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9th Circuit Rejects Parents & Students Lawsuit Against Trans-Friendly Oregon School District

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

A unanimous three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has affirmed a ruling by U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez, Jr., that the Dallas School District No. 2 did not violate the legal rights of parents and students who objected to the District’s policy allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Parents for Privacy v. Barr, 2020 Westlaw 701730 (February 12, 2020).

The decision was made by a panel comprised entirely of judges appointed by Democratic presidents.  Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, wrote the court’s opinion. The other members of the panel were Susan P. Graber, also appointed by Clinton, and John B. Owens, who was appointed by Barack Obama.

The school district adopted its policy in response to a request from a transgender student, identified in the court’s opinion as Student A, who was identified as female at birth but announced in September 2015 that he identified as a boy and asked school officials to let him use the boys’ bathroom and locker room.  This was before the Obama Administration sent out its letter to all school districts advising that transgender students have a legal right to such access, advice that the Trump Administration disavowed shortly after taking office early in 2017.

In response to Student A’s request, the District created a “Student Safety Plan” for Student A and any other transgender student who might make such a request in the future, “in order to ensure that Student A could safely participate in school activities,” wrote Judge Tashima.  Under this Plan, Student A and any other transgender student could “use any of the bathrooms in the building to which he identifies sexually.”

The Plan also provide that all school staff would receiving training and instruction regarding Title IX, the federal statute that provides that schools receiving federal funding must afford equal educational opportunity to all students, regardless of their sex.  The Plan also provided that the phys ed teacher would be the first to enter and leave the locker room, so the teacher would be present at all times that students were using that facility, and that Student A’s locker would be in direct line of sight of the coach’s office, so the coach would see if anybody interfered with Student A.

The plaintiffs in this lawsuit claim that when Student A began using the boys’ locker room and changing clothes “while male students were present,” the cisgendered boys were caused “embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, intimidation, fear, apprehension, and stress,” since they had to change their clothes in the presence of somebody whose birth certificate said they were female.  The presence of privacy stalls in the bathrooms was deemed insufficient by plaintiffs, because they had gaps through which “partially unclothed bodies” could “inadvertently” be seen, and they complained that a single-user bathroom was “often inconvenient or considered inferior because it lacked a shower.”

In other words, they were arguing that the transgender student should have to use the inconvenient and inferior facility rather than them, due to their “stress” and “fear” around the possibility of encountering Student A while using these facilities.

The parents who joined as plaintiffs claimed that the school’s policy interfered with some parents’ “preferred moral and/or religious teaching of their children concerning modesty and nudity,” wrote Judge Tashima.  “In addition, several cisgender girls suffered from stress and anxiety as a result of their fear that a transgender girl student who remains biologically male would be allowed to use the girls’ locker room and bathroom.”  They found inconvenient the idea that they would have to resort to changing in the nurse’s office, which was “on the other side of the school,” to avoid such exposure.

Students opposing the plan circulated a petition, but the principal “confiscated” the petitions and ordered students to discontinue that activity, and the District stood firm behind its policy.

The complaint alleged violations by the U.S. Education and Justice Departments of the Administrative Procedure Act, Title IX, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the 1st and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, but the court agreed with Judge Hernandez that the federal defendants were not properly in the case because they had nothing to do with the District’s decision to adopt the policy.

The plaintiffs asserted claims against the District under the 1st and 14th Amendments, charging interference with the privacy rights of cisgender students and interference with the parents’ liberty interest in raising their children, as protected by the Due Process Clause.   They also raised claims against the District under Title IX and Oregon’s public accommodations and education laws.

Judge Tashima first tackled the plaintiffs’ privacy arguments, concluding that plaintiffs “fail to show that the contours of the privacy right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment are so broad as to protect against the District’s implementation of the Student Safety Plan.”  He said that because the Plan provides “alternative options and privacy protections” to students who did not wish to be exposed to Student A in the shared facilities, no student was forced into such a situation, even if the alternative options “admittedly appear inferior and less convenient.”

He also rejected the argument that the Plan created a “hostile environment” for cisgender students, in violation of Title IX.  Judge Hernandez found that the Plan does not discriminate against any student because of his or her sex, since its rules apply across the board to all students, and noted that decisions by other courts had all agreed that “the presence of transgender people in an intimate setting does not, by itself, create a sexually harassing environment that is severe or pervasive,” and thus fails to meet the standard to find a statutory violation.  The 9th Circuit panel stated agreement with Judge Hernandez’s conclusion, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that because Title IX regulations authorize schools to have single-sex facilities separately for boys and girls, the schools should be required to maintain such segregation.  These regulations were issued to make clear that a school would not be violating Title IX if it had separate facilities for boys and girls, provided they were equal facilities, but not to require schools to exclude transgender students from using the facilities.

The district court rejected the argument that the Plan went so far as to violate the parents’ constitutional rights, pointing out that the Supreme Court and other federal courts have rejected claims by parents that they were entitled to control the school curriculum or policies in order to “protect” their children from influences feared by the parents.  “In sum,” wrote Tashima, “Plaintiffs fail to cite any authority that supports their asserted fundamental Fourteenth Amendment parental right to ‘determine whether and when their children will have to risk being exposed to opposite sex nudity at school’ and ‘whether their children, while at school, will have to risk exposing their own undressed or partially unclothed bodies to members of the opposite sex’ in ‘intimate, vulnerable settings like restrooms, locker rooms, and showers.’”

The court also rejected the parents’ free exercise of religion claim that they had a right to shield their children from exposure to views that the parents would consider immoral on religious grounds.  The court referred to Supreme Court precedents rejecting free exercise claims to be exempt from complying with religiously neutral and generally applicable policies that don’t specifically target religious beliefs.  “Because the District’s Plan did not force any Plaintiff to embrace a religious belief and did not punish anyone for expressing their religious beliefs,” wrote Tashima, “the district court concluded that the Plan is ‘neutral and generally applicable with respect to religion,’ and therefore did not violate Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights,” to which the 9th Circuit panel signified its agreement.  The court found that any constitutional claim against the Plan would be defeated under the appropriate “rational basis” standard of judicial review, finding that it served a legitimate governmental interest of enabling the transgender student to enjoy equal access to the District’s facilities.

The court concluded that the District’s “carefully-crafted Student Safety Plan seeks to avoid discrimination and ensure the safety and well-being of transgender students,” and that it did not violate Title IX or any constitutional rights of the parents and cisgender students.  Thus, the court upheld Judge Hernandez’s decision to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

This result is consistent with rulings by several other courts, including a similar ruling by the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals that was denied review by the Supreme Court last year.  However, the Supreme Court is considering petitions in several other cases presenting the question whether to re-evaluate its long-standing precedent that there is no constitutional religious free exercise exemption from complying with religiously-neutral, generally applicable government policies, and several members of the Court have already signaled, in concurring and dissenting opinions, their openness to take that step.  If the Court grants review in any of those cases, or this one if the plaintiffs file a petition for review, an important brick in the wall of separation between church and state may be breached.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs could file a petition for rehearing before an expanded panel of the court.  In the 9th Circuit, if a majority of the 29 judges favor such a rehearing, it would go to a panel of eleven members of the Circuit Court.

The court received nine amicus briefs, none of which supported the plaintiffs’ position!  The American Civil Liberties was permitted to argue on behalf of the rights of transgender students.  All the major LGBT and transgender rights organizations were represented by amicus briefs, as well as a host of professional associations in the fields of medicine, education, and civil rights.  The usual opponents of LGBT rights seem to have ignored this appeal, perhaps anticipating the result as predictable, given the liberal reputation of the 9th Circuit, but it is worth pointing out that Donald Trump has appointed a third of the current active judges on the 9th Circuit, and it was just the luck of the draw that this case drew a panel that included none of his appointees.  An expanded panel of eleven would necessarily include some of Trump’s appointees.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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