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Posts Tagged ‘U.S. District Court Northern District of New York’

2nd Circuit Endorses Narrow Interpretation of its Title VII LGBT-Rights Precedent

Posted on: August 16th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, sitting in Manhattan, observed in an opinion issued on August 12 that its historic ruling last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express, holding that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, does not create a judicial precedent in the 2nd Circuit for purposes of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause on the issue of sexual orientation discrimination.

This observation, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes, came in a lawsuit by a woman who was fired early in 2010 from a position as assistant women’s basketball team coach at Binghamton State University in upstate New York after months of rumors that she had a romantic relationship with one of the women on the basketball team.  Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (2nd Cir., Aug. 12, 2019). The plaintiff, Elizabeth Naumovski, who denied that there was any romantic relationship, sued Nicole Scholl, the head coach, and James Norris, the associate athletic director, who made the decision to fire her, claiming a violation of her rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause.  Part of their defense to her constitutional claim was that they enjoyed “qualified immunity” from any personal liability for making the decision to fire her.  District Court Judge David N. Hurd refused to dismiss the claim without discussing the qualified immunity claim, and they appealed.

Under the Supreme Court’s decisions on state actor liability for violating constitutional rights, a government agency or entity such as a public university can only be held liable for its policies, not for discretionary decisions by its management employees.  That is, the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” under which private sector employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees, does not apply in this situation.  Since the University does not have an anti-LGBT employment policy, it cannot be held liable under the Equal Protection Clause, even if a court were to conclude that Ms. Naumovski’s sexual orientation was the reason for her discharge.

However, management employees such as Scholl and Norris can be sued for their decisions violating a public employee’s constitutional rights, if at the time they acted it was “clearly established” in law that the basis for their action was unconstitutional.  Consequently, in ruling on their motion to dismiss the Equal Protection claim against them, Judge Hurd had to determine whether at the time of the discharge in 2010, it was “clearly established,” either by U.S. Supreme Court decisions or 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decisions, that employees of the state university enjoy constitutional protection from discrimination because of their sexual orientation.   If it was not “clearly established” at that time, Scholl and Norris should be shielded from liability by “qualified immunity,” and their motion for summary judgment should have been granted.

The 2nd Circuit ruled that the motion should have been granted.

“Naumovski’s complaint does not explicitly allege sexual orientation discrimination in its enumeration of her [federal] claims,” wrote Judge Cabranes. “Nevertheless, the District Court appears to have so interpreted her claims.  Indeed, the District Court concluded that ‘Plaintiff has established that she is a member of several protected classes including . . . being perceived as gay.’ We need not decide whether the District Court erred in so construing Naumovski’s complaint.  Even if Naumovski had stated a sexual orientation discrimination claim, Defendants would have qualified immunity from such a claim.”

The court said that any reliance by the district judge on the 2nd Circuit’s decision last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express “in recognizing Naumovski’s arguable sexual orientation discrimination claims” would be erroneous for two reasons.  First, Zarda was a Title VII (statutory) case, not a constitutional case.  Because Altitude Express is a private business, not a government entity, it could not be sued on a constitutional theory.  Furthermore, wrote Cabranes, the Zarda ruling “did not address whether the Constitution prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.  Thus, Zarda is only ‘clearly established law’ for statutory sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  It does not, however, ‘clearly establish’ constitutional sexual orientation discrimination claims.’”

This is quite disappointing, since the reasoning of Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann’s opinion in the Zarda case should apply equally as a matter of logical reasoning to the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination, and thus potentially a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  Elsewhere in his opinion in this case, Judge Cabranes devoted attention to explaining the difference between proof of sex discrimination under Title VII as distinguished from the Equal Protection Clause.  Under Title VII, a defendant can be found to have violated the statute if an employee’s sex was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision, even though it was not the only factor supporting the decision.  By contrast, under the Supreme Court’s approach to Equal Protection, the plaintiff must prove that her sex was the “but-for” cause of the action she is contesting, and the defendant would escape liability if other reasons for its action would provide a valid non-discriminatory reason for the action.

Furthermore, Judge Cabranes pointed out, Zarda was decided in 2018, and Naumovski was discharged in 2010.  “Prior to Zarda,” he wrote, “our Court had expressly declined to recognize sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, much less the Constitution.  Thus, if anything, the ‘clearly established law’ at the time Defendants terminated Naumovski’s employment was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.  Insofar as the District Court relied on Zarda, therefore, Defendants were surely entitled to qualified immunity.”

The court also pointed out that Naumovski was fired before the Supreme Court had decided U.S. v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  “It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect,” he asserted.  In a footnote, he conceded that in 1996 the Supreme Court had “already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays” when it declared unconstitutional a Colorado constitutional amendment that excluded gay people in that state from protection under state law. “Here, however,” he wrote, “Naumovski has alleged no such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”

Judge Cabranes concluded that even if it is possible that today a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for dismissing a public employee because of their sexual orientation, depending how one interprets the current state of affairs in the 2nd Circuit in light of Zarda and nationally in light of Windsor and Obergefell, “at the time of the challenged conduct here such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established.’”

The bottom line in Naumovski’s case is that constitutional claims against Binghamton University and the State University of New York (SUNY) as a whole are dismissed, but several statutory claims against the employers that were not dismissed by Judge Hurd remain in play.  Constitutional claims against Scholl and Norris are now dismissed on grounds of qualified immunity.

Naumovski is represented by A.J. Bosman of Rome, New York.  Scholl and Norris are represented by Margaret Joanne Fowler of Vestal, New York.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel are Senior Circuit Judges Ralph Winter and Renee Raggi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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