote, “the consistent pattern of gender stereotype slurs alleged by Bowe makes it easy to infer that his classmates harassed him because of his failure to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes.”

In addition to his statutory claims, Bowe sought to hold two District officials liable for an equal protection violation under the 14th Amendment, asserting a “class-of-one” equal protection claim. Defendants argued that he had failed to allege that he was treated differently from others similarly situated.  (What?  Are they claiming that all students who complained of harassment were similarly blown off or ignored by school administrators?)  Peterson rejected this argument, relying on Miller v. City of Monona, 784 F.3d 1113 (7th Cir. 2015), for the proposition that “‘plaintiffs alleging class-of-one equal protection claims do not need to identify specific examples of similarly situated person in their complaints,’ at least when the complaint does not otherwise reveal a rational basis for the difference in treatment.”  Here, wrote Peterson, “Bowe alleges that O’Reilly and Oldenberg knew about the ongoing harassment but took no action to stop it.  Taking these allegations as true, there is no rational basis for their treatment of Bowe.  So Bowe’s equal protection claims will survive defendants’ motion to dismiss.”

The defendants also argued that because Bowe could have asserted claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), he was required to file his charges with the Department of Education and exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit, but Peterson was unpersuaded, finding that Bowe’s claims arose independently under the various discrimination laws he cited, and did not require administrative exhaustion. At this point, the now 20-year-old Bowe is seeking a remedy for past actions, not suing under IDEA for an order to the school district to ensure that he receive the “free appropriate public education” promised under IDEA.

However, Peterson noted that Bowe “made no argument in support” of his direct ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims (and a racial discrimination claim under Title VI) in responding to the motion to dismiss, and so those claims were waived and would be dismissed in response to the district’s motion. Peterson also denied Bowe’s request to allow him to file an amended complaint to make up for any pleading deficiencies, finding that the original complaint, which withstood the motion to dismiss under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause, was adequate to support his claims for the relief he is seeking.  Thus, Peterson denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Title IX and Equal Protection claims, on which the case can proceed.

Bowe is represented by Paul A. Kinne, of Gingras, Cates & Luebke, S.C., Madison, WI.