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North Carolina Federal Court Refuses to Dismiss Challenge to North Carolina’s Exclusion of Coverage for Gender Transition from State Employee Medical Plan

Posted on: April 5th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

On March 11, U.S District Judge Loretta C. Biggs denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal claiming that the State Health Plan’s categorical exclusion of coverage for treatment sought “in conjunction with proposed gender transformation” or “in connection with sex changes or modifications” violates the Equal Protection Clause, Title IX, and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Kadel v. Folwell, 2020 WL 1169271, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42586 (M.D.N.C.). The state university defendants had moved to dismiss the Title IX claim, and the State Health Plan defendants had moved to dismiss the Equal Protection and ACA claims. The plaintiffs are all current or former employees of the university defendants, or dependents of university employees, which were all enrolled in the Plan and are the parents of transgender individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are seeking treatment that is categorically excluded from coverage under the Plan.

The plaintiffs jointly allege that since the 1980s the Health Plan covering employees of the state university and their dependents has denied coverage for medically necessary treatment if the need stems from gender dysphoria, as opposed to some other condition. Thus, a cisgender woman’s medically necessary mastectomy would be covered, but a transgender man’s mastectomy for purpose of gender transition would not be covered. With the exception of 2017, this exclusionary policy has been in effect. Third party administrators retained by the employers to administer the plans – Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (claims administrator) and CBS Caremark (pharmaceuticals) – sell this kind of coverage to other employers, this it would be possible for the state to include such coverage using their current administrators, who are experienced in dealing with such claims.

The statutory causes of action (Title IX and ACA) would require the court to conclude that discrimination because of gender identity is covered under the statutory prohibition of sex discrimination, while the constitutional claim would require a finding that gender identity discrimination claims are actionable under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Judge Biggs turned first to the statutory claims in her analysis. She first rejected the state university’s claim that the suit should not be against them, because the state government dictates the content of their employee benefits plans. She found that the defendants “offer” the plan to plaintiffs, and “participate” (or participated) in its availability. “Indeed,” she wrote, “had University Defendants not hired Plaintiffs, they would not have been permitted to enroll in the Plan at all. The Court finds, at this stage, those facts provide a sufficient nexus between the alleged injuries the University Defendants.” Also, responding to the University’s argument that a ruling against them would not redress the plaintiffs’ claims because the defendants are bound by state policy, Biggs wrote that “there are other wahys in which a favorable ruling on Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim could give them the relief they seek. First, Plaintiffs have asked for – and ‘personally would benefit in a tangible way’ from – an award of damages.” Further, she noted, the university defendants might offer supplemental coverage beyond what the state Plan provides. She also rejected defendant’s arguments that since some of the Plaintiffs are not themselves transgender, their injuries are only indirect, because the minor plaintiffs’ “only ties” to the university are through their parents’ employment. Judge Biggs found that the parents were in this case within the class of plaintiffs protected by Title IX.

Turning to the argument that gender identity claims are not cognizable under Title IX, Biggs took note of the fact that the Supreme Court was considering whether Title VII covers gender identity discrimination claims in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, No. 18-107, which was argued on October 8, 2019, and had not been decided yet. The defendants argued that this case should be put “on hold” until a Supreme Court ruling was issued. “Because courts in this circuit often look to Title VII when construing like terms in Title IX,” she noted, “the Supreme Court’s decision could potentially impact the viability of the Title IX claim in this case. At this time, however, this Court is left to make its own determination as to whether discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ encompasses discrimination on the basis of transgender status,” and she noted Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 302 F. Supp. 3d 730 (E.D. Va. 2018) and M.A.B. v. Board of Education of Talbot City, 286 F. Supp. 3d 704 (D. Md. 2918), in which other district courts also within the 4th Circuit have ruled that such claims are covered by Title IX. Biggs wrote that she “agrees with their reasoning and follows it here.” She also noted that some other district courts in other circuits have faced similar arguments challenging transgender exclusions under state employee benefit plans, and have ruled against the employing states in those cases.

“University Defendants do not seriously contest that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination because of sex (although State Defendants do),” she wrote. “Rather, in moving to dismiss for failure to state a claim, they simply rephrase their arguments related to standing. There is no dispute that ‘a recipient of federal funds may be liable in damages under Title IX only for its own misconduct; the parties just disagree over whether University Defendants’ conduct is sufficiently implicated in this case.” Biggs held that “at this stage” in the litigation, the plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the university defendants’ role in providing benefits to their employees are sufficient both for standing and for the Title IX claim, and denied the motion to dismiss the Title IX claim.

Turning to the ACA claim, the state defendants argued sovereign immunity. “Section 1557 does not purport to condition a state’s acceptance of federal funding on a waiver of sovereign immunity,” she wrote. “Nor does any other provision of the ACA. However, in the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Act of 1986 (CREA), Congress explicitly stated that a state shall not be immune from suit in federal court ‘for a violation of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the provisions of any other Federal statute prohibiting discrimination by recipients of Federal assistance.” The 4th Circuit found clear congressional intent to waive the state’s sovereign immunity if they accepted money in programs that prohibit discrimination. The state’s response was that the lack of mention of gender identity or transgender status in Section 1557 shows that North Carolina did not “knowingly” waive its sovereign immunity with respect to discrimination claims on these bases. Disagreeing, Biggs wrote that the state’s potential exposure to such suits should not have been “surprising,” because “courts across the country have acknowledged for decades that sex discrimination can encompass discrimination against transgender plaintiffs. Further, as a general matter, ‘statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,’” citing Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (1999). She asserted that surely the state would agree that Title IX covers sexual harassment claims, even though the word “harassment” does not appear in the statute. “By the same token, Section 1557 need not include the precise phrasing State Defendants demand to provide sufficient notice of a condition of waiver.”

Turning to the constitutional claim, asserted against specific state officials in their official capacity, she found convincing the case law supporting heightened scrutiny for gender identity discrimination claims as being essentially sex discrimination claims. “On its face,” she wrote, “the Exclusion bars coverage for ‘treatment in conjunction with proposed gender transformation’ and ‘sex changes or modifications.’ The characteristics of sex and gender are directly implicated; it is impossible to refer to the Exclusion without referring to them. State Defendants attempt to frame the Exclusion as one focused on ‘medical diagnoses, not . . . gender.’ However, the diagnosis at issue – gender dysphoria – only results from a discrepancy between assigned sex and gender identity. In short, the Exclusion facially discriminates on the basis of gender, and heightened scrutiny applies.” And, quoting from United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), she wrote, “A policy that classifies on the basis of gender violates the Equal Protection Clause unless the state can provide an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for the classification.” [Thank-you, Justice Ginsburg!] Judge Biggs found that at this stage in the litigation, “State Defendants have failed to satisfy this demanding standard” and, in fact, “the only justification presented thus far is that the Exclusion ‘saves money.’ Under ordinary rational basis review, that could potentially be enough to thwart Plaintiffs’ claim. However, when heightened scrutiny applies, ‘a State may not protect the public fisc by drawing an invidious distinction between classes of its citizens,’” quoting from Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250 (1974).

Next, Judge Biggs rejected the state defendants’ argument as a ground for dismissal the plaintiffs’ failure to join the Health Plan’s Board of Trustees as a required party, as they would have to vote to make any change in the Plan that would be required to repeal the Exclusion. She found that the state defendants “share primary responsibility for the operation and administration of the Plan” so an award of declaratory, injunctive and monetary remedies against them would “give plaintiffs all the relief they seek.”

Finally, rejecting defendants’ request that the action be stayed pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris Funeral Homes, Judge Biggs pointed out that “the potential harm to Plaintiffs resulting from even a mild delay is significant, as they will continue to be denied healthcare coverage for medically necessary procedures. In contrast, the ‘harm’ to Defendants of not staying this case appears to be nothing more than the inconvenience of having to begin discovery.” This is obvious. Since discovery hasn’t begun yet, there is no chance this case would be ready for a motion for summary judgment for many months, and the Supreme Court will likely rule in Harris by the end of June. “Judicial economy is, of course, a consideration,” wrote Biggs. However, this case is in its infancy, and it may be months before a decision issued in Harris – a substantial delay for those seeking to vindicate their civil rights. Given the ongoing harm to Plaintiffs and Defendants’ failure to present ‘clear and convincing circumstances’ outweighing that harm, this Court declines to exercise its discretion to stay the proceedings.”

Thus, pending motions to dismiss are all denied. As of the end of March, the defendants had not petitioned the 4th Circuit for a stay.

Counsel for plaintiffs include Deepika H. Ravi, of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Washington, DC; Meredith T. Brown and Tara L. Borelli, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., Atlanta, GA; Noah E. Lewis, of Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.; Omar F. Gonzalez-Pagan, Lambda Legal Defense And Education Fund, Inc., New York, NY; and Amy E. Richardson, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP, Raleigh, NC (local counsel).

Alaska Federal Court Says Employer’s Denial of Insurance Coverage for Sex-Reassignment Surgery Violates Federal Law

Posted on: March 10th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district court in Anchorage, Alaska, has ruled that a public employer’s health benefits plan violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it categorically denies to employees, whether male or female, coverage for the surgical procedures used to effect gender transition.  According to the March 6 opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, the employer’s exclusion of this coverage is “discriminatory on its face and is direct evidence of sex discrimination.”  The ruling does not require all employers to provide coverage for gender reassignment surgery, but it requires that they not discriminate because of an employee’s sex in deciding which procedures are covered.

Judge Holland’s decision has potentially wide application because Title VII applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, including both businesses and government employers at the federal, state and local levels.  Although a trial court ruling is not a precedent binding on other courts, Judge Holland’s explanation for his ruling may provide a persuasive precedent both for courts confronting similar claims and for employers deciding how to respond to employees seeking such coverage under their employee benefit plans.

Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of Jennifer Fletcher, who works as a legislative librarian for the State of Alaska.  Fletcher is enrolled in AlaskaCare, a self-funded employee health care plan that is administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company.  The Plan “provides benefits for medical services and procedures that are medically necessary and not otherwise excluded from the Plan,” according to the State’s written responses to discovery questions posed by Fletcher’s attorney from Lambda Legal, Tara L. Borelli.

During discovery in this case, the State conceded that for “some” transgender individuals, surgical procedures for gender transition may be “medically necessary,” but the plan formally excludes performance of the procedures in question for that purpose.  The procedures in question are covered for employees if they are necessary to address a medical issue other than gender transition.  None of the procedures at issue in this case are used solely in connection with gender transition.

Fletcher was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2014 and began the process of social, legal, and medical transition under professional care, starting hormone therapy that year.  By 2016, she and her health care provider agreed that gender transition-related surgery was necessary for her transition.  In her complaint, Fletcher claimed that such treatment was “essential” for her “well-being.”

In November 2016, Fletcher contacted Aetna to discuss coverage for her surgical treatment, but was told that the Plan did not cover it, and would not in 2017.  Although the Plan has since been modified to allow coverage for some aspects of gender transition, hormones and counseling, the express exclusion of surgery continues.

Fletcher’s request for coverage spurred the State to study the cost of eliminating this exclusion, for which it engaged a consultant, who advised that the annual increase in claims on the Plan would be $60,000.  Although there was internal discussion about this within the State government, no further action was taken to change the Plan to cover surgical transition procedures.

Because AlaskaCare would not cover her surgery, Fletcher obtained her surgery in Thailand, where the procedure is less expensive than if it were performed without insurance coverage in the Unites States.  She filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the Plan’s exclusion violates Title VII’s ban on discrimination in “terms and conditions of employment” because of an individual’s sex.  The State’s simplistic response was that because the Plan excludes coverage for any surgical procedure for purposes of gender transition, whether the employee involved was identified as male or female at birth, there was no discrimination “because of sex.”  The EEOC rejected this argument, and issued a finding that the State’s policy violates Title VII.  On May 17, 2019, the EEOC notified Fletcher that its attempt to “conciliate in this matter” with the State was unsuccessful, authorizing her to file a lawsuit.

Fletcher’s complaint alleged that the State discriminated against her because of her “sex” which, she alleged, includes “discrimination on the basis of gender nonconformity, gender identity, transgender status, and gender transition.”  This list covered all the bases of different theories that federal courts have used at various times to evaluate Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs.  After discovery, Fletcher moved for summary judgment on the question whether the Plan exclusion violates Title VII, while the State moved for summary judgment to dismiss the entire lawsuit on the merits.

As it turned out, the list of alternative coverage theories in Fletcher’s complaint was unnecessary, because Judge Holland concluded that the exclusion was, on its face, discrimination “because of sex.”He based this conclusion on the State’s concession that all the surgical procedures involved in Fletcher’s transition would be covered if they were performed for reasons other than gender transition.

Thus, if Fletcher was identified as female at birth but needed the vaginoplasty procedure for some reason other than transition, she would be covered, and indeed that procedure is employed to deal with some medical conditions experienced by women.  Because she was identified as male at birth, however, coverage for the the procedure was denied, because its only purpose for somebody identified as male at birth would be for gender transition.  To Judge Holland, this was clearly an exclusion specifically because of the sex of the employee, and one had to go no further into theories of gender nonconformity, gender identity or transgender status in order to bring her claim within the coverage of the statute.

Under Title VII, any “disparate treatment” between men and women regarding a particular term or benefit of employment is illegal unless it can be justified as a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) that is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation or essence of an employer’s business.”  In this case, Holland commented, “Defendant has not argued, nor could it, that there is any BFOQ for the disparate treatment at issue here.  As such, plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment that defendant violated her rights under Title VII.”

While granting Fletcher’s motion, the court simultaneously denied the State’s summary judgment motion.  Still to be determined is the remedy for the violation.  As Fletcher has already had the surgical treatment, the court needs to decide what to award for compensation for violation of the statute.  In light of the court’s decision on the merits of Fletcher’s claim, it is likely that the parties will negotiate a settlement on damages.

Judge Holland was appointed to the District Court by President Ronald Reagan and took senior status in 2001.

Texas Federal Court Vacates Transgender Protection under Obamacare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court to Decide Whether Discrimination Because of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Violates Title VII’s Ban on Discrimination Because of Sex

Posted on: April 22nd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 22 that it will consider appeals next term in three cases presenting the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination because of an individual’s sex, covers claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Because federal courts tend to follow Title VII precedents when interpreting other federal sex discrimination statutes, such as the Fair Housing Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a ruling in these cases could have wider significance than just employment discrimination claims.

The first Petition for certiorari was filed on behalf of Gerald Lynn Bostock, a gay man who claimed he was fired by the Clayton County, Georgia, Juvenile Court System, for which he worked as Child Welfare Services Coordinator, because of his sexual orientation.  Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618 (filed May 25, 2018).  The trial court dismissed his claim, and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, 723 Fed. Appx. 964 (11th Cir., May 10, 2018), petition for en banc review denied, 894 F.3d 1335 (11th Cir., July 18, 2018), reiterating an old circuit precedent from 1979 that Title VII does not forbid discrimination against homosexuals.

The second Petition was filed by Altitude Express, a now-defunct sky-diving company that discharged Donald Zarda, a gay man, who claimed the discharge was at least in part due to his sexual orientation.  Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623 (filed May 29, 2018).  The trial court, applying 2nd Circuit precedents, rejected his Title VII claim, and a jury ruled against him on his New York State Human Rights Law claim.  He appealed to the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately ruled en banc that the trial judge should not have dismissed the Title VII claim, because that law applies to sexual orientation discrimination.  Zarda v. Altitude Express, 883 F.3d 100 (2nd Cir., Feb. 26, 2018). This overruled numerous earlier 2nd Circuit decisions.

The third petition was filed by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, three establishments located in Detroit and its suburbs, which discharged a funeral director, William Anthony Beasley Stephens, when Stephens informed the proprietor, Thomas Rost, about her planned transition.   R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes v EEOC, No. 18-107 (filed July 20, 2018).  Rost stated religious objections to gender transition, claiming protection from liability under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the funeral home under Title VII.  Stephens, who changed her name to Aimee as part of her transition, intervened as a co-plaintiff in the case.  The trial judge found that Title VII had been violated, but that RFRA protected Harris Funeral Homes from liability.  The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the funeral home violated Title VII, but reversed the RFRA ruling, finding that complying with Title VII would not substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion.  EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, 884 F.3d 560 (6th Cir., March 7, 2018).  The 6th Circuit’s ruling reaffirmed its 2004 precedent in Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566, using a gender stereotyping theory, but also pushed forward to hold directly that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In all three cases, the Court has agreed to consider whether Title VII’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” is limited to discrimination against a person because the person is a man or a woman, or whether, as the EEOC has ruled in several federal employment disputes, it extends to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims.

The question whether the Court would consider these cases has been lingering on its docket almost a year, as the petitions in the Bostock and Zarda cases were filed within days of each other last May, and the funeral home’s petition was filed in July.  The Court originally listed the Bostock and Zarda petitions for consideration during its pre-Term “long conference” at the end of September, but then took them off the conference list at the urging of Alliance Defending Freedom, representing the funeral home, which suggested that the Court should wait until briefing on the funeral home was completed and then take up all three cases together.

The Court returned the petitions to its conference list in December, and the cases were listed continuously since the beginning of this year, sparking speculation about why the Court was delaying, including the possibility that it wanted to put off consideration of this package of controversial cases until its next term, beginning in October 2019.  That makes it likely that the cases will not be argued until next winter, with decisions emerging during the heat of the presidential election campaign next spring, as late as the end of June.

Title VII was adopted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and went into effect in July 1965.  “Sex” was added as a forbidden ground of discrimination in employment in a floor amendment shortly before House passage of the bill.  The EEOC, originally charged with receiving and investigating employment discrimination charges and attempting to conciliate between the parties, quickly determined that it had no jurisdiction over complaints charging sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and federal courts uniformly agreed with the EEOC.

The courts’ attitude began to change after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that evidence of sex stereotyping by employers could support a sex discrimination charge under Title VII in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (plurality opinion by Justice William J. Brennan), and in 1998 in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia), the Court suggested that Title VII could apply to a “same-sex harassment” case.   Justice Scalia stated that Title VII’s application was not limited to the concerns of the legislators who voted for it, but would extend to “comparable evils.”

These two rulings were part of a series of cases in which the Supreme Court took an increasingly flexible approach to interpreting discrimination “because of sex,” which in turn led lower federal courts earlier in this century to reconsider their earlier rulings in LGBT discrimination cases.  Federal appeals court rulings finding protection for transgender plaintiffs relied on Price Waterhouse’s sex stereotyping analysis, eventually leading the EEOC to rule in 2012 that a transgender applicant for a federal job, Mia Macy, could bring a Title VII claim against the federal employer.  Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995. In 2015, the EEOC extended that analysis to a claim brought by a gay air traffic controller, David Baldwin, against the U.S. Transportation Department, Baldwin v. Foxx, 2015 WL 4397641, and the EEOC has followed up these rulings by filing discrimination claims in federal court on behalf of LGBT plaintiffs and appearing as amicus curiae in such cases as Zarda v. Altitude Express.

In the Harris Funeral Homes case, the 6th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to go beyond the sex stereotype theory for gender identity discrimination claims, agreeing with the EEOC that discrimination because of gender identity is always discrimination because of sex, as it involves the employer taking account of the sex of the individual in making a personnel decision.  The EEOC’s argument along the same lines for sexual orientation discrimination was adopted by the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. en banc), a case that the losing employer did not appeal to the Supreme Court.  In 2018, the 2nd Circuit endorsed the EEOC’s view in the Zarda case.

During the oral argument of Zarda in the 2nd Circuit, the judges expressed some amusement and confusion when an attorney for the EEOC argued in support of Zarda’s claim, and an attorney for the Justice Department argued in opposition.  When the case was argued in September 2017, the EEOC still had a majority of commissioners appointed by President Obama who continued to support the Baldwin decision, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the position on behalf of the Justice Department that federal sex discrimination laws do not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims.

Due to the Trump Administration’s failure to fill vacancies on the EEOC, the Commission currently lacks a quorum and cannot decide new cases.  Thus, the Solicitor General’s response for the government to Harris Funeral Home’s petition for review did not really present the position of the Commission, although the Solicitor General urged the Court to take up the sexual orientation cases and defer deciding the gender identity case.  Perhaps this was a strategic recognition that unless the Court was going to back away from or narrow the Price Waterhouse ruling on sex stereotyping, it was more likely to uphold the 6th Circuit’s gender identity ruling than the 2nd Circuit’s sexual orientation ruling in Zarda, since the role of sex stereotyping in a gender identity case seems more intuitively obvious to federal judges, at least as reflected in many district and appeals court decisions in recent years.

The Court sometimes tips its hand a bit when granting certiorari by reframing the questions posed by the Petitioner.  It did not do this regarding sexual orientation, merely stating that it would consolidate the two cases and allot one hour for oral argument.  Further instructions will undoubtedly come from the Court about how many attorneys will be allotted argument time, and whether the Solicitor General or the EEOC will argue on the sexual orientation issue as amicus curiae.

The Court was more informative as to Harris Funeral Homes, slightly rephrasing the question presented in the Petition.  The Court said that the Petition “is granted limited to the following question: Whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their status as transgender or (2) sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.”  One wonders why the Supreme Court used the phrase “status as transgender” rather than “gender identity” in describing the first part of the question, since “gender identity” fits more neatly into the terminology of Title VII than a reference to “status.”

None of the members of the Court have addressed the questions presented in these three cases during their judicial careers up to this point, so venturing predictions about how these cases will be decided is difficult lacking pertinent information.  The four most recent appointees to the Court with substantial federal judicial careers prior to their Supreme Court appointment – Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh – have never written a published opinion on sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and neither did Chief Justice John Roberts during his brief service on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  However, it seems predictable that the justices most committed to construing civil rights laws narrowly in the context of the time when they were adopted will be skeptical about the argument that the 1964 statute can be interpreted to extend to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

The counsel of record for Bostock is Brian J. Sutherland of Buckley Beal LLP, Atlanta.  Clayton County, Georgia, retained Jack R. Hancock of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP, of Forest Park, Georgia, to submit its response to the Bostock Petition.  Counsel of record for Altitude Express is Saul D. Zabell of Bohemia, New York.  The brief in opposition was filed on behalf of the Zarda Estate by Gregory Antollino of New York City.  Zabell and Antollino were both trial counsel in the case and have pursued it through the appellate process.  Several attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, the Scottsdale, Arizona, based conservative religious liberty litigation group, represent Harris Funeral Home, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco’s office represents the EEOC.   John A. Knight of the ACLU Foundation, Chicago, is counsel of record for Aimee Stephens.  It is not unusual when the Supreme Court grants review for private parties to seek out experienced Supreme Court advocates to present their arguments to the Court, so some of these attorneys listed on the Petitions and other Briefs will likely not be appearing before the Court when the cases are argued next winter.

 

 

 

 

Missouri Supreme Court Revives Sex Discrimination Law Suits by Gay and Transgender Plaintiffs

Posted on: March 2nd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Missouri Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings on February 26, reversing circuit court dismissals of sex discrimination lawsuits by gay and transgender plaintiffs.  Lampley v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, 2019 WL 925557, 2019 Mo. LEXIS 52; R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District, 2019 WL 925511, 2019 Mo. LEXIS 54.  In both cases, the court was sharply split, and in neither opinion did the Court hold that sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims, as such, may be brought under the state’s Human Rights Law.  However, at least a majority of the seven judges agreed in both cases that being gay or transgender does not bar an individual from making a sex discrimination claim under the statute, which it least allows them to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

The decision is significant because Missouri is a conservative state that has not amended its Human Rights Act to ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, and Missouri’s federal courts are in the 8th Circuit, where the federal court of appeals has not yet ruled on a pending appeal posing the question whether the federal Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination can be interpreted to cover such claims.

The first of the two decisions, Lampley v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, involves discrimination claims by two employees of the Missouri Department of Social Services Child Support Enforcement Division.  Harold Lampley filed a discrimination charge with the Commission, checking off on the charge form that he was a victim of discrimination because of “sex” and “retaliation.”  A heterosexual co-worker of Lampley, Rene Frost, also filed a charge, claiming she suffered “retaliation” because of her association with Lampley.

In the narrative portion of his charge, Lampley stated that he is a gay man who does not exhibit the stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave, as a result of which he was treated differently from “similarly situated co-workers” who were not gay and who exhibited “stereotypical male or female attributes.”  Lampley claimed he was subjected to harassment at work, and that in retaliation for his complaints, he was “grossly underscored” in a performance evaluation.

In her narrative, Frost described her close friendship with Lampley.  Frost had complained about a performance review, the result of which was publicly announced to her co-workers in a departure from practice, and after which she claimed the employer moved her desk away from Lampley and the other co-workers with whom she collaborated. She was told she and Lampley were not allowed to eat lunch together, as they customarily did.  She also claimed that, unlike other employees, both she and Lampley were docked for pay for the time they met with their union representative about these issues, and that she continued to be subjected to verbal abuse, threats about her performance review, and “other harassing behaviors” as a result of her friendly association with Lampley.

The Commission’s investigator decided that Lampley was really trying to assert a sexual orientation discrimination claim, and that Frost’s claim was really that she was discriminated against for associating with a gay person.  In both cases, the investigator determined that the Act did not cover these charges, and the Commission terminated its proceedings, stating that both claims did not involve a category of discrimination covered by the law. The cases were “administratively closed,” and the Commission did not issue either Lampley or Frost the usual “right to sue” notice that would authorize them to go to court.

Thus stymied, Lampley and Frost filed petitions with the circuit court for administrative review, or, alternatively, for a writ of mandamus – an order from the court to the Commission to issue them right-to-sue notices.  The circuit court granted the Commission’s motion for summary judgment, citing a 2015 Missouri Court of Appeals decision that stated that sexual orientation claims are not covered by the statute.

The Supreme Court judges were divided over how to characterize this case and whether the Supreme Court even had jurisdiction to decide it, finding procedural problems with the Lampley and Frost lawsuits, but ultimately a majority concluded that they could address these appeals on the merits.

As to that, three members of the seven-member court, joining in an opinion by Judge George W. Draper, III, concluded that it was appropriate to follow federal precedents stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), holding that the denial of a promotion to a female employee who was criticized as being too masculine in her dress and demeanor violated the rule against discrimination because of sex.  The Supreme Court accepted the argument that reliance on sex stereotypes in making personnel decisions was evidence of employment discrimination because of sex.

Turning to this case, Judge Draper wrote that it was wrong for the Commission to drop its investigation and close the case, because Lampley did not allege in his charge that he was a victim of sexual orientation discrimination.  Although he mentioned more than once in his narrative that he is a gay man, his claim was that he was a victim of sex discrimination because he did not exhibit stereotypical attributes of males.  Thus, he was entitled to an investigation of his claim, and similarly Frost was entitled to an investigation of her claim of retaliation against her based on her association with Lampley.  Draper emphasized that sexual orientation discrimination claims, as such, are not covered by the statute.  But he pointed to several opinions by federal courts, interpreting Title VII, that allowed gay plaintiffs to pursue sex discrimination claims using the sex stereotype theory.

Furthermore, wrote Draper, since the statutory time for investigation of a claim had long since expired, the appropriate remedy was for the circuit court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the Commission to issue right-to-sue notices to Lampley and Frost so they could pursue their discrimination claims in the circuit court.

One member of the Supreme Court concurred, but on a narrower ground.  Judge Paul C. Wilson, who wrote the opinion for a majority of the court in the R.M.A. case, discussed below, wrote that this case “should be analyzed and disposed of entirely on the basis of whether the facts alleged by Claimants assert sex discrimination claims covered by the MHRA,” which, he wrote, “they plainly do.”  However, he wrote, “the principal opinion does not stop there.  Instead, it proceeds to opine on whether ‘sex stereotyping,’ as discussed in the Title VII context in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, is a type of sex discrimination under the MHRA.”  But, referring to his opinion in R.M.A., Wilson argued that the MHRA “does not provide for ‘types’ of sex discrimination claims.”  Either a claimant is alleging sex discrimination or not.  If he or she is alleging sex discrimination, they are entitled to have their claims investigated and, ultimately, to present them to a court if they can’t be resolved by the Commission.

Judge Wilson would leave to a later stage in the litigation, when the matter is before the circuit court on the merits, the question whether the facts proven by the plaintiff in the lawsuit would amount to sex discrimination in violation of the law.  Thus, he saw the discussion of sex stereotypes as premature at this stage of the litigation.

Wilson agreed with Judge Draper’s opinion that the MHRA does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination as such.  His concurring vote, however, provided Draper with the majority to hold that the circuit court should not have granted summary judgment to the Commission, because Lampley was not claiming sexual orientation discrimination.

Chief Judge Zel Fischer agreed with Draper and Wilson that the state law does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination, but Fischer concluded for procedural reasons that the appeal should be dismissed.  Judge W. Brent Powell, in a separate dissent, while agreeing with Fischer that the court should dismiss the appeal on procedural grounds, said that otherwise the circuit court’s decision should be affirmed because “mandamus cannot be used to control the administrative agency’s executive director’s discretionary determination that Lampley’s and Frost’s complaints alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation rather than sex stereotyping.”  If that decision was reviewed under an “abuse of discretion” standard, wrote Powell, “the executive director did not abuse her discretion in closing Lampley’s and Frost’s complaints because the determination that the complaints alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation rather than sex stereotyping was not unreasonable, arbitrary, or clearly against the logic of the circumstances considering the allegations contained in the complaints.”

The footnotes of the opinions by Draper and Powell battle over how to characterize the narrative portions of the charges filed with the Commission.  Draper emphasizes that both Lampley and Frost claimed to be victims of sex discrimination because of sex stereotyping, while Powell emphasizes that Lampley’s extended narrative, not quoted in full in the plurality opinion, could clearly support a conclusion that he was the victim of sexual orientation discrimination, thus making the Commission’s conclusion rational and not arbitrary.

In the R.M.A. case, the teenage student filed suit claiming that the school’s refusal to let him use boys’ restrooms and locker rooms was discrimination because of sex.  The plaintiff’s claim to the Commission and Complaint in the Circuit Court stated that his “legal sex is male” and that by denying him “access to the boys’ restrooms and locker rooms,” the school discriminated against him in the use of a public accommodation “on the grounds of his sex.”

R.M.A. filed his charge with the Commission in October 2014, and the Commission issued him a right-to sue notice in July 2015.  He filed suit against the school district and board of education in October 2015.  The defendants move to dismiss the complaint on two grounds: that the Act does not cover gender identity discrimination, and that the public schools are not subject to the public accommodations provisions.  The circuit court granted the motion to dismiss in June 2016, “without explanation,” and R.M.A. appealed.

Writing for give members of the court, Judge Wilson, as noted above in his concurring opinion in the Lampley case, asserted that it was unnecessary for the court to deal with the question whether R.M.A. had a valid sex discrimination.  Since it was dealing with an appeal from a motion to dismiss, he wrote, the court should focus on what R.M.A. alleged in his Complaint.  There, he stated that he was legally a male, and that the school’s denial of his access to the boys’ facilities discriminated against him because of his sex.  To Wilson, this was straightforward.  R.M.A. was claiming sex discrimination, and denial of access to school facilities because of his sex.  At this stage of the litigation, that should be enough to survive a motion to dismiss, and it was not necessary to address the question whether gender identity discrimination claims can be brought under the statute, because R.M.A. made no such claim in his Complaint.  Furthermore, Wilson saw no merit to the argument that the school’s restroom and locker room facilities were not subject to the ban on sex discrimination in public accommodations under the MHRA.

One can easily imagine what Judge Powell thought about this.  In his vehement dissent, joined by Chief Judge Fischer, Powell insisted that the term “sex” as used in the Act could not be construed to allow gender identity discrimination claims, and he insisted that this is what R.M.A. was trying to assert.

“The MHRA does not define the word ‘sex,’” wrote Powell.  “When there is no statutory definition, the plain and ordinary meaning of a statutory term can be derived from the dictionary.”  Quoting from Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary (1993), the word “sex” means “one of the two divisions of [organisms] esp. human beings respectively designated male or female.”  A secondary definition from Webster’s is the “sum of morphological, physiological, and behavioral peculiarities of living beings that subserves biparental reproduction with its concomitant genetic segregation and recombination… that is typically manifested as maleness or femaleness.”  And a third definition: “The sphere of interpersonal behavior esp. between male and female,” and the “phenomena of sexual instincts and their manifestations,” and “determining the sex of an organic being.”  Powell characterized these as boiling down to the concept of “biological sex,” asserting: “The MHRA, therefore, prohibits discrimination based on the biological classifications of male or female and does not extend to the separate concept of transgender status.”

Consequently, Powell concluded, “the petition survives a motion to dismiss only if it alleges that, as a biological female, R.M.A. was deprived of a public accommodation available to biological males.  R.M.A. makes no such allegation,” Powell continued.  “Instead, R.M.A. alleges he is a female who has transitioned to living as a male, and that the Defendants discriminate against him based on his sex by preventing him from using the boys’ restrooms and locker room.  R.M.A. does not allege that, as a biological female, he was barred from any public accommodation afforded to biological males.  Instead, R.M.A.’s allegation of discrimination distills to an acknowledgment that the Defendants excluded him from the boys’ restrooms and locker room because he is biologically female. If, as the principal opinion reasons, the relevant allegation is that R.M.A.’s ‘legal sex’ is male, then the majority will have ignored the crux of the petition while discarding the substance of the MHRA. The logical upshot is that the majority is presumably willing to hold the MHRA prohibits schools from maintaining separate restrooms and locker rooms for male and female students.  The alternative, of course, is to accept all of R.M.A.’s allegations as true, apply the plain language of the MHRA, and hold R.M.A.’s petition fails to state a claim of sex discrimination.”

Powell concluded that the question whether the statute should cover this kind of case was a policy question for the legislature, not the court.  “The General Assembly has spoken, and R.M.A.’s petition fails to state a claim of unlawful sex discrimination under the MHRA,” stated Powell, declaring that the judgment of the circuit court should be affirmed.  To Judge Wilson, speaking for a majority of the court, Judge Powell’s arguments were irrelevant on the motion to dismiss, since R.M.A. had met the minimal pleading requirement of articulating a claim of sex discrimination.

Given the voting dispositions in these two cases, it is difficult to predict the future course of sex discrimination claims by gay and transgender plaintiffs in Missouri.  While they may survive motions to dismiss their claims, and a reluctant Human Rights Commission may be able to conciliate with the parties and obtain settlements in some cases, ultimately the questions posed by Judge Powell will come right back when the cases are litigated on the merits.  Since Judge Draper’s analysis was supported by only a minority of the court, it is uncertain whether his use of the sex stereotype theory would prevail in a ruling on the merits of a gay plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim.  And the limited nature of Judge Wilson’s ruling in R.M.A.’s case gives no hint of how a majority of the court would deal with a transgender student’s claims to restroom and locker room access.  Looming over all these questions is the pending 8th Circuit appeal under Title VII, and the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court may hear cases next term concerning gay and transgender rights under federal sex discrimination laws.

Lampley and Frost are represented by Jill A. Silverstein, D. Eric Sowers, Ferne P. Wolfe and Joshua M. Pierson of Sowers & Wolf LLC in St. Louis.  R.M.A. is represented by Alexander Edelman and Katherine Myers of Edelman, Lisen & Myers LLP in Kansas City, and Madeline Johnson of the Law Offices of Madeline Johnson in Platte City, Missouri.

Federal Government Asks the Supreme Court to Delay Deciding Whether Title VII Bars Gender Identity Discrimination

Posted on: October 31st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Trump Administration has asked the Supreme Court to hold off for now on deciding whether gender identity discrimination is covered under the ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and several other Justice Department attorneys are listed on a brief filed with the Court on October 24, ostensibly on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the Court should not now grant review of a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled earlier this year that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, who was transitioning and sought to comply with the employer’s dress code for female employees. The proprietor of the funeral home objected on religious grounds to having an employee whom he regards as a man dressing as a woman at work. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107.

The government’s move came as something of a surprise, in light of recent news that a memorandum, originating from the Civil Rights Office in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is circulating within the Trump Administration proposing to adopt a regulation defining “sex” in terms solely of genitals and chromosomes and thus, effectively, excluding “gender identity” as part of the definition of sex for purposes of federal law.

The Solicitor General’s brief argues that instead, the Court should focus on one or both of two Petitions now pending that seek review of decisions by the 2nd Circuit and the 11th Circuit on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII. In the former case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the en banc 2nd Circuit reversed prior circuit precedents and ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, following the lead of the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College (2017). In the other case, Bostock v. Clayton County, an 11th Circuit three-judge panel rejected a similar sexual orientation discrimination claim, and the circuit court turned down a petition for rehearing by the full circuit. In the Supreme Court, these cases are Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623.

In those two cases, the central question for the Court to decide is whether Title VII’s use of the term “sex” should be construed as the Trump Administration contends that it should be, as the simple difference between male and female as identified at birth, usually by the doctor’s visual inspection of genitals, or whether it should receive a broad interpretation that the EEOC and some lower federal courts have embraced, extending protection against discrimination to LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity as form of “discrimination because of sex.” This argument, for those preoccupied with the presumed legislative intent of the drafters and adopters of legislation, is based on the proposition that the Congress of 1964 did not intend to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination when they voted to include “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination in Title VII.

Referring to the pending sexual orientation case petitions, General Francisco’s brief argues, “If the Court grants plenary review in Zarda, Bostock, or both to address that question, its decision on the merits may bear on the proper analysis of the issues petitioner raises [in this case]. The court of appeals here relied on the reasoning of decisions (including Zarda) holding that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination extends to sexual-orientation discrimination. Accordingly, the Court should hold the petition in this case pending its disposition of the petitions in Zarda and Bostock and, if certiorari is granted in either or both of those cases, pending the Court’s decision on the merits.” If the Court were to grant review in Zarda and/or Bostock, oral argument would be held sometime in the Spring with a decision expected by the end of June 2019, at which time the Court could send the Funeral Homes case back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration in light of its decision in the sexual orientation cases, avoiding deciding the gender identity question itself. The Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the question whether either the Constitution or federal statues protect transgender people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

Francisco’s brief also argues that the Court should not grant review in the Funeral Home case even if it decides not to review the sexual orientation cases. “To be sure,” says the brief, “the United States disagrees with the court of appeals’ decision. As relevant here, the court’s analysis of whether petitioner engaged in improper sex stereotyping reflects a misreading of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The court’s further conclusion that gender-identity discrimination necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII – although it was unnecessary to the ultimate result the court reached in this case – is also inconsistent with the statute’s text and this Court’s precedent. Both of those questions are recurring and important.”

This immediately raises the question why the Court should refuse to grant review to decide questions that are “recurring and important”? The Solicitor General’s response to that question appears to be improvised to cover over a difficult political transition that will eventually take place at the EEOC, the agency that filed suit against the Funeral Home on behalf of Aimee Stephens and is nominally the respondent on this petition at the Supreme Court.

President Trump has nominated three commissioners, one of whom, out lesbian Chai Feldblum (who was first appointed by President Obama and whose current term expires at the end of this year), has inspired fervent opposition from several Republican Senators. The other two nominees are Republicans whom the current Senate leadership would eagerly approve, but the three nominations were presented as a package, in recognition of the statutory requirement that no more than three of the five EEOC commissioners may be members of the same party, and the package has not moved in the Senate because of opposition to Feldblum. As of now, the EEOC has three commissioners – two Democrats and one Republican – and continues to take discrimination complaints under Title VII from LGBTQ people. If the package of nominees is approved, the new Republican majority of commissioners would likely come into line with the Justice Department’s position that Title VII does not cover such claims. If the “package” is not approved during the lame duck session of Congress, the EEOC will not be able to decide cases beginning on January 1, because it will lack a quorum of at least three Senate-confirmed commissioners. And the question of which party controls the next Senate will certainly affect which Trump nominees can be approved after January 3 when the new Senate convenes.

Setting aside the politics for the moment, however, the Solicitor General’s pragmatic argument is that there is a significant split among the circuit courts on the sexual orientation issues, which requires the Supreme Court to resolve with some urgency. But, says the brief, “Fewer circuits have addressed the questions presented in this case, and the panel decision here appears to be the first court of appeals decision to conclude in a Title VII case that gender identity discrimination categorically constitutes discrimination because of sex under that statute. If the Court determines that the question raised in Zarda and Bostock does not warrant plenary review at this time, the questions presented here would likewise not appear to warrant review at this juncture.”

Attorneys from the ACLU representing Aimee Stephens also filed a response to the Harris Funeral Homes’ petition on October 24. They argue that the Court should deny the petition.

They note that the Funeral Homes petition’s first “Question Presented” is “Whether the word ‘sex’ in Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of sex’ meant ‘gender identity’ and included ‘transgender status’ when Congress enacted Title VII in 1964.” They argue that this case is a “poor vehicle for addressing petitioner’s first question because deciding it would not affect the judgment” of the lower court. This is because, simply stated, the 6th Circuit decided this case on alternative grounds, one of which was relying on a sex stereotyping theory (that the Funeral Home fired Stephens for not complying with the employer’s stereotype about how a genitally-male person should groom and dress), the other of which identified discrimination because of gender identity as a form of sex discrimination. So answering the first question in the negative would still leave the lower court’s judgment intact on the first – and widely-accepted – sex stereotyping theory. Note that this first “Question Presented” is only relevant at all if the Court attributes any special weight to what the adaptors of statutory language thought it meant at the time they adopted it: an originalist approach to statutory interpretation that the Court itself rejected in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998.

The second question in the Funeral Homes petition is whether Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “prohibits employers from applying sex-specific policies according to their employees’ sex rather than their gender identity.” As to that, the ACLU’s brief argues that the second question “was not adjudicated below and is not properly presented” to the Court in this case, because, first, the 6th Circuit held that Stephens was fired “based on multiple sex stereotypes, not only those related to the dress code,” and second, that the 6th Circuit “expressly did not address the lawfulness of sex-specific dress codes” in its decision, and that “sex-specific restroom policies” – an issue alluded to in the Funeral Homes petition — “are not at issue in this case.” Citing cases from many different circuits, the brief also argues that the 6th Circuit’s ruling “does not conflict with Price Waterhouse or any court of appeals.” Over the years since 1989, numerous circuit courts have accepted transgender discrimination claims using the sex stereotyping theory that the Supreme Court articulated in Price Waterhouse.

The government’s brief is undoubtedly disappointing to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing religious litigation group that is representing the Funeral Homes and urgently seeks review in this case, seemingly confident that the newly constituted Republican majority in the Supreme Court would likely overturn the 6th Circuit’s decision. After the Supreme Court Clerk listed the two sexual orientation petitions on the agenda for the Court’s end-of-September conference, ADF sent a letter to the Clerk, suggesting that the Court defer deciding whether to review those cases until after briefing was completed on the Funeral Homes petition – which was delayed because the Solicitor General twice requested and received from the Court an extension of time to file its response on behalf of the EEOC. ADF argued that the underlying questions in all three cases were related, so the Court should take them up together. Shortly after the letter was entered on the Court’s docket, the sexual orientation cases were removed from the agenda for the Court’s cert conference, and they had not been relisted for consideration. Now ADF finds the government arguing that the Court should not take up the cases together, and that the gender identity case should be deferred until the sexual orientation cases are decided, and should not even be addressed by the Court now if the Court decides not to take up the sexual orientation cases! ADF would likely see this as a lost opportunity to get the new Supreme Court majority to cut short the successful campaign by civil rights litigators to get federal courts to find protection for LGBTQ people under federal sex discrimination laws, an easier route to protection than passage of the Equality Act, which has been languishing in Congress for several years, denied even a hearing by the Republican-controlled chambers.

Although the S.G. attributed its requests for extensions of time to the need to deal with many other cases, it is possible that the S.G. was stalling in hopes that the new majority of EEOC commissioners would be quickly confirmed, and that the Commission would bring its position in line with the Justice Department (DOJ). Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an internal DOJ memo on October 4, 2017, rejecting any interpretation of Title VII (or other federal sex discrimination laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act or the Fair Housing Act) that covered gender identity or sexual orientation. During the early months of the Trump Administration, the Justice Department and the Education Department (DOE) abandoned the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, getting the Supreme Court to cancel an argument under that statute in transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against a Virginia school district over bathroom access, and DOE has stopped accepting and process discrimination claims from transgender students. Thus, DOJ may feel that it can overturn the Obama Administration’s expansive interpretation of sex discrimination laws without having to win a case in the Supreme Court. The government’s brief devotes several pages to restating the Sessions memorandum’s interpretation of Title VII and criticizing the 6th Circuit’s decision on the merits.

Court watchers noted something interesting about the brief filed by the Solicitor General. The list of attorneys on the brief does not include any lawyers from the EEOC, which is unusual when the government is representing a federal agency in a Supreme Court appeal of one of their lower court victories. In this case, of course, DOJ and the EEOC have a strong disagreement about the correct interpretation of Title VII, so DOJ, representing the Trump Administration’s position, is not inclined to let the lingering Democratic majority at the Commission have any say in how this case is argued at the Supreme Court.

With the government opposing its own victory in the lower court, the only party left to defend the lower court’s ruling is Aimee Stephens with her counsel from the ACLU, whose brief is signed by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation in Chicago, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the ACLU LGBT Rights Project headquartered in New York, and the ACLU Foundation’s office in Washington.

Of course, if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to grant review in any of these Title VII cases, it can expect a barrage of amicus curiae briefs similar to the record-setting number filed in last term’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Obscure Brooklyn Appellate Ruling Protects Transgender People from Discrimination Without Saying So

Posted on: June 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Talk about “hiding the ball!” On June 6, a unanimous four-judge panel of the New York Appellate Division, 2nd Department, based in Brooklyn, confirmed an Order by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which had adopted a decision by an agency administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling that a Port Jervis employer violated the human rights law when it discharged a transgender employee.

But nobody reading the court’s short memorandum opinion, or the short agency opinion and order, would have any idea that the case involved a gender identity discrimination claim. Surprisingly, given the novelty of the legal issues involved, only the administrative law judge’s opinion, an internal agency document, communicates what the case is actually about.

The case is Matter of Advanced Recovery, Inc. v. Fuller, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 03974, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3969, 2018 WL 2709861 (N.Y. App. Div., 2nd Dept., June 6, 2018).

Erin Fuller, a transgender woman, was fired by Mark Rea, the owner and chief executive of Advanced Recovery, Inc., the day Fuller presented a supervisor with a copy of a court order authorizing her change of name from Edward to Erin and the supervisor passed the document to Rea. Rea called Fuller into his office and, according to Fuller, said in the presence of the supervisor, “Now I have a problem with your condition.  I have to let you go.”

Rea and other company officials had been aware for some time that Fuller was transitioning, since she had presented them with a letter from her doctor in 2009 explaining her gender dysphoria diagnosis and how she would be transitioning, and on at least one occasion Rea had reacted adversely to Fuller’s mode of dress, but it wasn’t until he was presented with the legal name change that Rea apparently decided that he had enough and no longer wanted Fuller, a good worker who had been with the company more than two years.

When Fuller went back later to pick up her final paycheck, a supervisor told her that “he felt bad, but your job would be waiting for you as long as you came in wearing normal clothes.”

Attempting to escape possible liability, Rea and the company’s lawyer later came up with a termination letter that cited other reasons for terminating Fuller and said nothing about her name change, mode of dress, or gender identity, but they never sent her that letter, which first surfaced when it was offered as evidence at the SDHR law judge’s hearing on Fuller’s discrimination claim.

The discharge took place on August 4, 2010, several years before Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the SDHR to adopt a policy under which gender identity discrimination claims would be deemed to come within the coverage of the state’s ban on sex discrimination.

Fuller filed her complaint with SDHR on October 13, 2010. On the complaint form, she checked the boxes for “sex” and “disability” as the unlawful grounds for her termination.  After the company was notified of the complaint, it apparently prompted local police to arrest Fuller for altering a medical prescription, a spurious charge based on her changing the pronouns on the note written by a doctor on a prescription form after she missed a few days of work due to hospital treatment.  At the time, she didn’t think of amending her discrimination charge to allege retaliation, unfortunately, waiting until the hearing to raise the issue, by which time the judge had to reject her motion because she waited too long to assert the retaliation claim.

The agency concluded, after investigation, that it had jurisdiction over the discharge claim and set the case for a public hearing before an ALJ. At the hearing, Fuller was represented by attorneys Stephen Bergstein and Helen Ullrich, who persuaded the judge that Fuller had a valid claim and that the reasons given by the employer for firing her were pretexts for discrimination.  The same lawyers represented Fuller when the company appealed the judge’s ruling to the Appellate Division.

Relying on a scattering of trial court decisions holding that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the New York Human Rights Law, ALJ Robert M. Vespoli concluded that Fuller “states a claim pursuant to New York State’s Human Rights Law on the ground that the word ‘sex’ in the statute covers transsexuals.”

“Complainant also has a disability,” wrote Vespoli, “as that term is defined in the Human Rights Law.” The New York Human Rights Law’s definition of “disability” is broader and more general than the federal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and New  York law does not have the explicit exclusion of coverage for people with “gender identity disorders” that is in the federal law.  Under New York’s law, a disability is “a physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”  The statute provides that a disability may also be a “record of such impairment or the perception of such impairment.”

“During the relevant time period,” wrote Vespoli, “Complainant was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This condition falls within the broad definition of disability recognized under the Human Rights Law,” citing a 2011 decision by the agency to recognize its jurisdiction in a transgender discrimination case. The employer could not claim ignorance about Fuller’s transition, because in 2009 she had presented the company with her doctor’s letter explaining the situation, after which she began to dress and groom differently.

In his opinion dated February 20, 2015, Judge Vespoli rejected the employer’s evidence of other reasons for the discharge, finding that the proffered letter was a document created after the discharge for the purpose of litigation, that it had never been delivered to Fuller, and that the reasons it offered were pretexts for discrimination. The judge recommended awarding Fuller $14,560.00 in back pay and $30,000.00 for mental anguish caused by the discrimination.  He also recommended imposing a civil penalty on the company of $20,000.00.

The company filed objections to Vespoli’s recommendations with the Commission, but did not specifically object to Vespoli’s finding that Fuller had a disability or that the agency had jurisdiction over this case on grounds of sex and disability. The Commission’s Notice and Final Order of April 1, 2015, overruling without discussing the company’s evidentiary objections and adopting the judge’s recommendations and findings, said nothing about the details of the case, beyond noting that Fuller had complained of discrimination because of sex and disability.

The company’s appeal to the court again did not explicitly contest the ruling that the statute covers the case, instead urging the court to find that the ruling was not supported by substantial evidence of discrimination. Perhaps because the company’s appeal did not raise the question whether the Human Rights Law bans discrimination because of gender identity, the Appellate Division’s ruling also  did not  mention that the complainant is a transgender woman, and did not discuss the question whether this kind of case is covered under the disability provision.  Rather, the court’s opinion recites that the complainant alleged “that the petitioners discriminated against her on the basis of sex and disability,” and that the agency had ruled in her favor.  “Here there is substantial evidence in the record to support the SDHR’s determination that the complainant established a prima facie case of discrimination, and that the petitioners’ proffered reasons for terminating the complainant’s employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination.  The petitioner’s remaining contentions are either not properly before this Court or without merit.”

Of course, Fuller’s brief in response to the appeal would have mentioned this issue, and SDHR, which cross-petitioned for enforcement of its Order, mentioned the issue as well.

The court wrote that there is “substantial evidence in the record” to support the agency’s ruling, so the court presumably looked at the record, including the ALJ’s opinion, and was aware that this was a gender identity discrimination claim.  The appellate panel surely knew that this was an important issue in the case.

Cursory research in published New York court opinions would show that there is no prior appellate ruling in New York finding that a gender identity claim can be asserted under the Human Rights Law’s prohibited grounds of “sex” and “disability.” The court took its time on this case, waiting until June 6, 2018, to issue a ruling upholding an administrative decision that was issued on April 1, 2015.  Despite taking all this time, the court produced an opinion that never mentions these details, that provides no discussion of the ALJ’s analysis of the jurisdictional issue, and that does not expressly state agreement with the trial court ruling that Judge Vespoli specifically cited in support of his conclusions.

This may be the first case in which a New York appellate court has affirmed a ruling holding that an employer violated the state’s Human Rights Law by discriminating against an employee because of her gender identity, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the court’s opinion. While the court’s failure to mention the doctrinal significance of its ruling may be explainable because the employer did not raise the issue on its appeal, it’s omission nonetheless renders the decision basically useless as an appellate precedent.

One can fairly criticize the court for failing to play its proper role in a system of judicial precedent to produce a decision that can be referred to by later courts. The judges whose names appear on this uninformative opinion are Justices Mark C. Dillon, Ruth C. Balkin, Robert J. Miller, and Hector D. LaSalle.

Governor Cuomo’s directive, issued while this case was pending before the Appellate Division, actually reinforced existing practice at the State Division of Human Rights, as the earlier opinions cited in Judge Vespoli’s opinion show, but in the absence of an explicit appellate ruling, enactment of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act remains an important goal and its recent defeat in a Senate committee after renewed passage by the Assembly is more than merely a symbolic setback for the community.

A legal team of Caroline J. Downey, Toni Ann Hollifield and Michael K. Swirsky represented SDHR before the Appellate Division, which had cross-petitioned for enforcement of its decision. Port Jervis lawyer James J. Herkenham represented the company, and Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich presented Fuller’s response to the appeal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Federal Court Rejects Gloucester School District’s Motion to Dismiss Gavin Grimm’s Case

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Opening up a new chapter in the continuing battle of Gavin Grimm to vindicate his rights as a transgender man, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen issued an Order on May 22 denying the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board’s motion to dismiss the latest version of the case Grimm filed back in July 2015, prior to his sophomore year at Gloucester High School.

During the summer of 2014, Grimm’s transition had progressed to the point where he and his mother met with high school officials to tell them that he was a transgender boy and “would be attending school as a boy,” wrote Judge Allen.  They agreed to treat him as a boy, including allowing him to use the boys’ restrooms.  He did so for about seven weeks without any incident, until complaints by some parents led the school board to adopt a formal policy prohibiting Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.  The school established some single-user restrooms that were theoretically open to all students, but Grimm was the only one who used them because they were not conveniently located to classrooms.

“Because using the single-user restrooms underscored his exclusion and left him physically isolated,” wrote Judge Allen, “Mr. Grimm refrained from using any restroom at school.  He developed a painful urinary tract infection and had difficulty concentrating in class because of his physical discomfort.”  During the summer after his sophomore year, he filed his lawsuit, alleging violations of Title IX – a federal statute that forbids schools from discriminating because of sex – and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Grimm had begun hormone therapy in December 2014, “which altered his bone and muscle structure, deepened his voice, and caused him to grow facial hair.”  In June 2015, he received a new Virginia identification car from the Motor Vehicles Department designated him as male.  During the summer of 2016, he had chest-reconstruction surgery, a necessary step to get the circuit court to issue an order changing his sex under Virginia law and directing the Health Department to issue him a birth certificate listing him as male.  He received the new birth certificate in October 2016.  Thus, as of that date, Grimm was male as a matter of Virginia law.

Yet, despite all these physical and legal changes, the School District clung to its contention that his “biological gender” was female and that he could not be allowed to use boys’ restrooms at the high school.  The school maintained this prohibition through the end of the school year, when Grimm graduated.

Meanwhile, his lawsuit was not standing still.  Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar dismissed his Title IX claim in September 2015, denying his motion for a preliminary injunction, and holding his Equal Protection Claim in reserve while he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond.  In the spring of 2016, the 4th Circuit sent the case back to the district court, issuing an opinion holding that the court should have deferred to the position advanced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, which opined that discrimination because of gender identity is sex discrimination and schools are required under Title IX to treat student consistent with their gender identity.

Judge Doumar then issued a preliminary injunction during the summer of 2016 ordering the School District to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but the School District obtained a stay of that order from the Supreme Court, which subsequently granted the School’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s “deference” ruling.  The Supreme Court scheduled the case for argument, but then the incoming Trump Administration “withdrew” the position that the Obama Administration had taken, knocking the props out from under the 4th Circuit “deference” ruling, and persuaded the Supreme Court to cancel the argument and send the case back to the 4th Circuit, which in turn sent it back to the district court.  And, by the time it got there, Grimm had graduated from Gloucester County High School.

The School District attempted to get rid of the case at that point, arguing that it was moot.  Grimm begged to differ, arguing that his Title IX and Equal Protection rights had been continuously violated by the School District from the time it adopted its exclusionary restroom policy through the time of his graduation.  In a newly amended complaint, Grimm sought a declaratory judgement as to the violation of his rights under both Title IX and the constitution and an end to the school’s exclusionary policy.

The School District moved to dismiss this new complaint, leading to the May 22 ruling by Judge Allen, to whom the case had been reassigned in the interim. Judge Doumar, who was born in 1930, was appointed to the court by President Reagan and is still serving as a part-time senior district judge.  Judge Allen was appointed to the court by President Obama in 2011.

Judge Allen’s opinion relies heavily on important judicial developments that have occurred since Judge Doumar’s initial dismissal of the Title IX claim back in 2015. The 4th Circuit has yet to issue a ruling on the merits of the question whether federal laws that forbid discrimination because of sex can be construed to apply to gender identity discrimination claims.  Since the Supreme Court has also avoided addressing that issue, it was open to Judge Allen to follow as “persuasive precedents” the lengthening list of rulings from other federal courts, including five different circuit courts of appeals and many district courts, holding that sex discrimination laws should be broadly construed to cover gender identity claims.

These decisions draw their authority from two important Supreme Court decision: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998). In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court accepted as evidence of intentional sex discrimination an accounting firm’s denial of a partnership to a woman who was deemed inadequately feminine by several partners who voted against her.  In Oncale, the Court ruled that Title VII, the federal law banning employment discrimination because of sex, could apply to a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment by a man who worked in an all-male workplace, commenting that even if this scenario was not contemplated by Congress when it passed Title VII in 1964, that statute could be applied to “comparable” situations.

Since the turn of the century, federal appeals courts have used those two cases to find that transgender people can seek relief from discrimination under the Gender-Motivated Violence Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, and the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, district courts have found such protection under the Fair Housing Act.  A consensus based on the gender stereotype theory has emerged, even in circuits that have generally been hostile to sexual minority discrimination claims.  And, most significantly, the 7th Circuit ruled last year in the case of Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause required a school district to allow him to use boys’ restroom and locker room facilities.  There is no material distinction between the Whitaker and Grimm cases.

Furthermore, and closer to home, on March 12 of this year U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, ruled in a case from Maryland (also in the 4th Circuit) that a school district had violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by refusing to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ locker room at his high school.  Judge Allen found Judge Russell’s analysis persuasive, as she did the recent cases from other courts.

Turning to Grimm’s constitutional claim, Judge Allen followed the precedents from other courts that have determined that discrimination against transgender people is subject to “heightened scrutiny” judicial review, similar to that used for sex discrimination cases. Under this standard, the challenged policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the government bears the burden of showing that it substantially advances an important governmental interest.

The Gloucester School District argued that its interest in protecting the privacy of other students was sufficient to vindicate its policy, but Judge Allen disagreed, finding that “the policy at issue was not substantially related to protecting other students’ privacy rights. There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a non-discriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.”  The school had created three single-user restrooms open to all students, so any student who sought to avoid using a common restroom with Mr. Grimm had only to use one of those.  She also noted that the School Board reacted to the controversy by taking steps “to give all students the option for even greater privacy by installing partitions between urinals and privacy strips for stall doors.”  Thus, any validity to privacy concerns raised when the controversy first arose had been substantially alleviated as a result of these renovations.

Having denied the School District’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint, Judge Allen directed the attorneys to contact the Courtroom Deputy for United States Magistrate Judges within thirty days to schedule a settlement conference. If the parties can’t work out a settlement with a magistrate judge, the district court will issue a final order dictating what the school district must do to be in compliance with Title IX and the Constitution.  And, because Grimm is the prevailing party in this long-running and hotly litigated civil rights case, one suspects that sometime down the road there will be a substantial attorneys’ fee award.

Grimm’s lawyer, Joshua Block of the ACLU LGBTQ Rights Project, indicated that their goal in the case at this point is the declaratory judgment and nominal damages for Grimm, and of course an end to the School Board’s discriminatory policy. Grimm now lives in Berkeley, California, and intends to begin college this fall in the Bay Area, according to the New York Times’ report on the case.

Of course, the School District may seek to appeal Judge Allen’s Order to the 4th Circuit.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a Memorandum last fall formally rejecting the Obama Administration’s position that federal sex discrimination laws forbid gender identity discrimination, so the School District could count on the Justice Department to support an appeal.  And Trump’s rapid pace in filling federal circuit court vacancies may slow or eventually halt the continuing trend of transgender-positive rulings from the other circuit courts, but that is not likely to be the case in the 4th Circuit for some time.  At present that court has an overwhelming majority of Democratic appointees (including six by Obama and four by Clinton on the 15 member court) with only one vacancy for Trump to fill.  The 4th Circuit was out front of the Supreme Court in 2014 in striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, and its 2016 opinion in Gavin Grimm’s case was notably transgender-friendly, so it is unlikely that an appeal by the School District will be successful in the 4th Circuit.  The Supreme Court, of course, may be a different matter.  Time will tell.

Federal Court Rejects Trump Administration Ploy and Orders Trial on Trans Military Ban

Posted on: April 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman issued an Order on April 13 in Karnoski v. Trump, one of four pending legal challenges to the Trump Administration’s announced ban on military service by transgender people.  Judge Pechman, who sits in the Western District of Washington (Seattle), rejected the Administration’s argument that existing preliminary injunctions issued by her and three other federal district judges last year against the transgender ban are moot because of President Donald J. Trump’s March 23 Memorandum, which purported to “revoke” his August 25, 2017, Memorandum and July 26, 2017, tweets announcing the ban.  Karnoski v. Trump,  2018 WL 1784464 (W.D. Wash.).

Her skepticism as to this is clear from her description of events: “The 2018 Memorandum confirms [Trump’s] receipt of [Defense Secretary James Mattis’s] Implementation Plan, purports to ‘revoke’ the 2017 Memorandum and ‘any other directive [he] may have made with respect to military service by transgender individuals [an oblique reference to the July tweets],’ and directs the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to ‘exercise their authority to implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.’”  Thus, the judge rejected the Administration’s contention that Mattis was directed by the President to have a new study made to decide whether to let transgender people serve, and saw it for what it was: an order to propose a plan to implement Trump’s announced ban.

Judge Pechman also rejected the government’s argument that the policy announced in the February 22 Memorandum signed by Secretary James Mattis either deprives all the plaintiffs in the case of “standing” to sue the government, or that the policy it announces is so different from the one previously announced by President Trump that the current lawsuit, specifically aimed at the previously announced policy, is effectively moot as well. The government argued that due to various tweaks and exceptions to the policy announced on March 23, none of the individual plaintiffs in this case were threatened with the kind of individualized harm necessary to have standing, but Pechman concluded that each of the plaintiffs, in facts submitted in response to the March 23 policy, had adequately shown that they still had a personal stake in the outcome of this case.

Instead, and most consequentially, Judge Pechman found that the court should employ the most demanding level of judicial review – strict scrutiny – because transgender people are a “suspect class” for constitutional purposes.  However, Judge Pechman decided that it is premature to grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs, because disputed issues of material fact will require further hearings to resolve.  One is whether the government can prove that excluding transgender people from the military is necessary for the national security of the United States.  Another is whether the purported “study” that produced the February 22 “Report and Recommendations” and Mattis’s Memorandum are entitled to the kind of deference that courts ordinarily extend to military policies.

Judge Pechman’s boldest step is abandoning her prior ruling in this case that the challenged policies are subject only to heightened scrutiny, not strict scrutiny.  Although the Supreme Court has not been consistent or precise in its approach to the level of judicial scrutiny for constitutional challenges to government actions, legal scholars and lower courts have generally described its rulings as divided into three general categories – strict scrutiny, heightened scrutiny, and rationality review.

If a case involves discrimination that uses a “suspect classification,” the approach is strict scrutiny. The policy is presumed unconstitutional and the government has a heavy burden of showing that it is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest, and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessarily burdening individual rights.  The Supreme Court has identified race, national origin and religion as suspect classifications, and has not identified any new such classifications in a long time.  Lower federal courts have generally refrained from identifying any new federal suspect classifications, but the California Supreme Court decided in 2008 that sexual orientation is a suspect classification under its state constitution when it struck down the ban on same-sex marriage.

Challenges to economic and social legislation that do not involve “suspect classifications” or “fundamental rights” are generally reviewed under the “rational basis” test. They are not presumed unconstitutional, and the burden is on the plaintiff to show that there was no rational, non-discriminatory reason to support the challenged law.  Courts generally presume that legislatures have rational policy reasons for their actions, but evidence that a law was adopted solely due to animus against a particular group will result in it being declared unconstitutional.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to identify some types of discrimination that fell somewhere between these existing categories, and the third “tier” of judicial review emerged, first in cases involving discrimination because of sex.  The Supreme Court has used a variety of verbal formulations to describe this “heightened scrutiny” standard, but it places the burden on the government to show that such a law actually advances an important government interest.

So far, litigation about transgender rights in the federal courts has progressed to a heightened scrutiny standard in decisions from several circuit courts, including recent controversies about restroom access for transgender high school students, public employee discrimination cases, and lawsuits by transgender prisoners. Ruling on preliminary injunction motions in the transgender military cases last fall, Judge Pechman and the three other federal judges all referred to a heightened scrutiny standard.  Now Judge Pechman blazes a new trail by ruling that discrimination against transgender people should be subject to the same strict scrutiny test used in race discrimination cases.

It is very difficult for the government to win a strict scrutiny case, but its best shot in this litigation depends on the court finding that the policy announced by Mattis is entitled to deference, and this turns on whether it is the product of “expert military judgment,” a phrase that appears in the Mattis Memorandum and the Report.   Judge Pechman has already signaled in her Order her skepticism as to this.  By characterizing this as an “Implementation Plan,” she implies that the question whether Trump actually consulted with generals and military experts back in July before tweeting his absolute ban remains in play, and she pointedly notes the continued refusal by the government to reveal who, if anyone, Trump consulted.

“Defendants to date have failed to identify even one General or military expert he consulted,” she wrote, “despite having been ordered to do so repeatedly. Indeed, the only evidence concerning the lead-up to his Twitter Announcement reveals that military officials were entirely unaware of the Ban, and that the abrupt change in policy was ‘unexpected.’”  Here she quotes Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s statement the day after the tweets that “yesterday’s announcement was unexpected,” and news reports that White House and Pentagon officials “were unable to explain the most basic of details about how it would be carried out.”  She also notes that Mattis was given only one day’s notice before the announcement.  “As no other persons have ever been identified by Defendants – despite repeated Court orders to do so – the Court is led to conclude that the Ban was devised by the President, and the President alone.”

Thus, it would be logical to conclude, as she had preliminarily concluded last year when she issued her injunction, that no military expertise was involved and so no deference should be extended to the policy. On the other hand, the new “Report and Recommendations” are now advanced by the government as filling the information gap and supporting deference.  But Judge Pechman remains skeptical.  (There are press reports, which she does not mention, that this document originated at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, rather than from the Defense Department, and it has been subjected to withering criticism by, among others, the American Psychiatric Association.)

Citing their “study,” the government now claims “that the Ban – as set forth in the 2018 Memorandum and the Implementation Plan – is now the product of a deliberative review. In particular, Defendants claim the Ban has been subjected to ‘an exhaustive study’ and is consistent with the recommendations of a ‘Panel of Experts’ convened by Secretary Mattis to study ‘military service by transgender individuals, focusing on military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion,’ and tasked with ‘conduct[ing] an independent multi-disciplinary review and study of relevant data and information pertaining to transgender Service members.’  Defendants claim that the Panel was comprised of senior military leaders who received ‘support from medical and personnel experts from across the [DoD] and [DHS],’ and considered ‘input from transgender Service members, commanders of transgender Service members, military medical professionals, and civilian medical professions with experience in the care and treatment of individuals with gender dysphoria.’  The Defendants also claim that the Report was ‘informed by the [DoD]’s own data obtained since the new policy began to take effect last year.’”

But, having “carefully considered the Implementation Plan,” wrote Pechman, “the Court concludes that whether the Ban is entitled to deference raises an unresolved question of fact. The Implementation Plan was not disclosed until March 23, 2018.  As Defendants’ claims and evidence regarding their justifications for the Ban were presented to the Court only recently, Plaintiffs and [The State of Washington, which has intervened as a co-plaintiff] have not yet had an opportunity to test or respond to these claims.  On the present record, the Court cannot determine whether the DoD’s deliberate process – including the timing and thoroughness of its study and the soundness of the medical and other evidence it relied upon – is of the type to which Courts typically should defer.”

In other words, Pechman suspects that this purported “study” is a political document, produced for litigation purposes, and she is undoubtedly aware that its accuracy has been sharply criticized. Furthermore, she wrote, “The Court notes that, even in the event it were to conclude that deference is owed, it would not be rendered powerless to address Plaintiffs’ and Washington’s constitutional claims, as Defendants seem to suggest.”  And, she noted pointedly, the Defendants’ “claimed justifications for the Ban – to promote ‘military lethality and readiness’ and avoid ‘disrupt[ing] unit cohesion, or tax[ing] military resources’ – are strikingly similar to justifications offered in the past to support the military’s exclusion and segregation of African American service members, its ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, and its policy preventing women from serving in combat roles.”  In short, Pechman will not be bamboozled by a replay of past discriminatory policies, all of which have been abandoned because they were based mainly on prejudice and stereotyping.

Thus, although the judge denied for now the Plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment, it was because factual controversies must be resolved before the court can make a final ruling on the merits.

The Defendants won only one tiny victory in this ruling: a concession that the court lacks jurisdiction to impose injunctive relief against President Trump in his official capacity. However, even that was just a partial victory for Defendants, as Judge Pechman rejected the suggestion that the court lacks jurisdiction to issue a declaratory judgment against the President.  “The Court is aware of no case holding that the President is immune from declaratory relief – rather, the Supreme Court has explicitly affirmed the entry of such relief,” citing several cases as examples.  “The Court concludes that, not only does it have jurisdiction to issue declaratory relief against the President, but that this case presents a ‘most appropriate instance’ for such relief,” she continued, taking note of Trump’s original Twitter announcement, and that two of the operative Memoranda at issue in the case were signed by Trump.  If, as Judge Pechman suspects, the Ban was devised in the first instance by Trump, and by Trump alone, a declaratory judgment that his action violated the Constitution would be entirely appropriate.

Plaintiffs are represented by a team of attorneys from Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN, with pro bono assistance from the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Newman Du Wors LLP.

(Post script):

Federal Appeals Court Rules for Transgender Funeral Director in Title VII Discrimination Suit

Posted on: March 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled on March 7 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 2018 WL 1177669, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720, that a Michigan funeral home violated federal anti-discrimination law by terminating a funeral director who announced that she would be transitioning during her summer vacation and would return to work as a woman.  The 6th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over federal cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rejecting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox that the funeral home’s action was protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the court that the government’s “compelling interest” to eradicate employment discrimination because of sex took priority over the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner.

This is the first time that any federal appeals court has ruled that RFRA would not shelter an employer from a gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender plaintiff.  Although the 6th Circuit has allowed Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs in the past under a “gender stereotype” theory, this is also the first time that the 6th Circuit has explicitly endorsed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conclusion that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, directly prohibited by Title VII.  Judge Moore drew a direct comparison to a Title VII decision by the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), which held similarly that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus potentially joining in the widening split of federal appellate courts over a broad construction of Title VII to extend to both kinds of claims.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s involvement as volunteer counsel for the funeral home makes it highly likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to review this ruling.

The lawsuit was filed by the EEOC, which sued after investigating Aimee Stephens’ administrative charge that she had been unlawfully terminated by the Michigan funeral home.  After the district court ruled in favor of the funeral home, the EEOC appealed to the 6th Circuit and Stephens, represented by the ACLU, was granted standing to intervene as co-plaintiff in the appeal.

“While living and presenting as a man,” wrote Judge Moore, “she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan.  Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work.”

Rost identifies himself as a Christian who espouses the religious belief that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home’s funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization” or if he were to “permit one of the Funeral Home’s male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

“In particular,” related Judge Moore, “Rost believes that authorizing or paying for a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would render him complicit ‘in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.’”

As such, Rost claimed that his company’s obligation to comply with Title VII should be excused in this case because of the later-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that the federal government may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling justification for doing so, and that the rule the government seeks to apply is narrowly tailored to burden religious practice no more than is necessary to achieve the government’s goal.

The funeral home moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title VII does not ban discrimination against a person because they are transgender or transitioning, that the funeral home could reasonably require compliance with its dress code, and that requiring the funeral home to allow a “man dressed as a woman” to serve as a funeral director would substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion, as defined by Rost, and violate its rights under RFRA.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, there was no Supreme Court authority for the proposition that a funeral home, or any other for-profit business, could claim to “exercise religion,” but in that case the Court ruled that because business corporations are defined as “persons” in the U.S. Code, they enjoy the same protection as natural persons under RFRA.  At least in the case of a closely-held corporation such as Hobby Lobby, with a small group of shareholders who held the same religious beliefs on the issue in question – a federal regulation requiring that employer health plans cover various forms of contraception to which Hobby Lobby’s owners took exception on religious grounds – the corporation was entitled to protection under RFRA based on the religious views of its owners.  The Harris Funeral Home is analogous to Hobby Lobby Stores, albeit operating on a smaller scale, so Rost’s religious views on gender identity and transitioning can be attributed to the corporation for purposes of RFRA.

Interestingly, this would not have been an issue in the case had Stephens brought the lawsuit on her own behalf, without the EEOC as a plaintiff.  The 6th Circuit has interpreted RFRA to impose its restriction on the federal government but not on private plaintiffs suing to enforce their rights under federal statutes.  Since EEOC is the plaintiff, however, this is a case of the government seeking to impose a burden on the free exercise of religion by a business corporation, and RFRA is implicated.

District Judge Cox, bound by 6th Circuit precedent to find that Stephens had a potentially valid discrimination claim under Title VII (see Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566 (2004)), nonetheless concluded that ordering a remedy for Stephens would substantially impair the Funeral Home’s rights under RFRA, granting summary judgment to the funeral home.  In another contested issue in the case, Judge Cox ruled that the EEOC could not pursue in this lawsuit a claim that the Funeral Home’s policy of paying for male employees’ uniforms but not for female employees’ uniforms violated Title VII’s sex discrimination provision.  Cox held that this claim did not grow naturally out of the investigation of Stephens’ discrimination charge, and so must be litigated separately.

The 6th Circuit reversed on both points.  As to the uniform issue, the Court found that the EEOC’s investigation of Stephens’ discrimination claim naturally led to investigating the company’s uniform policy, since the question of which uniform Stephens could wear was directly involved in Rost’s decision to terminate her.  The court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the question back to the district court to determine whether the uniform policy, which the funeral home has since modified to provide some subsidy for the cost of women’s uniforms, violates Title VII.

More significantly, the court found that Judge Cox erred on several key points in his analysis of the company’s summary judgment motion.

Cox had determined that the 6th Circuit does not recognize gender identity claims under Title VII, as such, but in rejecting a prior motion to dismiss the case had concluded that Stephens could proceed on the theory that she was fired for failing to conform to her employer’s stereotype about how men are supposed to present themselves and dress in the workplace.  Rost stated in his deposition that he objected to men dressing as women – which is how he views Stephens in light of his religious belief that gender identity is just a social construct that violates God’s plan and not a reality.

After reviewing the court’s prior transgender discrimination decisions, Judge Moore concluded that the EEOC’s view of the statute to cover gender identity discrimination directly, without reference to sex stereotypes, is correct.  “First,” she wrote, “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

She referred to the 7th Circuit’s Hively decision, a sexual orientation case, which employed the same reasoning to find that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  “Here, we ask whether Stephens would have been fired if Stephens had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code.  The answer quite obviously is no.  This, in and of itself, confirms that Stephens’ sex impermissibly affected Rost’s decision to fire Stephens.”

The court also referred to a landmark ruling by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2nd 293 (D.D.C. 2008), which allowed a transgender discrimination claim against the Library of Congress, which had withdrawn an employment offer when informed that the applicant was transitioning.

And, of course, the court noted the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins ruling (490 U.S. 228 (1989)), stating that Title VII requires “gender” to be “irrelevant to employment decisions.”  Moore wrote, “Gender (or sex) is not being treated as ‘irrelevant to employment decisions’ if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.”

Of course, Moore noted, transgender discrimination implicates the sex stereotype theory as well.  Referring to Smith v. City of Salem, she wrote, “We did not expressly hold in Smith that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is unlawful, though the opinion has been read to say as much – both by this circuit and others,” and then proceeded to say as much!  “Such references support what we now directly hold: Title VII protects transgender persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitutes an inherently gender non-conforming trait.”

In light of this holding, the funeral home had to be found in violation of the statute unless it was entitled to some exception or some affirmative defense.  One argument made in an amicus brief in support of the funeral home suggested that a person employed as a funeral director could be covered by the constitutionally-mandated ministerial exception recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The Supreme Court said that it is a component of free exercise of religion that if somebody is being employed to perform religious functions, the government could not dictate the hiring decision.  The court rejected this defense, noting that the funeral home has conceded that it is not a “religious organization” and was not claiming the “ministerial exception” for any of its employees.  Furthermore, even if the funeral home tried to claim the exception, the court found it would not apply to the position of a funeral director in a for-profit funeral home business.  Stephen was not employed to serve a religious function, and the duties of a funeral directly only incidentally involved any religious function in the way of facilitating participation of religious funeral celebrants.

Turning to the RFRA defense, the court first dispensed with the argument that as Stephens had intervened as a co-plaintiff, RFRA had been rendered irrelevant because this was no longer purely a government enforcement case.  The EEOC remains the principal appellant in the case, and the court would not dismiss the RFRA concern on that basis.

However, the court found, significantly, that requiring the funeral home to employ Stephens after her transition would not impose a “substantial” burden within the meaning of RFRA.  The funeral home argued that the “very operation of the Funeral Home constitutes protected religious exercise because Rost feels compelled by his faith to serve grieving people through the funeral home, and thus requiring the Funeral Home to authorize a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would directly interfere with – and thus impose a substantial burden on – the Funeral Home’s ability to carry out Rost’s religious exercise of caring for the grieving.”

Rost suggested two ways this would impose a substantial burden.  First, he suggested, letting Stephens dress as a woman “would often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones and thereby hinder their healing process (and the Funeral Home’s ministry),” and second, “forcing the Funeral Home to violate Rost’s faith would significantly pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.”  The court did not accept either of these as “substantial within the meaning of RFRA.”

For one thing, a basic tenet of anti-discrimination law is that businesses may not rely on customer preferences or biases as an excuse to refuse to employ people for a reason forbidden by Title VII.  Courts have ruled that even if it is documented that employing somebody will alienate some customers, that cannot be raised as a defense to a valid discrimination claim.  “We hold as a matter of law,” wrote Moore, “that a religious claimant cannot rely on customers’ presumed biases to establish a substantial burden under RFRA.”

The court rejected Rost’s argument that the EEOC’s position put him to the choice of violating his religious beliefs by, for example, paying for a women’s uniform for Stephens to wear, or otherwise quitting the funeral business.  The court pointed out that there is no legal requirement for Rost to pay for uniforms for his staff.  This is distinguishable from the Hobby Lobby case, where the issue was a regulation requiring employers to bear the cost of contraceptive coverage.  Further, wrote Moore, “simply permitting Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender that is at odds with Rost’s religious beliefs is not a substantial burden under RFRA,” because “as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens’ understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

Since the court found no substantial burden, it did not necessarily have to tackle the question of the government’s justification for imposing any burden at all.  But with an eye to a likely appeal of this case, the court went ahead to determine whether, if it is wrong about this and the Supreme Court were to find that this application of Title VII to Rost’s business does impose a substantial burden, it passes the strict scrutiny test established by RFRA.

As to this, the court reached perhaps its most significant new ruling in the case: Having identified gender identity claims as coming within the ambit of sex discrimination claims, the court had to determine whether the government has a compelling interest and that enforcing Title VII is the least intrusive way of achieving that interest.  Even the Funeral Home was willing to concede that on a general level the government has a compelling interest, expressed through Title VII, in eradicating sex discrimination in the workplace, but the Funeral Home argued that interest did not justify this particular case, compelling it to let a man dress as a woman while working as a funeral director.  “The Funeral Home’s construction of the compelling-interest test is off-base,” wrote Moore.  “Rather than focusing on the EEOC’s claim – that the Funeral Home terminated Stephens because of her proposed gender nonconforming behavior – the Funeral Home’s test focuses instead on its defense that the Funeral Home merely wishes to enforce an appropriate workplace uniform.  But the Funeral Home has not identified any cases where the government’s compelling interest was framed as its interest in disturbing a company’s workplace policies.”  The question, according to the court’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedents, is whether “the interests generally served by a given government policy or statute would not be ‘compromised’ by granting an exemption to a particular individual or group.”

“Failing to enforce Title VII against the Funeral Home means the EEOC would be allowing a particular person – Stephens – to suffer discrimination, and such an outcome is directly contrary to the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in the workforce.” And, continued Moore, “here, the EEOC’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination applies with as much force to Stephens as to any other employee discriminated against based on sex.”

The court specifically rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that its religious free exercise rights should take priority as being derived from the 1st Amendment, because that would go directly against Supreme Court precedent, which has rejected the idea that individuals and businesses generally enjoy a 1st Amendment right to refuse to comply with laws because of their religious objections.  Congress did not have authority, in the first version of RFRA that it passed and that was invalidated by the Supreme Court, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.  What RFRA does is to create a statutory right, not to channel a constitutional right, and the statutory right is circumscribed to cases where a federal law imposes a substantial burden on free exercise without having a compelling justification for doing so.  This does, not, according to the 6th Circuit, elevate a business’s free exercise rights above an individual’s statutory protection against discrimination.  (Indeed, Justice Samuel Alito said as much in his Hobby Lobby opinion for the Supreme Court, albeit in the context of race discrimination.)

Finally, as required by RFRA, the court found that requiring compliance with Title VII was the least restrictive means available for the government to achieve its compelling interest in eradicating employment discrimination because of sex.  The district court had suggested that the EEOC could pursue a less restrictive alternative by getting the parties to agree to a gender-neutral uniform for the workplace, thus removing Rost’s objection to a “man dressed as a woman.”  “The district court’s suggestion, although appealing in its tidiness, is tenable only if we excise from the case evidence of sex stereotyping in areas other than attire,” wrote Judge Moore.  “Though Rost does repeatedly say that he terminated Stephens because she ‘wanted to dress as a woman’ and ‘would no longer dress as a man,’ the record also contains uncontroverted evidence that Rost’s reasons for terminating Stephens extended to other aspects of Stephens’s intended presentation.”  It was not just about the uniforms.

The court could have reversed the summary judgment and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider its holding and determine whether a trial was needed, but in fact there are no material facts in dispute once one treats the 6th Circuit’s opinion as presenting the law of the case on interpreting Title VII and RFRA.  With no material facts to be resolved at this stage, the 6th Circuit directly granted summary judgment to the EEOC on its claim that the Funeral Home violated Title VII and is not entitled to a defense under RFRA.  Stephens won on the merits, unless the Funeral Home is successful in getting the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 6th Circuit’s decision.

The appeal was argued for the EEOC by Anne Noel Occhialinio, and for Stephens by ACLU attorney John A. Knight.  Douglas G. Wardlow of Alliance Defending Freedom argued on behalf of the Funeral Home.  The case attracted amicus briefs from Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Private Rights/Public Conscience Project (New York) and various law firms offering pro bono assistance to amici on briefs.

Judge Moore was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the unanimous panel were Helene N. White, appointed by President George W. Bush, and Bernice W. Donald, appointed by President Barack Obama.  Showing a recent trend in diversifying the federal bench, the panel was, unusually, made up entirely of female circuit judges.  As a result of several appointments by President Obama, half of the active judges on the 6th Circuit are women, the only federal appellate court yet to achieve gender parity.