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Trump Administration Withdraws Title IX Guidance in Contradictory “Dear Colleague” Letter

Posted on: February 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

The Trump Administration, keeping a promise made by Donald Trump during his campaign to leave the issue of restroom and locker room access by transgender students up to state and local officials, issued a letter to all the nation’s school districts on February 22, withdrawing a letter that the Obama Administration Education Department submitted in the Gavin Grimm transgender rights case on January 7, 2015, and a “Dear Colleague” letter sent jointly by the Education and Justice Departments to the nation’s school districts on May 13, 2016.

 

The Obama Administration letters had communicated an interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a statute banning sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money, as well as a DOE regulation issued under Title IX, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, governing sex-segregated facilities in educational institutions, to require those institutions to allow transgender students and staff to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The regulation says that educational facilities may have sex-segregated facilities, so long as they are “equal.”

 

The February 22 letter states that the Departments “have decided to withdraw and rescind the above-referenced guidance documents in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved. The Department thus will not rely on the views expressed within them.”  It also states that the departments “believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy,” embodying Trump’s articulated campaign position on this issue.

 

At the same time, however, the February 22 letter stated: “All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” and insisted that the withdrawal of the earlier guidance documents “does not leave students without protections from discrimination, bullying, or harassment” and that the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights “will continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms.” It asserts that the two departments “are committed to the application of Title IX and other federal laws to ensure such protection.”

 

However, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on February 22 that the administration was analyzing its overall position on Title IX, which could result in parting ways from the Obama Administration’s view that Title IX prohibits gender identity discrimination in schools.

 

Thus, an internal contradiction appears. The letter at least implies that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination do violate Title IX, but that the question whether transgender students should be allowed access to sex-segregated facilities consistent with their gender identity needs further study and perhaps needs to be addressed in a new regulation accompanied by detailed analysis that is put through the Administrative Procedure Act process of publication of proposed rules, public comment and hearing, and final publication in the Federal Register, with Congress having a period of several months during which it can intervene to block a new regulation.

 

The Solicitor General’s office, which represents the government in Supreme Court cases, also informed the Court on February 22 that the Obama Administration guidance documents had been withdrawn, that the views expressed in them would no longer be relied upon by those executive branch agencies, and that, instead, the administration would “consider further and more completely the legal issues involved.”

 

This development comes just six weeks before the Supreme Court argument scheduled for March 28 in Gloucester County School District v. G.G. (the Gavin Grimm case), and just before the due date for the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief presenting the government’s position on the issues before the Court.

 

The Court might react to this development in a variety of ways. Since the government is not a party in the case, the Court might just ignore the letter and go ahead with the argument.  Or it might consider that this development renders moot one or both of the questions on which it granted review, which could lead to a reshaping of the case to focus solely on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX and the facilities regulation.  It might even decide that the entire case should be sent back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration in light of these developments.

 

The new Dear Colleague letter, sent over the signatures of Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Sandra Battle (Education Department) and Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights T.E. Wheeler, II (Justice Department), shows the signs of compromise reflecting the reported battle between Betsy DeVos, the recently-confirmed Secretary of Education, and Jeff Sessions, the recently-confirmed Attorney General. Several media sources reported that DeVos did not want to withdraw the earlier Guidance, but that Sessions was determined to do so.

 

In light of his record on LGBT issues as a Senator and former Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions is reportedly bent on reversing the numerous Obama Administration regulations and policy statements extending protection to LGBT people under existing laws. It was probably a big disappointment to him that the President decided not to rescind Obama’s Executive Order imposing on federal contractors an obligation not to discriminate because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and we may not have heard the last on that issue.

 

DeVos, by contrast, is reportedly pro-LGBT, despite the political views of her family, who are major donors to anti-LGBT organizations. According to press accounts, for example, in Michigan she intervened on behalf of a gay Republican Party official whose position was endangered when he married his partner.

 

Several newspapers and websites have reported that DeVos and Session brought their dispute to the President, who resolved it in favor of Sessions, leaving it to them to work out the details. Trump was undoubtedly responding to the charge by many Republicans that the Obama Administration had “overreached” in its executive orders and less formal policy statements, going beyond the bounds of existing legislation to make “new law” in areas where Congress had refused to act and overriding state and local officials on a sensitive issue.  In this case, Republicans in both houses had bottled up the Equality Act, a bill that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity as explicitly forbidden grounds for discrimination in a variety of federal statutes, including Title IX.

 

While withdrawing the Obama Guidance documents, the February 22 the letter does not state a firm position on how Title IX should be interpreted, either generally in terms of gender identity discrimination or specifically in terms of access to sex-segregated facilities, such as restrooms and locker rooms. It criticizes the withdrawn documents as failing to “contain extensive legal analysis or explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX,” and points out that they did not “undergo any formal public process,” a reference to the Administrative Procedure Act steps that are necessary to issue formal regulations that have the force of law.

 

While the withdrawn guidance documents did not have the force of law, they communicated to schools that the Education Department believed that Title IX bars gender identity discrimination and requires access to facilities consistent with a person’s gender identity, which meant that the Education Department or the Justice Department might initiate litigation or seek suspension of federal funding against districts which failed to comply. In the end, it would be up to courts to decide whether to follow this interpretation.  Furthermore, federal courts have found an “implied right of action” by individuals to bring suit to enforce their rights under Title IX, and that is not changed by withdrawal of the guidance documents.

 

The 4th Circuit’s decision of May 2016, up for review by the Supreme Court, came in a lawsuit initiated by an individual high school student, Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who was barred from using the boys’ restrooms at his high school by a resolution of the Gloucester County, Virginia, School Board after it received complaints from members of the community. District Judge Robert Doumar had dismissed Grimm’s Title IX complaint, even though the Obama Administration sent its January 7, 2015, letter, informing the court that the Education Department believed that Title IX required the school district to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms.  The 4th Circuit ruled that Judge Doumar should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation, as the regulation governing sex-segregated facilities was ambiguous on the question and the Department’s interpretation, which relied on federal appeals court and administrative agency decisions under other sex discrimination statutes finding that gender identity discrimination was a form of sex discrimination, was “reasonable.”  The School District petitioned the Supreme Court to review this ruling.

 

The Supreme Court agreed to consider two questions: (1) Whether deference to an informal letter from the Education Department was appropriate, and (2) whether the Department’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation was correct. With the letter having been withdrawn, the question of deferring to it may be considered a moot point, but some commentators on administrative law had been hoping the Court would use this case as a vehicle to abandon its past ruling that courts should give broad deference to agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations, and the Court could decide that this issue has not really been rendered moot since it is a recurring one. Indeed, the February 22 letter implicitly raises the new question of whether the courts should defer to it in place of the withdrawn Guidance.

 

The Supreme Court’s agreement to consider whether the Education Department’s interpretation was correct might also be considered moot, since the Education Department has abandoned that interpretation, but certainly the underlying question of how Title IX and the regulation should be interpreted is very much alive, as several courts around the country are considering the question in cases filed by individual transgender students, states, and the Obama Administration (in its challenge to North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which is based on Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution).

 

Two groups of states filed suit in federal courts challenging the Dear Colleague letter of May 13, 2016. In one of those lawsuits, with Texas as the lead plaintiff, Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their challenge, and issued a nationwide preliminary injunction last August forbidding the government from enforcing this interpretation of Title IX in any new investigation or case.  The DOE/DOJ February 22 letter points out that this nationwide injunction is still in effect, so the departments were not able to investigate new charges or initiate new lawsuits in any event.  What it doesn’t mention is that the Obama Administration filed an appeal to the 5th Circuit, challenging the nationwide scope of the injunction, but the Trump Administration recently withdrew that appeal, getting the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled oral argument.  Of course, these lawsuits specifically challenging the Obama Administrative Guidance documents are now moot with those documents having been withdrawn by the Trump Administration, since the plaintiffs in those cases sought only prospective relief which is now unnecessary from their point of view.  Presumably a motion to dismiss as moot would be granted by Judge O’Connor, dissolving the preliminary injunction.  O’Connor’s order never had any effect on the ability of non-governmental plaintiffs, such as Gavin Grimm, to file suit under Title IX.

 

In North Carolina, the Obama Administration, former governor Pat McCrory, Republican state legislative leaders, a group representing parents and students opposed to transgender restroom access, and transgender people represented by public interest lawyers had all filed lawsuits challenging or defending H.B.2. The Trump Administration’s February 22 actions may signal that at least the federal government is likely either to abandon or cut down on the scope of its lawsuit challenging H.B.2.  Since North Carolina is in the 4th Circuit, all of these cases were likely to be affected by a reconsideration by the 4th Circuit in light of these new developments.  Around the country, several pending lawsuits have been put “on hold” by federal district judges as well, while awaiting Supreme Court action on the Gavin Grimm case.  If the Supreme Court were to reject the argument that “sex discrimination” in a statute can be broadly construed to encompass gender identity, these cases, arising under either Title IX or Title VII, may be dismissed.

 

Since the confirmation hearing for 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, nominated by Trump for the Supreme Court vacancy, is scheduled to take place on March 20, and Democratic opposition may stretch out the confirmation process, it seems likely that there will be only eight members on the Supreme Court to consider the Grimm case. In that event, it was widely predicted that the result would be either a tie affirming the 4th Circuit without opinion and avoiding a national precedent, or a 5-3 vote with an opinion most likely by Justice Anthony Kennedy, joining with the more liberal justices to adopt the more expansive reading of Title IX.  However, this will be the first time the Supreme Court has tackled directly a gender identity issue under sex discrimination laws, so predicting how any member of the Court may vote is completely speculative.

 

 

Federal Court Lets Transgender Employee Sue Employer for Transition Benefits Denial Under Title VII

Posted on: January 17th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Does a transgender employee who seeks coverage under her employer’s benefits plans for breast augmentation surgery have a legal remedy if her claims are denied? U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater ruled on January 13 that a transgender woman employed by L-3 Communications Integrated Systems (L-3) may pursue a sex discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, having alleged that she was denied such benefits because of her gender, but not under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Baker v. Aetna Life Insurance Company, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5665, 2017 WL 131658 (N.D. Tex.).

Judge Fitzwater rejected discrimination claims against the insurance company that provides the coverage and administers the plans on behalf of the employer, finding that the ACA and President Obama’s Executive Order governing gender identity discrimination by federal contractors do not apply to this situation, and that the insurance company cannot be sued under Title VII because it is not the plaintiff’s employer. Judge Fitzwater declined to grant motions for summary judgment by either the employee or by the insurer of her claim that denial of health and short-term disability benefits violates her rights under the terms of the employee benefits plan, setting that claim down for further proceedings.

According to her Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, Charlize Marie Baker is an employee of L-3 and a participant in the company’s Health Plan and its Short-Term-Disability (STD) Plan, both of which are administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company. She began the process of transitioning in 2011, obtained a legal name change, and had her gender designation changed from male to female on all government-issued documents.  She scheduled breast implant surgery in 2015 after her doctor determined that it was medically necessary to treat her gender dysphoria.

Baker filed claims for coverage of the surgery under the Health Plan and coverage of her recovery period under the STD Plan.  She alleges that the Health Plan denied her claim to cover the surgery, because “the plan does not cover breast implants for individuals with a male birth gender designation who are transitioning to the female gender, although the plan covers individuals with a female birth designation who are transitioning to the male gender and seeking a mastectomy.”  Presumably the mastectomy would be routinely covered because the Health Plan is accustomed to covering mastectomies for female employees when their doctors state that the procedure is medically necessary.   Baker was denied STD benefits because the Plan administrator decided that surgery to treat Gender Dysphoria does not qualify as “treatment of an illness.”

In his January 13 ruling, Judge Fitzwater focused on motions by L-3 and Aetna to dismiss discrimination claims brought under Section 1557 of the ACA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Section 1557 of the ACA incorporates by reference Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination “because of sex.”  ERISA has its own non-discrimination provision, but does not specifically ban discrimination “because of sex.”  The ERISA provision broadly prohibits discriminating against an employee to prevent them from getting benefits to which they are entitled under an employee benefit plan.  ERISA provides a vehicle for employees to sue plan administrators for the wrongful denial of benefits to which they are entitled under employee benefit plans.

None of the statutes under which Baker filed her claims explicitly prohibits discrimination because of gender identity. In resisting the motions to dismiss, she relied heavily on a regulation published by the Department of Health and Human Services last spring, providing that Section 1557 of the ACA bans discrimination because of gender identity by insurers and health care providers, tracking interpretations of Title IX by the Department of Education and the Justice Department, which in turn relied on interpretations of Title VII by some federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Baker also relied on President Obama’s Executive Order 13672, which bans gender identity discrimination by federal contractors. Noting that L-3 is a federal contractor, Baker’s attorneys, Michael J. Hindman and Kasey Cathryn Krummel of Hindman/Bynum PC, urged the court to make “a good faith extension of existing law that the discrimination by Defendants based on her Gender Identity is also discrimination in violation of ERISA in this context and that ERISA must be read to include the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity.”

“Baker is unable to point to any controlling precedent that recognizes a cause of action under Section 1557 [of the ACA] for discrimination based on gender identity,” wrote the judge. For one thing, he pointed out, the HHS regulation on point was to become effective on January 1, 2017, long after Baker was denied benefits, and thus was not applicable at the time of Aetna’s decision to deny the claims, and furthermore, one of Judge Fitzwater’s colleagues on the Northern District of Texas bench, Judge Reed O’Connor, has issued two rulings rejecting the argument that Title IX, which is the source of the ACA non-discrimination policy regarding sex, should be “construed broadly to protect any person, including transgendered persons, from discrimination.”

On August 21, 2016, Judge O’Connor issued a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of Title IX by the federal government in gender identity cases, and he issued a similar preliminary injunction on December 31, 2016, against the enforcement of the HHS regulation in gender identity cases under the ACA. The government appealed the August 21 ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, and announced it would similarly appeal the December 31 ruling.  Whether those appeals will be pursued or dropped after the change of administration on January 20 is a decision for the new attorney general and secretaries of education and health.  In both of those cases, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that Title IX (and by extension the ACA) does not ban gender identity discrimination.

Many federal courts are grappling with the question whether federal laws and regulations banning discrimination “because of sex” should apply to gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination, but there is no consensus yet among the appellate courts. The Supreme Court has a case pending on the gender identity issue under Title IX, but it has yet to be scheduled for argument.  The closest the appeals courts have come are decisions finding that “sex stereotyping” violates Title VII and perhaps by extension other sex discrimination laws, based on a 1989 ruling by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  Some courts have used the “sex stereotyping” theory to protect transgender employees in Title VII cases.  However, Judge Fitzwater was correct in observing that as of now there is no “controlling precedent” supporting Baker’s claim that gender identity discrimination, as such, violates Section 1557 of the ACA.  For this judge, a “controlling precedent” would be one coming from the 5th Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Texas, or the Supreme Court, and expressly addressing the issue.

Baker sought to argue that “the ‘effect’ of E.O. 13672 seems to be little more than to clarify the issue left somewhat ambiguous in Section 1557 that discrimination against transgender persons under this law is prohibited.” She argued that when the ACA was enacted in 2010, some courts had already relied on Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins to find gender identity discrimination covered by Title VII.

Fitzwater found “two fallacies” in this argument. “First,” he wrote, “the Fifth Circuit has not extended Hopkins’ Title VII reasoning to apply to any statute referenced in Section 1557,” and cited Judge O’Connor’s August 21 ruling in support of this point.  “Second, Baker is relying on an Executive Order to clarify what she characterizes as a ‘somewhat ambiguous’ legislative act.”  This was not enough to satisfy Fitzwater, who granted the motions to dismiss the ACA discrimination claim.

Aetna also moved to dismiss Baker’s ERISA claim, contending that ERISA does not ban gender identity discrimination in the administration of employee benefit plans. Fitzwater agreed with Aetna, finding that “as Baker acknowledges, this claim is not currently recognized.  It is for the Congress, not this court, to decide whether to create in ERISA a protection that the statute does not already provide.”  And because the court had already rejected her argument under Section 1557, it would not rely on that ACA provision as a basis for finding a right under ERISA.

Turning finally to the motions to dismiss the Title VII claim, Judge Fitzwater rejected Baker’s argument that Aetna should be liable to suit for sex discrimination under Title VII as an “agent” of L-3 in administering the benefits plans. Fitzwater pointed to 5th Circuit precedents holding that Title VII does not apply in the absence of an employer-employee relationship.  Baker argued that in the EEOC Compliance Manual there is a suggestion that an insurance company administering an employer’s benefit plans is acting as the employer’s agent, “but the EEOC Compliance Manual does not have the force of law,” wrote Fitzwater.  “And this circuit recognizes an agency theory of employer liability only if the alleged agent had authority ‘with respect to employment practices,’” which Baker did not allege.

However, at long last Fitzwater reached the only claim that he refused to dismiss in this opinion: Baker’s allegation that the denial of coverage for her surgery and recovery period under the benefits plans provided by her employer constituted sex discrimination by the employer in violation of Title VII. L-3 argued that Baker had failed to allege that she suffered an adverse employment action based on her gender, but, wrote Fitzwater, “The Court disagrees.”

“Baker plausibly alleges that she was denied employment benefits based on her sex,” he wrote. “She asserts that L-3 ‘engaged in intentional gender discrimination in the terms and conditions of employment by denying her a medically necessary procedure based solely on her gender,’” that the company’s “conduct constitutes a deliberate and intentional violation of Title VII,” and that this conduct “has cause [her] to suffer the loss of pay, benefits, and prestige.”  This was enough, concluded Fitzwater, to allow her Title VII claim against her employer to continue.  Interestingly, his opinion does not explore explicitly whether Title VII applies to gender identity discrimination claims as such, and makes no mention of the EEOC’s 2012 decision to that effect, choosing to treat this as purely a sex discrimination, presumably on the basis that Baker would have been covered for the procedure had she been identified female at birth, so clearly in that sense the denial was because of her sex.

Thus, at this point Baker continues to have a claim under ERISA against Aetna, based on her allegation that Aetna’s refusal to cover her procedure and recovery period violated the terms of the benefits plans, and a sex discrimination claim under Title VII against her employer, based on her allegation that the employer’s benefit plan discriminated against her because of her sex.

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.

Two Federal Judges Order Public Schools to Let Transgender Students Use Gender-Appropriate Restrooms

Posted on: September 27th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Within days of each other, two federal district judges have issued preliminary injunctions requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with the students’ gender identity. U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio, based in Cincinnati, issued his order on September 26 against the Highland Local School District on behalf of a “Jane Doe” 11-year-old elementary school student, in Board of Education v. U.S. Department of Education, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131474, 2016 WL 5239829.   U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper of the Milwaukee-based Eastern District of Wisconsin, issued her order on September 22 against the Kenosha Unified School District on behalf of Ashton Whitaker, a high school student, in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129678, 2016 WL 5372349.  Jane Doe is a transgender girl, Ashton Whitaker a transgender boy.

Although both cases are important, producing essentially the same results under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Judge Marbley’s ruling is more significant because the judge sharply questioned the jurisdictional basis for a nationwide injunction issued on August 21 by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas, Wichita Falls, which ordered the Obama Administration to refrain from initiating investigations or enforcement of violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 based on gender identity discrimination.  O’Connor was ruling in a case initiated by Texas in alliance with many other states challenging the validity of the Obama Administration’s “rule” that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, prohibits gender identity discrimination and requires schools to allow transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Neither the Highland nor Kenosha cases were affected by O’Connor’s order in any event, since these cases were already under way before O’Connor issued his order and they involved district court complaints filed by the individual plaintiffs, not by the Department of Education.

The Doe v. Highland case before Judge Marbley is in part a clone of the Texas case pending before O’Connor. When a dispute arose about the school’s refusal to allow a transgender girl to use the girls’ restrooms and the Department of Education became involved in response to a complaint by the girl’s parents, the school district, abetted by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the “Christian” law firm that is also providing representation to other challengers of the Administration’s position, rushed into federal district court to sue the Department of Education and seek injunctive relief.

As the case progressed, Jane Doe’s parents moved on her behalf to intervene as third-party plaintiffs against the school district. ADF pulled in many of the states that are co-plaintiffs in the Texas case and a clone case brought in federal district court in Nebraska, and moved to make them amicus parties in this case.  At the same time, pro bono attorneys from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a large firm based in Washington, D.C., together with local counsel from Columbus, Ohio, organized an amicus brief by school administrators from about twenty states in support of Jane Doe.  After being allowed to intervene as a plaintiff, Doe moved for a preliminary injunction to require the Highland Schools to treat her as a girl and allow her to use appropriate restrooms.

Judge Marbley first confronted the federal government’s argument that the court did not have jurisdiction over the Highland school district’s attack on the Administration’s interpretation of Title IX. Unlike Judge O’Connor in Texas, Judge Marbley concluded that the government was correct.  If a school district wants to attack the government’s interpretation of Title IX, he found, it must do so in the context of appealing an adverse decision by the Department of Education ordering it to comply with the interpretation or risk losing federal funding.  Marbley pointed out that under the administrative process for enforcement of Title IX, no school would lose funding before a final ruling on the merits is rendered, a process that would involve administrative appeals within the Department followed by an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals with a potential for Supreme Court review of a final ruling by the court.  Thus, the school district had no due process argument that it stood to lose funding without being able to seek judicial relief if it were deprived of the ability to sue directly in the district court.  Marbley found that there was no authorization under the statute or the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) for a school district to file a lawsuit directly in federal district court challenging an interpretation of Title IX.

Part of ADF’s argument in its lawsuits challenging the Obama Administration’s guidance to the school districts is that by not embodying this interpretation in a formal regulation, the Administration had improperly evaded judicial review, since the APA authorizes challenges to new regulations to be filed promptly in federal courts of appeals after final publication of the regulation in the Federal Register. ADF argued that the Guidance was, in effect, a regulation masquerading as a mere “interpretation.”  Judge O’Connor bought the argument, but Judge Marbley did not.

Marbley was dismissive of Judge O’Connor’s determination that he had jurisdiction to hear the Texas case. “The Texas court’s analysis can charitably be described as cursory,” he wrote, “as there is undoubtedly a profound difference between a discrimination victim’s right to sue in federal district court under Title IX and a school district’s right to challenge an agency interpretation in federal district court.  This Court cannot assume that the first right implies the second.”  Marbley went on to discuss in detail Supreme Court rulings on the question whether there was a private right of action under various federal statutes that did not expressly authorize lawsuits in the district courts, and the circumstances under which such authorization can be found by implication, as the courts have done to allow students to file Title IX lawsuits.  Marbley rejected the Highland school district’s argument that once Jane Doe had intervened, she would provide a basis for the court to assert jurisdiction over the school district’s claim.  Actually, he pointed out, the school district could raise its arguments against the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX in response to Jane Doe’s lawsuit, and need not maintain a lawsuit of its own.  Thus, he concluded, the school district’s complaint should be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

In both cases, the attorneys for the transgender students argued alternatively under Title IX and under the Equal Protection Clause. In both cases, they argued that because gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, the Equal Protection analysis should receive the same “heightened scrutiny” that courts apply to sex discrimination claims, which throws the burden on the government to show that it has an exceedingly important interest that is substantially advanced by the challenged policy.

Here the cases diverged slightly in the judges’ legal analysis. Both judges found that the transgender plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims under both Title IX and the Equal Protection clause, that they were suffering harm as a result of the challenged policies, and that any harm the school districts would suffer by issuance of preliminary injunctions was outweighed by the plaintiffs’ harm if injunctions were denied.  In addition, both judges found that the injunctions were in the public interest.  But Judge Marbley additionally found that heightened scrutiny applied, while Judge Pepper, more conservatively, reached her conclusion by applying the rational basis test.  In either case, however, the judges found that the school districts’ justifications for their exclusionary policies lacked sufficient merit to forestall preliminary relief against them.

Significantly, Judge Marbley’s conclusion that heightened scrutiny applied to this case drew support from the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.  He used Obergefell to question the continuing relevance of prior court of appeals analyses of equal protection “in light of Obergefell’s emphasis on the immutability of sexual orientation and the long history of anti-gay discrimination. Like the district courts that examined suspect classification based on sexual orientation,” he continued, “this Court will proceed to conduct its own analysis of the four-factor test to determine whether heightened scrutiny applies to a transgender plaintiff’s claim under the Equal Protection Clause.”  Marbley based his analysis of the four-factor test on a district court ruling last year in New York, Adkins v. City of New York, which found all factors to be satisfied to justify heightened scrutiny, including a finding that “transgender people have ‘immutable and distinguishing characteristics that define them as a distinct group” for purposes of analyzing their equal protection claims.

Significantly, both judges accorded great weight to the Obama Administration’s Guidance, and both judges also found persuasive the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in the Gavin Grimm case that district courts should defer to the Administration’s interpretation due to the ambiguity of existing regulations about how to deal with transgender students under Title IX.  In light of such ambiguity, the federal administrators would enjoy deference so long as they adopted an interpretation of the statute and regulations that is not inconsistent with the purpose of the statute.  The judges rejected the argument that because Congress in 1972 did not intend to ban gender identity discrimination, administrators and judges decades later could not adopt such an interpretation of “discrimination because of sex.”

Although the Supreme Court has stayed the injunction issued by the district court in the Gavin Grimm case while the Gloucester (Virginia) school district’s petition for review of the 4th Circuit’s ruling is pending before the Supreme Court, Judge Marbley pointed out that the stay does not affect the status of the 4th Circuit’s decision as a persuasive precedent.  He also pointed out the unusual step taken by the Justice Stephen Breyer of writing that he had agreed to provide the necessary fifth vote for a stay to “preserve the status quo” as a “courtesy” to the four conservative justices.  The Highland school district argued that the stay “telegraphed” that the Supreme Court was going to grant review of the 4th Circuit’s decision, but, wrote Marbley, “even if Highland has somehow been able to divine what the Supreme Court has ‘telegraphed’ by staying the mandate in that case, this Court unfortunately lacks such powers of divination.”  Furthermore, he wrote, “This Court follows statements of law from the Supreme Court, not whispers on the pond.”

Judge Marbley also accorded great weight to the amicus brief filed on behalf of school administrators from around the country. In this brief, they explained how they had implemented the policies required by the Education Department to accommodate transgender students.  They pointed out that allowing transgender students to use appropriate facilities had not created any real problems.  They argued that this was a necessary step for the mental and physical health of transgender students, and did not really impair the privacy of other students.  Furthermore, in the more than twenty school districts joining in this brief, the new policy had not in any case led to an incident of a sexual predator gaining access to a restroom under the pretext of the policy and harming any student.  Thus, while acknowledging that school districts can be legitimately concerned about the health and safety of students, the courts could conclude that any such risk was conjectural and not borne out by experience.

The judges also noted other district court decisions over the past year ordering schools to allow transgender students to use appropriate facilities, including a recent ruling in one of the North Carolina cases, requiring the University of North Carolina to ignore H.B.2, that state’s infamous “bathroom bill,” and allow the three individual transgender plaintiffs to use appropriate restrooms at the university while the case is pending before the court.

Judge Marbley’s in-depth analysis of the jurisdictional issues provides a roadmap for a challenge before the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to Judge O’Connor’s nationwide injunction.  The Texas lawsuit attempted to short-circuit the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act by dragging an interpretive dispute into the federal district court when the relevant statute provides an administrative forum for hearing and deciding such issues before appealing them to the Courts of Appeals.

Judge Marbley was appointed to the district court by President Bill Clinton. Judge Pepper was appointed by President Barack Obama.

Federal Court Issues Nationwide Injunction to Stop Federal Enforcement of Title IX in Gender Identity Cases

Posted on: August 22nd, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district judge in Wichita Falls, Texas, has issued a “nationwide preliminary injunction” against the Obama Administration’s enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act to require schools to allow transgender students to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity. Judge Reed O’Connor’s August 22 ruling, State of Texas v. United States of America, Civ. Action No. 7:16-cv-00054-O (N.D. Texas), is directed specifically at a “Dear Colleague” letter dated May 13, 2016, which the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) jointly sent to all the nation’s schools subject to Title IX, advising them of how the government was now interpreting federal statutes forbidding discrimination “because of sex.”  The letter advised recipients that failure to allow transgender students’ access to facilities consistent with their gender identity would violate Title IX, endangering their eligibility for funding from the DOE.

The May 13 letter was sent out shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, had ruled in April that this interpretation by the Administration, previously stated in filings in a Virginia lawsuit, should be deferred to by the federal courts.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709.    That lawsuit is about the right of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use boys’ restroom facilities at his Gloucester County, Virginia, high school.  The ACLU had filed the case on Grimm’s behalf after the school district adopted a rule forbidding students from using single-sex-designated facilities inconsistent with their “biological sex” as identified on their birth certificates, a rule similar to that adopted by North Carolina in its notorious H.B.2, which is itself now the subject of several lawsuits in the federal district courts in that state.  After the 4th Circuit ruled, the federal district judge hearing that case, Robert Doumar, issued a preliminary injunction requiring that Grimm be allowed access to the boys’ restrooms while the case is pending, and both Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay that injunction.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-3 to grant the school district’s request for a stay on August 3.  Judge O’Connor prominently mentioned the Supreme Court’s action in his opinion as helping to justify issuing his preliminary injunction, commenting that the case presents a question that the Supreme Court may be resolving this term.

Underlying this and related lawsuits is the Obama Administration’s determination that federal laws banning sex discrimination should be broadly interpreted to ban discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. The Administration adopted this position officially in a series of rulings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.  This interpretation was in line with prior decisions by several federal circuit courts, ruling in cases that had been brought by individual transgender plaintiffs to challenge discrimination under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Fair Credit Act (FCA), and Title VII.  These are all “remedial statutes” that traditionally should receive a liberal interpretation in order to achieve the policy goal of eliminating discrimination because of sex in areas subject to federal legislation.  Although the EEOC and other federal agencies had rejected this broad interpretation repeatedly from the 1960s onward, transgender people began to make progress in the courts after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that sex-stereotyping by employers – disadvantaging employees because of their failure to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view of how men and women should act, groom and dress – could be considered evidence of sex discrimination, in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  While some of these courts continue to reject the view that gender identity discrimination, as such, is automatically illegal under these statutes, they have applied the sex-stereotype theory to uphold lawsuits by individual transgender plaintiffs, especially those who are discharged in response to their announcement that they will be transitioning or when they begin their transition process by dressing in their desired gender.

The Education Department built on this growing body of court rulings, as well as on the EEOC’s rulings, when it became involved in cases where transgender students were litigating over restroom and locker room access. DOE first expressed this view formally in a letter it sent in connection with a lawsuit against an Illinois school district, participated in negotiating a settlement in that case under which the school district opened up restroom access, and then began to take a more active approach as more lawsuits emerged.  By earlier this year DOE and DOJ were ready to push the issue nationwide after the 4th Circuit’s ruling marked the first federal appellate acceptance of the argument that this was a reasonable interpretation of the existing regulation that allows school districts to provide separate facilities for boys and girls, so long as the facilities are comparable.  DOE/DOJ argue that because the regulation does not specifically state how to resolve access issues for transgender students, it is ambiguous on the point and thus susceptible to a reasonable interpretation that is consistent with the EEOC’s position on workplace discrimination and the rulings that have emerged from the federal courts under other sex discrimination statutes.  Under a Supreme Court precedent, agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations should receive deference from the courts if those interpretations are reasonable.

The May 13 letter provoked consternation among officials in many states, most prominently Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton took the lead in forming a coalition of about a dozen states to file this joint lawsuit challenging the DOE/DOJ position. Paxton aimed to bring the case in the federal court in Wichita Falls before Judge O’Connor, an appointee of George W. Bush who had previously issued a nationwide injunction against the Obama Administration’s policy of deferring deportation of undocumented residents without criminal records and had also ruled to block an Obama Administration interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act favoring family leave for gay employees to care for same-sex partners.  Paxton found a small school district in north Texas, Harrold Independent School District, which did not have any transgender students but nonetheless adopted a restrictive restroom access policy, to be a co-plaintiff in the case in order justify filing it in the Wichita Falls court.  Shortly after Paxton filed this case, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson put together another coalition of nine states to file a similar lawsuit in the federal district court in Nebraska early in July.

These cases rely heavily on an argument that was first proposed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay “Christian” public interest law firm, in a lawsuit it brought in May on behalf of some parents and students challenging the settlement of the Illinois case, and a “copycat” lawsuit filed by ADF in North Carolina. The plaintiffs argue that the DOE/DOJ position is not merely an “interpretation” of existing statutory and regulatory requirements under Title IX, but rather is a new “legislative rule,” imposing legal obligations and liabilities on school districts.  As such, they argue, it cannot simply be adopted in a “guidance” or “letter” but must go through the formal process for adopting new regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act. This would require the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register, after which interested parties could submit written comments, perhaps one or more public hearings being held around the country to receive more feedback from interested parties, and then publication of a final rule, which would be subject to judicial review in a case filed in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  (This is referred to as the “notice and comment” process.) Neither DOE nor any other agency that has adopted this new interpretation of “sex discrimination” has gone through this administrative rulemaking process.  Additionally, of course, the plaintiffs contend that this new rule is not a legitimate interpretation of Title IX, because Congress did not contemplate this application of the law when it was enacted in the 1970s.

In his August 22 ruling, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs met their burden to show that they would likely succeed on the merits of their claim, a necessary finding to support a preliminary injunction. As part of this ruling, he rejected the 4th Circuit’s conclusion that the existing statute and regulations are ambiguous and thus subject to administrative interpretation.  He found it clear based on legislative history that Congress was not contemplating outlawing gender identity discrimination when it passed sex discrimination laws, and that the existing regulation allowing schools to provide separate facilities for boys and girls was intended to protect student privacy against being exposed in circumstances of undress to students of the opposite sex.  In the absence of ambiguity, he found, existing precedents do not require the courts to defer to the agency’s interpretation.  He found that the other prerequisites for injunctive relief had been met, because he concluded that if the enforcement was not enjoined, school districts would be put to the burden of either changing their facilities access policies or potentially losing federal money.  He rejected the government’s argument that the lack of any imminent enforcement activity in the plaintiff states made this purely hypothetical.  After all, the federal government has affirmatively sued North Carolina to enjoin enforcement of the facilities access restrictions in H.B.2.

Much of O’Connor’s decision focuses on the question whether the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the DOE/DOJ guidance in a district court proceeding and whether the court had jurisdiction over the challenge. He found support for his ruling on these points in a recent decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has appellate jurisdiction over cases from Texas) in a lawsuit that Texas brought against the EEOC, challenging a “guidance” about employer consideration of applicant arrest records in deciding whether to hire people.  Texas v. EEOC, 2016 WL 3524242.  Noting disparate enforcement of criminal laws against people of color, the EEOC took the position that reliance on arrest records has a disparate impact on people of color and thus potentially violates Title VII.  A 5th Circuit panel divided 2-1 in determining that the state had standing to maintain the lawsuit and that the district court had jurisdiction to rule on the case.   This suggests the likelihood that the Administration may have difficulty persuading the 5th Circuit to overrule O’Connor’s preliminary injunction on procedural grounds if it seeks to appeal the August 22 ruling.

The Administration argued in this case that any preliminary injunction by O’Connor should be narrowed geographically to the states in the 5th Circuit, even though co-plaintiffs included states in several other circuits, but O’Connor rejected this argument, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the injunction should be nationwide.  He emphasized the regulation allowing schools to have sex-segregated restroom facilities.  “As the separate facilities provision in Section 106.33 is permissive,” he wrote, “states that authorize schools to define sex to include gender identity for purposes of providing separate restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities will not be impacted” by the injunction.  “Those states who do not want to be covered by this injunction can easily avoid doing so by state law that recognized the permissive nature” of the regulation.  “It therefore only applies to those states whose laws direct separation.  However, an injunction should not unnecessarily interfere with litigation currently pending before other federal courts on this subject regardless of state law.  As such, the parties should file a pleading describing those cases so the Court can appropriately narrow the scope if appropriate.”  This reference is directed mainly to the plethora of lawsuits pending in North Carolina, in which the federal government is contending that H.B.2 violates Title IX and Title VII.

Supreme Court Stays Injunction against Gloucester School District in Transgender Restroom Case

Posted on: August 15th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 3 the U.S. Supreme Court granted an application by the Gloucester (Virginia) County School Board to stay a preliminary injunction that had been issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar (E.D. Va.) on June 23; see 2016 WL 3581852. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., 136 S.Ct. 2442 (No. 16A52), granting stay. The injunction ordered the school board to allow Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school while the trial court determined whether the school’s policy denying such access violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.  What was unusual about the Supreme Court’s action was the brief concurring statement from Justice Stephen Breyer explaining that he had voted to grant the application as a “courtesy.”  The Court indicated that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan “would deny the application.”  With the vacancy created by the death of Justice Scalia last winter, the four conservative members of the Court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas – could not issue the stay, which requires a majority of the Court.

The court specified that the injunction was stayed “pending the timely filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari.” If the Court denies the writ (that is, refuses to review the lower court’s ruling on the merits), the injunction will go into effect.  If the Court votes to grant review, the stay would end when the Supreme Court issues its ruling on the merits of the appeal.

The lawsuit involves the hotly disputed question whether Title IX’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” by educational institutions prohibits a school from denying transgender students access to restroom and locker-room facilities consistent with their gender identity. It is undisputed that when Congress enacted Title IX several decades ago, there was no consideration or discussion about whether it would require such a result, and it was made clear in the legislative history and subsequent regulations and guidelines that Title IX did not prohibit educational institutes from designating access to such facilities as male-only or female-only. (Indeed, many states have statutory requirements that educational institutions provide separate restroom and locker-room facilities for males and females.)  Furthermore, a series of cases under the various sex discrimination laws over several decades had rejected claims that they extended to gender identity discrimination. As to Title IX, it was not until relatively recently, when teens began to identify as transgender and to begin transitioning while still in school, that the issue has heated up, and it was not until 2015 that the U.S. Department of Education, charged with interpreting and enforcing Title IX, took the position that the ban on discrimination “because of sex” included discrimination because of gender identity.

The Education Department’s interpretation, expressed first in a letter released in connection with litigation over restroom access in a suburban Illinois school district, was not entirely unprecedented, since several lower federal courts have ruled under a variety of sex discrimination laws that discrimination because of gender identity is form of sex discrimination. These include the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, in a case under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Boston-based 1st Circuit, in a case under the Fair Credit Act, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, in a case interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 concerning employment discrimination.  However, challengers to the Education Department’s interpretation have argued that it is, in effect, a “changing of the rules” that can only be effected through a formal regulatory process under the Administrative Procedure Act, and not through a position letter in a pending case or an informal “guidance” memorandum.

In this Gloucester County case, Gavin Grimm had been using the boys’ facilities without incident after his gender transition until some complaints by parents to the school board resulted in a vote to adopt a policy requiring Grimm and any other transgender students to use either the facilities consistent with the gender indicated on their birth certificates (sometimes called “biological sex”) or to use single-user facilities designated for use by either sex, such as the restroom in the school nurse’s office. Since medical authorities will not perform “sex-reassignment surgery” on minors, it is impossible for a transgender youth to qualify for a change of gender designation on their birth certificate in most states, and some states rule out such changes altogether.  Grimm, who presents as male, sued under Title IX, claiming that the school district’s new access rule violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  Judge Doumar initially rejected his Title IX claim and reserved judgement on the Equal Protection claim, disagreeing with the Education Department’s interpretation of the statute.  132 F.Supp.3d 736 (E.D.Va., Sep. 17, 2015). This ruling was reversed on April 19 by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 822 F.3d 709, which ruled that Doumar should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of its own regulations and the statute.  The 4th Circuit subsequently voted to deny en banc review of this ruling, 824 F.3d 450 (May 31, 2016).  The 4th Circuit sent the case back to Judge Doumar, who then issued the preliminary injunction, and refused to stay it.  The 4th Circuit also refused to stay it, on July 12, 2016 WL 3743189.  The school district’s application to the Supreme Court indicated that it would be filing a petition for review of the 4th Circuit’s April 23 ruling, but in the meantime it wanted to preserve the “status quo” until there was a final ruling on the merits of the case.  Most pressingly, it wanted to ensure that its existing access rule would be in place when classes resumed at the high school.

At the heart of the disputes about Title IX restroom access cases is a fundamental disconnect between those who reject, based on their religious views or other beliefs, the idea that a transgender man is actually male or a transgender woman is actually female. (This is expressed in the controversial Mississippi HB 1523, which seeks to privilege those whose religious beliefs reject the concept of gender identity being discordant with anatomical sex at birth, by allowing individuals and businesses holding such beliefs to refuse to recognize transgender identity.)  Based on their political rhetoric and the arguments they make in court, it is clear that these critics believe that gender is fixed at birth and always coincides with anatomical sex, rejecting the whole idea of gender transition.  Thus, their slogan: No men in women’s restrooms, and no women in men’s restrooms.  Some premise this opposition on fears about safety, while others emphasize privacy, arguing that people have a “fundamental” constitutional privacy right not to confront transgender people in single-sex facilities.)  On the other side of the issue are those who accept the experience of transgender people and the findings of scientific researchers who have detected evidence that there is a genetic and/or biological basis for individuals’ strong feeling that they are misclassified.

This is, of course, not the only pending case placing in issue the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX (which has also been endorsed by the Justice Department as it has represented the Education Department in court), or the broader question of whether federal sex discrimination laws are limited to instances of discrimination against somebody because of their “biological sex.” A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that circuit precedent required dismissal of a sexual orientation employment discrimination claim under Title VII, and the plaintiffs in that case will be seeking rehearing by the full 7th Circuit “en banc.”  There are also two appeals pending in the New York-based 2nd Circuit appealing dismissals of sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, as well as an appeal in the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit by an employer seeking reversal of a district court’s refusal to dismiss such a claim.

There are also multiple lawsuits pending in North Carolina and Mississippi, and cases involving multiple states as plaintiffs in Texas and Nebraska, challenging the federal government’s interpretations of “sex discrimination” in either or both of the sexual orientation and gender identity contexts. Early in August federal district judges held hearings in several of these cases where litigants were seeking preliminary injunctions, either to bar enforcement of state laws or to block enforcement of Title IX by the Education Department.  The district court in Mississippi has refused to stay its injunction against the Mississippi law, and has been backed up by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Mississippi will seek a Supreme Court stay, and in light of the Gloucester County stay, seems likely to receive one.

Justice Breyer cited in support of his “courtesy” vote a 2008 case, Medellin v. Texas, where the four liberal members of the Court had voted to grant a stay of execution of a Mexican national while important issues concerning the consular treaty rights of foreign nationals being tried on criminal charges in U.S. courts were unsettled and no member of the conservative branch of the Court was willing to provide a fifth vote as a “courtesy” to put off the execution until the underlying legal issues could be resolved.  In this case, the four conservative members of the Court clearly believed that the school district should not have to comply with the injunction until the underlying legal issues were settled, and Breyer was willing to extend to them the courtesy that none of them would extend in the 2008 case!

A Flood of New Litigation on LGBT Rights

Posted on: May 10th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

May has brought a flood of litigation over LGBT rights in the federal courts. During the first few days of the month, half a dozen federal lawsuits were filed addressing either the transgender bathroom issue or continuing state-level resistance to marriage equality.

First out of the box was a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago on May 4 by two right-wing litigation groups – The Thomas More Society and the Alliance Defending Freedom – challenging the U.S. Department of Education’s agreement with Township School District 211 that settled a lawsuit about transgender restroom access.   Under the settlement agreement the school district will allow transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity.  The case stirred considerable local controversy, and the litigation groups were able to recruit five students and their parents, banding together as “Students and Parents for Privacy,” to challenge the settlement.  They argue that the students have a fundamental constitutional right of “bodily privacy” that is violated when transgender students show up in the restroom, that the settlement violates the parents’ fundamental right to direct the education and upbringing of their children by exposing the children to such shocking things, and, perhaps most importantly, that the Education Department’s position that gender identity discrimination violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, a federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools that receive federal money, is a misinterpretation of that statute and was not validly adopted.

This last argument rests on a plausible reading of the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal statute that specifies procedures that federal agencies must follow when they adopt new regulations. While the Education Department has not adopted a regulation on the subject, the plaintiffs make a strong argument that its enforcement of its interpretation is tantamount to a regulation.  The plaintiffs argue that the Department is not free to take such a position without going through the formalities of the Administrative Procedure Act, because the Department is enforcing its view as if it was a regulation and because the position it is taking was consistently rejected for the first several decades of Title IX’s existence.  (The statute dates from the early 1970s.)  If the courts agree, the Department would have to go through a time-consuming process that could stretch out over many months in order to adopt a valid regulation, and then the regulation would be subject to challenge in the federal appeals courts, which could tie it up in litigation for years.

On the other hand, many of the plaintiffs’ arguments have already been rejected by the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, when it ruled on April 19 that a federal court in Virginia should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX in a case brought by a transgender boy seeking appropriate restroom access in his Virginia high school.  That ruling turned on the court’s agreement with the Education Department that existing statutory provisions and regulations (which allow schools to maintain separate restrooms for males and females) were ambiguous as to how to treat transgender people, justifying the Department in adopting a position consistent with its view of the purpose of the law to provide equal educational opportunity.  The 4th Circuit held that the district court should defer to the Department’s judgment, since it was not a clearly erroneous interpretation of the statute and the existing regulations.  In the Chicago lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the statute and regulations are not ambiguous, but this rests on their assertion that the Congress that passed Title IX so long ago could not have intended any meaning for the term “sex” other than “biological sex” as determined at birth.  The 4th Circuit, by contrast, found that the term “sex” without any explanatory statutory definition could have a variety of meanings depend upon the context in which it was used, and is thus inherently ambiguous.

Chicago is in the 7th Circuit, so the 4th Circuit’s ruling is not binding on the lawsuit filed there.  More than thirty years ago, the 7th Circuit ruled in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that discrimination because of gender identity did not violate the sex discrimination provision and the federal court in Chicago may find itself constrained, if not directly bound, by that precedent under a different but parallel statute, although thirty years of developments in the courts have arguably rendered it obsolete.  Federal courts have generally held that the term “sex” in Title VII and Title IX should be given the same meaning, and that cases construing one of those statutes can be consulted when construing the other.

Just five days later, on May 9, there was a flurry of new litigation in the U.S. District Courts of North Carolina, focused on the bathroom provisions of H.B. 2. H.B. 2 was introduced in the state legislature, approved by both houses and signed by Governor Pat McCrory in one day, March 23.  It wiped out local government bans on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, quashed the right of North Carolinians to sue for any kind of discrimination in state courts, and prohibited localities from adopting their own rules on government contracting and minimum wages.  Most controversially, however, it provided that in all public facilities with restrooms, changing rooms, locker rooms and the like, multi-occupancy facilities must be segregated by biological sex, defined as the sex recorded on a person’s birth certificate.  The state’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, denounced the measure as discriminatory and said his office would not defend it.

Lambda Legal and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina on March 28, challenging portions of H.B. 2 under the 14th Amendment and Title IX, and subsequently one of the transgender plaintiffs in the case also filed charges of discrimination under Title VII with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (which had ruled last year that Title VII requires employers to allow transgender employees to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity).  Within a few weeks, the 4th Circuit’s April 19 ruling in the Virginia Title IX case placed the legality of the bathroom provisions in doubt.  The controversy surrounding H.B. 2, especially the bathroom provision and the preemption of local anti-discrimination ordinances, caused adverse reactions that echoed throughout the country as governors and mayors prohibited official travel to North Carolina, some major employers announced reconsideration of plans to locate facilities there, and conventions and major musical performers cancelled activities in the state.  But Governor McCrory and the Republican state legislative leaders rejected calls to rescind the statute.

The Justice Department weighed in early in May, when the Civil Rights Division sent a letter to Governor McCrory, who had been vigorously defending the law in national media, informing him that the Justice Department considered the bathroom provision to violate federal sex discrimination laws and demanding a response by May 9. Governor McCrory’s response was to file a lawsuit on May 9, seeking a declaration from the federal district court in the Eastern District of North Carolina that the bathroom provisions did not violate federal civil rights laws.  U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch then held a press conference at which she unveiled a new lawsuit by the federal government against North Carolina, filed in the Middle District of North Carolina, seeking a declaration that the bathroom provision violates federal law.  Lynch’s statement, which quickly went viral on the internet, promised transgender people that the federal government recognized them and was standing behind them, thus putting the full weight of the Justice Department on the line backing the Education Department and the EEOC in their interpretations of “sex discrimination” under their respective statutes.

Since North Carolina Attorney General Cooper was refusing to defend H.B. 2, Governor McCrory retained a private lawyer, Karl S. Bowers, Jr., of Columbia, South Carolina, who filed the complaint co-signed by the governor’s General Counsel, Robert C. Stephens, and local North Carolina attorneys from the Raleigh firm of Millberg Gordon Stewart PLLC.  Presumably they will also be conducting the defense in the Justice Department’s case.  Their argument, consistent with McCrory’s public statements, was that the state was not discriminating against transgender people, merely requiring them to use alternative facilities in order to protect the privacy rights of others.  The complaint echoed the governor’s “common sense privacy policy” argument, and insisted that federal courts have “consistently” found that Title VII “does not protect transgender or transsexuality per se.”  While the complaint lists half a dozen federal court rulings supporting that position, it conveniently fails to note numerous court decisions holding to the contrary, including decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, and district courts in many different states.

The Justice Department will probably move to transfer McCrory’s case to the Middle District of North Carolina, where it can be consolidated with the Justice Department’s lawsuit and perhaps the pending Lambda/ACLU lawsuit. There was another lawsuit defending H.B. 2 filed on May 9 in the Eastern District court by North Carolina Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), but it is hard to conceive how they could have standing to bring a federal lawsuit on their own, so it is likely to be dismissed if the government makes a motion to that effect.

Meanwhile, there were also new litigation developments in Mississippi, challenging House Bill 1523, the so-called “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.” HB 1523 was passed in response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell marriage equality decision of last June 26.  Subsequent to Obergefell, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal district court injunction against the state of Mississippi’s enforcement of its anti-gay marriage ban, and marriage equality came to the state.  State legislators quickly went to work undermining this by devising H.B. 1523, which essentially gives government officials, businesses, and religious believers permission to discriminate against same-sex couples, provided that the discriminators have a sincere religious belief that marriage should only involve one man and one woman.  The measure is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

The ACLU lawsuit filed on May 9 in the federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, charges that H.B. 1523 violates the 14th Amendment “by subjecting the lawful marriages of same-sex couples to different terms and conditions than those accorded to different-sex couples.”  In effect, Mississippi has set up a “separate but equal” framework, which “imposes a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all married same-sex couples in Mississippi.”  The lawsuit names as defendant the Mississippi State Registrar of Vital Records, Judy Moulder.

Among its many discriminatory provisions, H.B. 1523 provides that government employees “who wish to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples” will be required to Moulder, and she will be required to maintain a list of officials who have recused themselves from providing same-sex couples with the services that are routinely provided to different-sex couples, and they will be excused from providing these services to same-sex couples. These recusant officials are also charged by the statute with a requirement to make arrangements to insure that same-sex couples do receive the services to which they are entitled, but the statute does not establish any mechanism to ensure compliance with this provision.

The ACLU lawsuit seeks a declaration from the court that H.B. 1523 is unconstitutional “on its face” and an injunction against it going into effect.   It was immediately followed by more court action, as New York attorney Roberta Kaplan, who represents the plaintiffs in the Mississippi marriage equality case, filed a motion in federal district court on May 10, asking Judge Carlton Reeves to reopen the case so they can name Judy Moulder as an additional defendant and modify his injunction to require the state to come up with the necessary procedures to ensure that same-sex couples who seek to marry will not encounter any delays due to recusals on religious grounds by state officials.  Indeed, she argues, anyone recusing themselves from serving same-sex couples should be disqualified from serving different-sex couples as well, as failure to do so would violate the obligations of all state officials to provide non-discriminatory service. The motion also asks that the list of recusant officials be posted on the website of the Registrar of Vital Records so that couples won’t have to subject themselves to the indignity of being turned away when they seek marriage licenses.

 

4th Circuit Revives Transgender Teen’s Title IX Claim Against Virginia School Board

Posted on: April 19th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 on April 19 that U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred by not deferring to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of its regulations to require schools to let transgender students use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Judge Doumar had dismissed a claim by G.G., a teenage transgender boy attending high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, that the school violated his statutory right under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act by adopting a rule that he could use only restrooms designated for girls or unisex single-user restrooms.  The court referred to the plaintiff by his initials throughout the opinion to guard his privacy, but the ACLU’s press releases about the case identify him as Gavin Grimm.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7026 (April 19, 2016).

The high school had accommodated G.G. when, at the beginning of his sophomore year in August 2014, he informed school officials that he was transitioning, had gotten a legal name change, and would be expressing his male gender identity, by letting him use the boys’ restroom. After several weeks without serious incident,  some parents alerted to the situation by their children objected and pushed the school board to adopt its resolution after two public meetings in which indignant parents threatened the board members with political retribution if they did not adopt the restrictive policy.  G.G., now 16, has not undergone reassignment surgery, which is not available to minors under the prevailing medical standards for treating gender dysphoria, but has transitioned in all other respects and identifies fully as male.

The 4th Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule that the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, as expressed in an opinion letter by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights on January 7, 2015, in response to this controversy, should be followed by the federal courts.  Since North Carolina is also within the 4th Circuit, this ruling, as it now stands, suggests that the “bathroom” provisions of the notorious H.B. 2, at least as they apply to public educational institutions, violate federal law, as the ACLU and Lambda Legal have argued in a lawsuit challenging that statute pending in the U.S. District Court in North Carolina.

Writing for the majority of the panel, Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd observed that the court’s role in a case involving an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute is most deferential when the statute and the official regulations that have been adopted by the agency are ambiguous regarding the particular issue in dispute. Title IX says that educational institutions that receive federal funds may not discriminate because of sex.  The regulations, adopted decades ago, provide that educational institutions may designate separate facilities for use by males and females, so long as the facilities are equal in quality, but never directly address how to deal with transgender individuals whose “biological sex” differs from their gender identity.  In this respect, concluded a majority of the court, the regulations are “ambiguous.”  As such, the Department’s interpretation of the regulations should be deferred to by the court when they are a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  Indeed, wrote Floyd, the Department’s interpretation is entitled to deference “unless the [school] board demonstrates that the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.”

District Judge Doumar had concluded that the regulations were not ambiguous, and refused to defer to the Department interpretation. Judge Floyd devoted a section of his opinion to explaining why the regulations are ambiguous.  “We conclude that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading – determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia – and the Department’s interpretation – determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”  When language can support alternative readings, there is ambiguity.  “The Department’s interpretation resolves the ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity.”

Protesting against this conclusion, dissenting Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer (who was, incidentally, also a dissenter in the 4th Circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014), found that it would produce unacceptable results by violating the “physiological privacy interest” of students who did not want to share restroom facilities with students whose biological sex differed from theirs.  Judge Niemeyer essentially articulated, in more elevated terms, the arguments that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been making in defense of the “bathroom” provisions in H.B. 2: that the privacy concerns of students who object to sharing facilities with transgender students should take priority over the interests of the transgender students.

But Judge Niemeyer doesn’t put it quite so crudely. Indeed, he suggests that the opinion letter from the Department authorized just what the school board did, by opining that schools could accommodate the needs of transgender students by providing unisex single-occupancy facilities for them to use.  Judge Floyd points out, however, that the Department’s advice was to provide such facilities for students who did not want to use multiple-use facilities.  In this case, G.G. wants to use the male-designated multiple-use facility as being congruent with his gender identity.  As to the privacy concerns, the court noted that the school board has made physical modifications in the boys’ restrooms by adding partitions between urinals and taping over visual gaps in the toilet stalls so as to enhance the privacy of all users.

Judge Floyd emphasized that because G.G. was only contesting the school board’s policy on restrooms, the court did not have to deal with the question whether other single-sex facilities, such as locker rooms and shower rooms, would have to be open to transgender students as well. Judge Niemeyer observed that discrimination “because of sex” had to mean the same thing throughout the statute and regulations, so he argued that the majority opinion opened up the door to allowing transgender students to claim a right of access to all such sex-designated facilities.

In a somewhat unintentionally humorous footnote, Judge Floyd noted the school board’s argument, reiterated in Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, that allowing biological males into the girls’ restrooms and biological females into the boys’ restrooms could produce “danger caused by ‘sexual responses prompted by students’ exposure to the private body parts of students of the other biological sex.’” Floyd observed, perhaps tongue in cheek, “The same safety concern would seem to require segregated restrooms for gay boys and girls who would, under the dissent’s formulation, present a safety risk because of the ‘sexual responses prompted’ by their exposure to the private body parts of other students of the same sex in sex-segregated restrooms.”  Yes!  Here is a federal judge with real empathy for hormone-infused teenagers of every sexual orientation and gender identity!

In addition to appealing Judge Doumar’s dismissal of his Title IX claim, G.G. was also appealing the Judge Doumar’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction that would require the school board to let him use the boys’ restroom facilities while the case proceeded. Judge Doumar had refrained from ruling on G.G.’s constitutional equal protection claim, so his case was still alive before the district court even though his Title IX claim was dismissed.  Judge Doumar had focused his refusal of injunctive relief on his determination that G.G. failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm if he was excluded from the boys’ restrooms while the case was pending.

The majority of the panel concluded that Doumar had wrongly refused to give appropriate consideration to the evidence presented by G.G. and his medical expert on this point, applying too strict a standard for considering evidence in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction. The majority concluded that the appropriate step was to reverse the dismissal of the Title IX claim and send the case back to the district court for reconsideration of the motion for preliminary injunction, applying the correct evidentiary standard.  This means that G.G. will be back to square one before the district court, but with the wind of the court of appeals decision behind his back on key issues in the case.

G.G. had asked the court of appeals to reassign the case to another district judge. Judge Doumar made various comments in court that suggested bias, or at least a refusal to believe in the validity of the concept of gender identity, with references to G.G. as a girl who wanted to be a boy.  However, Judge Floyd pointed out, none of that objectionable language appeared in the written opinion that Judge Doumar released to explain his ruling, and the court was not going to conclude at this point that Doumar would not give appropriate consideration to the evidence when called upon by the court of appeals to reconsider his ruling, so the court denied G.G.’s request and the case will return to Judge Doumar.

The third member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, agreed with Judge Floyd that the Title IX claim should be revived, but would have gone further, contending that G.G. had satisfied the requirements for a preliminary injunction. However, since the grant of such an injunction is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, he ultimately agreed to “defer to the district court in this instance.  It is to be hoped,” he continued, “that the district court will turn its attention to this matter with the urgency the case poses.  Under the circumstances here, the appropriateness and necessity of such prompt action is plain.  By the time the district court issues its decision, G.G. will have suffered the psychological harm the injunction sought to prevent for an entire school year.”

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, reminiscent of his dissent in the Virginia marriage equality case, harps on the “unprecedented” nature of the ruling, asserting that the court’s “holding overrules custom, culture, and the very demands inherent in human nature for privacy and safety, which the separation of such facilities is designed to protect.” He also accused the majority of misconstruing the language of Title IX and its regulations, and concluded that “it reaches an unworkable and illogical result.”

G.G. is represented by the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT rights project. Joshua Block argued the appeal on his behalf on January 27.

Federal Judge Says Straight but Not Gay Students Are Protected from Homophobic Harassment Under Title IX

Posted on: March 15th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Ruling on pretrial motions in a case brought by the estate of a student who committed suicide after allegedly suffering severe harassment from fellow students at a public school, Chief U.S. District Judge Glenn T. Suddaby (N.D.N.Y.) allowed the plaintiff to amend the complaint to add a Title IX cause of action for sex discrimination by an educational institution, based on the homophobic nature of slurs aimed at the decedent in Estate of D.B. v. Thousand Islands Central School District, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 32054, 2016 WL 945350 (March 14, 2016), but only because the proposed amendment does not allege that the student was gay.

Judge Suddaby’s opinion lacks any coherent narration of the facts, only mentioning individual factual allegations in passing while analyzing the various motions before the court. From what one discerns, however, the case concerns a male public school student who was subjected to bullying and harassment by fellow-students, that school officials failed to protect him, and that he committed suicide at home.

The original complaint alleged violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 14th Amendment, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the New York State Education Law and the N.Y. Dignity for All Students Act.  The opinion does not identify the nature of D.B.’s alleged disability. The First Amended complaint sought to add sex discrimination claims under federal and state law, most significantly Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which the U.S. Department of Education has construed to protect gay students from bullying and harassment.  There are also state law tort claims alleging infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision.  The defendants raised a variety of jurisdictional and procedural arguments in support of their motion to dismiss, and opposed the cross-motion to add new counts, including the Title IX count.  The opinion is mainly interesting for the way in which Judge Suddaby analyzed the motion to add a Title IX sex discrimination claim.

Judge Suddaby found that because of 2nd Circuit precedent rejecting the idea that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable as sex discrimination under federal statutes, a student who is harassed with homophobic slurs would have an action under Title IX if the student alleged that the harassment was due to his incorrectly perceived sexual orientation but not his actual homosexual orientation!

There is a sort of “Through the Looking Glass” quality to the judge’s discussion of the Title IX claim. For example, the judge rejects the allegation that calling a boy a “pussy” could be seen as a sexually-related slur.  The complaint alleges: “[Another student] called the Decedent a ‘pussy,’ and told him ‘You’re a pussy and you need the shit kicked out of you.’ These are the types of anti-gay and gender-related slurs Decedent was consistently subjected to.’”  Judge Suddaby begs to differ. “As shocking as this slur may be,” he wrote, “the Court is not persuaded that it is related to gender under the circumstances.  Rather, as Defendants point out, the slur ‘pussy’ is more likely to mean ‘coward’ than anything gender related.  Even if the other student did intend the slur to relate to gender, Plaintiff has not made a proper showing of that fact.  Rather, most of Plaintiff’s reference to ‘gender-related slurs’ are nothing more than conclusory statements.”

On the other hand, Judge Suddaby accepted the argument that explicitly homophobic slurs could support a “gender stereotyping” claim of sex discrimination under Title IX, provided that the plaintiff was not gay!  “The Second Circuit recognizes a fine line between gender stereotyping and bootstrapping protection for sexual orientation,” he wrote.  “Because a Title IX sex discrimination claim is treated in much the same way as a Title VII sex discrimination claim, Title VII jurisprudence therefore applies.  Under the ‘gender stereotyping’ theory of liability under Title VII, individuals who fail or refuse to comply with socially accepted gender roles are members of a protected class.  However, courts in the Second Circuit do not recognize sexual orientation as a protected classification under Title VII or Title IX.  The critical fact under the circumstances is the actual sexual orientation of the harassed person.  If the harassment consists of homophobic slurs directed at a homosexual, then a gender-stereotyping claim by that individual is improper bootstrapping.  If, on the other hand, the harassment consists of homophobic slurs directed at a heterosexual, then a gender-stereotyping claim by that individual is possible.”

In this case, the plaintiff is not alleging that D.B. was gay. To the contrary, wrote Suddaby, “D.B.’s own alleged statements refer to accusations that he was homosexual as ‘stupid gay rumours [sic].’  Moreover, the Amended Complaint alleges that the bullying was based on D.B.’s ‘actual or perceived sexual orientation’ and his ‘perceived and/or presumed sexual orientation.’  Under the circumstances, the Amended Complaint alleges facts plausibly suggesting a gender-stereotyping claim to survive a [dismissal] motion; and the amendment to include this claim is not futile.  As a result, Plaintiff’s cross-motion to amend is granted as to the inclusion of the Title IX claim.”

The judge rejected the rather bizarre argument that certain federal claims should be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, in light of the difficulty of a deceased person pursuing administrative remedies. But he accepted the argument that the negligent supervision claim could not apply to the suicide, as such, because D.B. took his life at home, not at school.  On the other hand, this tort claim could extend to the alleged failures of school officials to respond to the ongoing bullying of D.B.  The court rejected plaintiff’s motion to add claims under the N.Y. Civil Rights Law, on the ground that statutory notice of claims had not been served on the school district as a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit.

The opinion reflects the retrograde state of the law within the federal 2nd Circuit as a result of a 2000 court of appeals decision, Simonton v. Runyon, which rejected a Title VII sex discrimination brought by a gay plaintiff subjected to sexually-oriented workplace harassment.  Attempts are under way to get the Circuit to reconsider this precedent in the context of ongoing litigation asserting sexual orientation discrimination claims under federal sex discrimination statutes, in line with a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in July 2015 that sexual orientation discrimination is “necessarily” sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.  EEOC rulings are not binding on the courts, however, and the persuasiveness of this particular EEOC ruling is somewhat compromised by the fact that it represents a reversal of almost half a century of agency precedent.

The Estate of D.B. is represented by Michael D. Meth of Chester, N.Y. Charles C. Spagnoli and Frank W. Miller of East Syracuse represent the school district.  Judge Suddaby was appointed to the district court by President George W. Bush during the last year of his second term in office.

Federal Court Explains Pretrial Motion Rulings Against Transgender Student in Restroom Lawsuit

Posted on: September 26th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar issued an opinion on September 17 in G. G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124905, 2015 WL 5560190 (E.D. Va.), explaining his earlier bench decision in July dismissing the plaintiff’s Title IX count and his September 4 denial of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction in a dispute over restroom usage at the Gloucester, Virginia, High School. The plaintiff, a transgender boy, is being denied use of the restrooms designated for boys at the school. Judge Doumar found that Title IX does not require public schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms that conform to their gender identity, so long as they are provided with “comparable” restroom facilities, and that the plaintiff had not presented evidence sufficient to support his request to be allowed to use the boys’ restrooms pending a final ruling on the merits of his constitutional equal protection claim.

According to G.G.’s complaint, although designated female at birth he began to feel like a boy at “a very young age.” By age 12, he had acknowledged his male identity to himself and by the time he was a high school freshman “most of his friends were aware that he identified as male” and “away from home and school, G.G. presented himself as male.” During his freshman year, starting in September 2013, he experienced “severe depression and anxiety related to the stress of concealing his gender identity from his family.” He alleges that this led him to avoid school during the spring semester and to take classes “through a home-bound program.” In April of that 2014 spring semester, he finally told his parents that he was a transgender male and at his request began to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with gender dysphoria. The psychologist recommended that G.G. “begin living in accordance with his male gender identity in all respects” including restroom usage, and gave him a “Treatment Documentation Letter” confirming the diagnosis and these directions, stating that he was under treatment. The psychologist also recommended that he begin hormone treatment. In July 2014, G.G. petitioned the local court for a legal name change, which was granted, and G.G. requested that his friends and family use his new name and refer to him using male pronouns. In public settings, G.G. began using restrooms designated for males.

In August 2014, prior to the beginning of fall semester, G.G. and his mother notified officials at Gloucester High School about his gender dysphoria and his name change. The high school officials were very accommodating, agreeing to change school records to record his new name. G.G. and his mother met with the principal and guidance counselor to discuss his transition. They allowed him to notify all his teachers about his preferences. “Being unsure how students would react to his transition,” wrote Doumar, “G.G. initially agreed to use a separate bathroom in the nurse’s office” and he was allowed to fulfill his physical education requirement through the home school program to avoid use of a locker room at school. But after the semester began G.G. “found it stigmatizing to use a separate restroom” and requested permission to use the male restrooms, which was granted by the principal. G.G. used the male restrooms for seven weeks, during which the School Board received protests from parents on behalf of their sons about G.G.’s use of the male restrooms.

A member of the School Board introduced a resolution that would limit use of restroom facilities to “the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative appropriate private facility.” A majority of speakers at the November School Board meeting supported the resolution, contending that G.G.’s use of a male restroom violated the privacy rights of male students and might “lead to sexual assault in the bathrooms.” At least one parent suggested that a non-transgender boy could come to school wearing a dress and demand to use the girl’s restroom based on the precedent of letting G.G. use the men’s room. G.G. testified, speaking against the proposed resolution and “outing” himself to the entire community as transgender. The School Board voted 4-3 to defer a vote on the resolution to its next meeting, but prior to that meeting issued a news release indicating that steps were being taken to increase the privacy of all students by modifying the restrooms to expand partitions between urinals in the male restrooms and “adding privacy strips to the doors of stalls in all restrooms.” In addition, the school designated three single-stall unisex restrooms, “similar to what’s in many other public spaces.” At its December 9 meeting, the Board approved the resolution restricting restroom use by a vote of 6-1. The next day, the principal instructed G.G. not to use the boys’ restroom, threatening him with discipline if he violated the rule. He was allowed only to use the restroom in the nurse’s office, the girls’ restrooms, and the newly-designated unisex restrooms.

G.G. began receiving hormone treatments shortly after that School Board meeting, deepening his voice, increasing his facial hair and giving him a “more masculine appearance.” He claimed that as he was presenting as male, he was unwelcome on the girls’ restrooms; and that girls had actually asked him to leave when he tried to use those restrooms before this controversy arose. He also alleged that the unisex restrooms were not convenient to the rooms where his classes met,=, and that using them would be stigmatizing to him, causing psychological damage.

On June 11, 2015, G.G. filed suit alleging a violation of Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination in public schools and the equal protection clause, and requested a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms pending a final ruling on the merits of his claim. The School Board moved to dismiss the case. The U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case, arguing that the Board’s resolution violated Title IX. The court heard initial arguments on the motions on July 27, and promptly dismissed the Title IX claim. In a subsequent hearing on September 4, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, promising to issue an explanatory opinion for both rulings at a later date.

Turning first to the Title IX claim, the court found that an existing Title IX regulation appeared to authorize the School Board’s restroom use policy. 34 C.F.R. Sec. 106.33 “expressly allows schools to provide separate bathroom facilities based upon sex, so long as the bathrooms are comparable,” Judge Doumar wrote, and he found that the regulation is not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” Rather, he found, it “seems to effectuate Title IX’s provision allowing separate living facilities based on sex,” so he gave it controlling weight. Rejecting G.G.’s argument that Title IX should be construed to prohibit only gender identity discrimination as such, he said, “under any fair reading, ‘sex’ in Section 106.33 clearly includes biological sex. Because the School Board’s policy of providing separate bathrooms on the basis of biological sex is permissible under the regulation, the Court need not decide whether ‘sex’ in Section 106.33 also includes ‘gender identity’.” Judge Doumar found that G.G. had not alleged that the unisex facilities or the nurse’s restroom failed to satisfy the requirement of “comparable facilities” under the regulation, so no Title IX claim was stated.

The court had to deal as well with the Justice Department’s argument that the court should defer to a more recent interpretation by the Department of Education, which was issued in a January 7, 2015 “Guidance Letter” stating that students should be allowed to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity, which itself was based on an interpretive bulletin issued by DOE in December 2014. “The Department of Education’s interpretation does not stand up to scrutiny,” wrote the judge. “Unlike regulations, interpretations in opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines do not warrant” the deference that courts normally pay to agency regulations that are adopted under statutes pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act through a process of publication, public comment and, sometimes, public hearings before final official publication.

“An agency’s interpretation of its own regulation, even one contained in an opinion letter or a guidance document, is given controlling weight if (1) the regulation is ambiguous and (2) the interpretation is not plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation,” wrote Judge Doumar. Using this standard, he concluded that the recent guidance letter did not stand up, because “even under the most liberal reading, ‘on the basis of sex’ in Section 106.33 means both ‘on the basis of gender’ and ‘on the basis of biological sex,’” so the school was authorized to segregate restrooms based on the biological sex of students. “To defer to the Department of Education’s newfound interpretation would be nothing less than to allow the Department of Education to ‘create de facto a new regulation’ through the use of a mere letter and guidance document,” he continued. “If the Department of Education wishes to amend its regulation, it is of course entitled to do so. However, it must go through notice and comment rulemaking, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Turning to the motion for preliminary injunction, the court found that G.G. failed to meet the most important test: to show that he was likely to prevail on the merits. Unlike the motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, as to which the court had to accept as true all of G.G.’s factual allegations, on the motion for preliminary injunction Judge Doumar said that G.G. had to submit evidence tending to prove his allegations, and as to this he had fallen short, merely repeating the allegations of the complaint and failing to flesh them out with the kind of factual details that would show he was likely to win on his equal protection claim. Among other things, Judge Doumar faulted G.G. for failing to present an affidavit from the psychologist who had diagnosed his gender dysphoria. The judge pointed out that the expert psychological evidence submitted with the motion was by another psychologist apparently hired for purposes of the litigation who had only met briefly with G.G. once, and whose testimony was generalized and not specific to G.G. Thus, there was no evidence beyond G.G.’s own assertions that being banned from using the boys’ restrooms was psychologically harmful to G.G. G.G. also failed to provide factual evidence to demonstrate his contention that the unisex restrooms were so inconveniently located as to present a hardship. He claimed that because of the proximity problem he had to hold his urine and suffered urinary infections, but offered no medical testimony to support this claim.

Most importantly, however, Judge Doumar accepted the School Board’s argument that allowing G.G. to use the boys’ restrooms would intrude on the constitutional privacy rights of male students. He observed that courts have generally found that individuals have a constitutional right of privacy with regard to exposure of their bodies to the opposite sex. The underlying, albeit unspoken, aspect of this analysis was that the complaining boys regard G.G. as a girl and object to a girl being present and observing them in the boys’ room. The court cited a recent decision by a federal court in Pittsburgh, rejecting a transgender man’s restroom suit against the University of Pittsburgh, and observed that the privacy concerns are even greater in the context of high school students. To the court, when the clash is between the constitutional right of privacy of the male students and the alleged psychological harm to G.G. of having to use a unisex restroom, the balance clearly favored the other male students, at least for purposes of preliminary relief pending trial. Doumar emphasized that G.G. was raising a “novel” claim, that it was unclear that he could prevail on the merits, and that he had presented no factual evidence on the issue of any irreparable injury that he might suffer if denied the use of the boys’ restrooms while this case proceeds on his equal protection claim.

G.G. is represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, who might seek to appeal these rulings to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the 4th Circuit was traditionally a very conservative bench, President Obama’s appointments have turned it around, resulting in the circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014, followed by a refusal to stay that opinion pending appeal. Thus, it is hard to predict how the 4th Circuit might react in light of the Justice Department’s intervention on behalf of G.G. in this case, but an appeal might not be hopeless.