Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Full Appeals Court Rules Federal Law Forbids Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Employment

You’re applying for a job/So you’re filling out a form
And for all intents and purposes/You fit into the norm
Until it says to list your next of kin/But there's no box to fit you in

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has held that the federal statute barring sex discrimination in employment forbids sexual orientation discrimination.  The 8-3 majority opinion by Chief Judge Diane Woods in significant measure tracks a well-reasoned decision about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 adopted in a 2015 ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Today’s decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College is likely to be influential as litigants in other cases across the country continue to advocate the same interpretation of Title VII, likely leading the Supreme Court to take the issue up sooner rather than later.

The case arose when lesbian Kimberly Hively was repeatedly rejected for full-time positions and eventually had her part-time teaching contract not renewed by Ivy Tech Community College in Southbend, Indiana.  She sued pro se, arguing in part that Ivy Tech discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation and thus in violation Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  Her claim was rejected by the federal trial court, but on appeal she was represented by Lambda Legal.  A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled against that argument, holding it foreclosed by older circuit precedent, which is binding on such panels until the Supreme Court or an “en banc” panel of all active Seventh Circuit judges overrules it.

Hively has now overruled such earlier Seventh Circuit precedent and held that, under Title VII, “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.”  The court concluded this as a matter of statutory interpretation, adopting its best view of Title VII without feeling obligated to defer to the EEOC’s interpretation reaching the same conclusion.  The Seventh Circuit court did follow the Supreme Court’s reasoning in a Title VII case about sexual harassment between people of the same sex, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.  The lesson it drew from Oncale?  “[T]he fact that the enacting Congress may not have anticipated a particular application of the law cannot stand in the way of the provisions of the law that are on the books.”

The EEOC’s decision in Baldwin v. Foxx had ruled sexual orientation discrimination a form of sex discrimination in part based on a sex stereotyping theory, the general bounds of which the Supreme Court had embraced in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins in 1989.  Here, the full Seventh Circuit court concluded that “Hively represents the ultimate case of failure to conform to the female stereotype (at least as understood in a place such as modern America, which views heterosexuality as the norm and other forms of sexuality as exceptional): she is not heterosexual.”  Hence, although the three-judge panel had “described the line between a gender nonconformity claim and one based on sexual orientation as gossamer-thin,” the en banc court “conclude[d] that it does not exist at all.”

The Baldwin case also relied on an associational theory:  Courts had regularly held that Title VII, which also prohibits race discrimination in employment, is violated when an employer discriminates against employees or applicants in interracial relationships.  The EEOC said that discriminating against women who associate with women (as opposed to men who associate with women) similarly is sex discrimination, and the en banc court in Hively agreed.  It should be no defense to say an employer would discriminate against lesbians and gay men alike, just as it was no defense of laws against interracial marriage, held unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (three years after Title VII was enacted) to say that such marriage restrictions discriminated against white and black people alike if they engaged in interracial relationships.

Judge Richard Posner seemingly joined Chief Judge Wood’s majority opinion (despite misgivings about its use of Oncale and Loving) but wrote separately to emphasize that “statutory and constitutional provisions frequently are interpreted on the basis of present need and understanding rather than original meaning.”  In his view, such evolutionary interpretation is especially appropriate here because “[n]othing has changed more in the decades since the enactment of the statute than attitudes toward sex.”  (Because he gets the law right, in my view, and shows a humane view of lesbigay people, I’ll cut him his slack for identifying RenĂ©e Richards, who transitioned in 1975, as “the first transgender celebrity,” completely overlooking the widespread attention received by Christine Jorgensen, who transitioned in the early 1950s and was covered on talk shows and front pages of newspapers.)

Judge Joel Flaum, joined by Judge Kenneth Ripple, joined most of Judge Woods’s majority opinion but declined to join Part III, which invoked the Supreme Court’s trend of increasing protection of lesbigay persons in its constitutional decisions.  In their view, the statutory interpretation was fairly simple:  “discrimination against an employee on the basis of their homosexuality is necessarily, in part, discrimination based on their sex” because, in light of how sexual orientation is defined in our society, “[o]ne cannot consider a person’s homosexuality without also accounting for their sex.”

Judge Diane Sykes, joined by Senior Judge William Bauer and Judge Michael Kanne, dissented.  They pressed a by now familiar appeal to “democracy” and a view of statutory interpretation that, despite their protestations to the contrary, nonetheless closely tethers laws to presumed expectations of their enactors of how those laws would apply, rather than reasoning logically about what the words say and mean, as Oncale seems to direct. 

Remember, Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex.  Even were we to think the dissenters right that “[t]o a fluent speaker of the English language—then and now—the ordinary meaning of the word ‘sex’ does not fairly include the concept of ‘sexual orientation[,]’” that would not make their position right. I’ve advanced parallel arguments elsewhere for why Title VII’s sex discrimination ban forbids anti-transgender discrimination (see pp. 264-265 of my article Acknowledging the Gender in Anti-TransgenderDiscrimination).  Even if “sex” refers to “male” and “female” and we set aside the circumstances of intersex persons, it remains the case, as the Hively en banc majority persuasively argued, that discrimination against someone because she is lesbian is discrimination “because of” sex.

Here, and in rejecting the comparisons the majority appropriately draws, the dissenters seem to think that we should pair up instances of discrimination, so that an employer who discriminates against gay men because of sex (though hiring women similarly attracted to men) and who discriminates against lesbian women because of sex (though hiring men similarly attracted to women) engages in no sex discrimination, rather than two instances of sex discrimination.  This is wrong, as legal scholars including Kenji Yoshino (see p.441 of The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure) and myself (see Making up Women:Casinos, Cosmetics, and Title VII) have argued in a variety of contexts.


To quote the dissent, “I could go on, but the point has been made.”  The majority opinion offers sound rejoinders to many of the dissenters’ subsidiary contentions.  With luck, other courts will see that and rule the same way.  This would go far toward reducing the discrimination lesbigay people face in many places throughout the country.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Appeals Court Sustains Temporary Restraint on Trump Immigration EO

“You got your tricks
Good for you
But there’s no gambit I don’t see through”

Yesterday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously held that the federal trial judge in Seattle who granted a nationwide temporary restraining order (TRO) suspending Trump’s immigration ban executive order (EO) did not exceed his discretion.  The Court of Appeals therefore rejected Donald Trump’s emergency motion.  The per curiam (unsigned, with authorship attributed simply to the court) appellate opinion, styled an “Order” by the three-judge panel, held that the President and official defendants had failed to show that they were likely to establish on appeal of the TRO that the EO was lawful.  In assessing legality, the court primarily focused on individuals’ rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though it also noted (without definitively ruling) that the plaintiff states’ arguments that the EO unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of religion were serious.  The Court also held that Trump had failed to show that irreparable injury would follow if the trial judge’s TRO were not immediately lifted.

The lawsuit, filed by the states of Washington and Minnesota, challenged three aspects of the EO.  As the appellate court explained, “section 3(c) of the Executive Order suspends for 90 days the entry of aliens from seven countries,” all of which have majority-Muslim populations, as widely observed in the media following issuance of the EO.  Sections 5(a)-5(c) stop the US from accepting refugees for 120 days, afterward requires prioritization of claims based on religious persecution where someone is a religious minority (such as, e.g., Christians from the seven countries at issue), and indefinitely bars refugees from Syria.  Third, section 5(e) of the EO specifies that it is in the national interest to make exceptions to the EO (pursuant to authority in section 3(g)) “when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.”

The district court judge had held a hearing and subsequently entered a nationwide TRO temporarily halting enforcement of the EO, and the Trump administration filed an emergency motion with the Court of Appeals, defending the claimed lawfulness of the order under the Constitution and federal statutes and asking the court to stay the TRO.  The oral argument in the case revealed concerns about the order from all three judges – William C. Canby, Richard R. Clifton, and Michelle T. Friedland – with Canby’s and Friedland’s concerns including worries whether the EO was intended to discriminate on the basis of religions against Muslims; Clifton seemed more skeptical of the latter claim.
Photo: -, AFP/Getty Images

The unanimous opinion arguably reflected this range of opinion.  After a brief analysis of why the Court of Appeals had jurisdiction to review the TRO, the court turned to the states’ standing to sue in federal court over the EO.  Federal case law limits the sorts of disputes that can be heard in the federal courts, limiting them to ones where the plaintiffs have “standing,” roughly meaning a sufficiently concrete stake in the dispute.  Here, the EO directly affects immigrants and only derivatively harms the plaintiff states themselves.  State universities are arms of the state for legal purposes here, and the court concluded that the linkage between the EO and harm to the states was straightforward:  “The necessary connection can be drawn in at most two logical steps: (1) the Executive Order prevents nationals of seven countries from entering Washington and Minnesota; (2) as a result, some of these people will not enter state universities, some will not join those universities as faculty, some will be prevented from performing research, and some will not be permitted to return if they leave.”  The court therefore concluded the states had standing for the suit to begin with.

The court also held that it had the authority in our constitutional scheme of governance to review the states’ legal claims, emphatically rejecting the administration’s claims that the President’s determinations about the national security necessity of his EO were judicially unreviewable, a point on which the panel had pressed the administration’s attorney at oral argument.  The court conceded that he was entitled to judicial deference in such matters, but invoked a range of Supreme Court precedents to hold that the judiciary nonetheless has an important role to play in ensuring the government acted constitutionally.  These included the George W. Bush-era “War on Terror” case Boumedienne v. Bush.

To decide whether it should stay the trial court’s TRO, the Court of Appeals applied well established case law requiring it to consider four factors.  Those are “(1) whether the stay applicant has made a strong showing that he is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) whether the applicant will be irreparably injured absent a stay; (3) whether issuance of the stay will substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding; and (4) where the public interest lies.”  Concerning the last factor, the court observed that different aspects of the public interest support each side in the case.  “On the one hand, the public has a powerful interest in national security and in the ability of an elected president to enact policies. And on the other, the public also has an interest in free flow of travel, in avoiding separation of families, and in freedom from discrimination.”  But the court had noted that that factor, and the third, only came into play if the party seeking the stay – here, Trump – established both of the first factors.  As noted above, the court held that he had not prevailed on those prongs.

The majority of the court’s legal analysis of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the EO was devoted to explaining why Trump had not shown his order was likely to be held constitutional on appeal.  And it relied primarily on the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  That clause forbids the government to deprive individuals of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  This clause has a procedural aspect upon which the court was relying; when the government deprives people of a protected liberty interest, for example, it must afford them notice and the opportunity to be heard, that is, “the opportunity to present reasons not to proceed with the deprivation and have [those reasons] considered” by the government.  The EO, of course, did not do so, categorically excluding sweepingly defined classes of people of their previous legal opportunity to enter the U.S. Trump argued that this was not necessary, contending that (as the court put it) “most or all of the individuals affected by the Executive Order have no rights under the Due Process Clause.”

This, the court held, was wrong.  Its opinion relied on numerous Supreme Court decisions to show that lots of noncitizens have due process rights concerning their right to travel into or out of the country.  Making the textual point that the Due Process Clause protects “persons,” not just citizens, the court pointed to various classes of persons who do have due process rights relevant here.  These included “certain aliens attempting to reenter the United States after travelling abroad[,]” such as lawful permanent residents (LPRs).  Although the White House counsel reinterpreted the EO not to apply to LPRs after its initial roll-out, the court rejected the notion that this was binding in a way that saved the order from constitutional challenge on their behalf.  That move did not render the case moot because it was not “absolutely clear” that the EO would not once again be applied to LPRs.  Moreover, the court pointed to Supreme Court case law suggesting that beyond LPRs, the EO could be violating the due process rights of “other persons who are in the United States, even if unlawfully; non-immigrant visaholders who have been in the United States but temporarily departed or wish to temporarily depart; refugees; and applicants who have a relationship with a U.S. resident or an institution that might have rights of its own to assert.” (citations omitted)

Trump’s back-up position was that the TRO was overbroad in that it extended past LPRs, and even beyond “previously admitted aliens who are temporarily abroad now or who wish to travel and return to the United States in the future[,]” and in that it extended beyond Washington and Minnesota (the plaintiff states) to the entire nation.  The court rejected the former, population overbreadth claim because it would leave unprotected some noncitizens who have viable due process claims.  It rejected the latter, geographic overbreadth claim by invoking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision sustaining a nationwide injunction against President Obama’s program of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.  Without affirmatively endorsing that court’s view that “such a fragmented immigration policy would run afoul of the constitutional and statutory requirement for uniform immigration law and policy,” the Court of Appeals here said Trump had not shown that the contrary view was likely to prevail.  And, apropos both overbreadth claims, the court said it was not their role to rewrite the EO to save it from its likely unconstitutionality.  Thus, Trump had not established the likelihood that he would prevail on appeal, and so was not entitled to a stay of the trial judge’s TRO.

The Court of Appeals then also flagged the religious discrimination claims pressed by the plaintiff states against the EO, which they contended violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Constitution’s equal protection limitation on federal action.  If Judge Clifton had felt particularly strongly about those claims, he might have insisted that any opinion he joined say nothing about the claim beyond ‘we don’t need to talk about it at all because we’re ruling on due process grounds.’  Yet the opinion went there.  It recounted the constitutional principle against religious favoritism embodied in the Establishment Clause.  It sympathetically recounted the states’ argument on this front, specifically affirming the propriety of relying on evidence of religious favoritism beyond the face of the EO, such as “numerous statements by the President about his intent to implement a ‘Muslim ban.’”  And, as noted earlier, it characterized the religious favoritism arguments as raising “serious allegations and present[ing] significant constitutional questions.”  Only then did it say that it would withhold judgment on those issues (as distinguished from the due process issues) until full briefing on the merits of the appeal.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals held that Trump and the other federal defendants failed to show that they would suffer irreparable injury – that could not be addressed with an eventual favorable decision possibly after a full trial – and so was not legally entitled to a stay of the TRO.  The court recognized that combatting terrorism was certainly a powerful governmental interest.  But, it noted: “Despite the district court’s and our own repeated invitations to explain the urgent need for the Executive Order to be placed immediately into effect, the Government submitted no evidence to rebut the States’ argument that the district court’s order merely returned the nation temporarily to the position it has occupied for many previous years.”  It rejected the government’s claim to superior knowledge of risks of terrorism, rightly noting that the government frequently provides courts evidence under seal, so that their claims can be assessed while secrecy is preserved.  In contrast, the court found that the states had provided ample evidence of the irreparable harms the EO causes, including “that the travel prohibitions harmed the States’ university employees and students, separated families, and stranded the States’ residents abroad. ”


It’s not at all clear whether the Trump administration will seek review of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Supreme Court.  They well might, on the theory that they have little or nothing to lose.  At worst, the Supreme Court would affirm the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, leaving the status quo (pre-EO) in place.  On the other hand, if Trump can convince five Justices of the Supreme Court that the TRO was overbroad in a way that should be reigned in, Trump might claim a victory about which he could crow in public, in social media.  It’s not clear that he would be able to – particularly with revelations that he is signing executive orders without appreciating what they do.  The doctrine of judicial deference to the Executive presupposes a reasonably competent or properly functioning president, which it regrettably is increasingly unclear the United States enjoys today.