SEVENTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS UPHOLDS PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION AND RULES AGAINST SCHOOL DISTRICT IN LOCAL TRANSGENDER CASE

 

By James Petrungaro & John Fester

 

June 2, 2017

             The federal appeals court having jurisdiction over Illinois schools released a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel this week that sends a strong message to school districts about how they should respond to transgender student bathroom access requests. In Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No 1 Board of Education, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a student’s request for the issuance of a preliminary injunction, requiring the District to allow the transgender male student to use the boys’ restroom, pending a full review of the case at a later date. 

            At issue in the case is the school district’s decision (which the Court referred to as a “policy” despite the absence of a formal written policy on the issue), to deny the transgender male student access to the boys’ restroom. The school district told the student and his parent that it would allow the access only if the student could provide unspecified “legal” and “medical” certifications of being a boy, including proof of having undergone a complete surgical transition (which is not legally allowed for minors).  

          Background.    A basic understanding of the facts of the case are necessary to understand the Court’s decision. As of the ruling, the student was a 17-year old senior named “Ash” who was on the verge of graduation. During his freshman year of high school, Ash began to openly identify as a male, though he was born anatomically female. As a sophomore, he asked that teachers address him as a male. As part of his public transitioning to being a male, he saw a therapist and was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria and in the summer before his senior year, began hormone replacement therapy. His public transitioning was largely without hostility or disruption and the record indicates that he was generally accepted by his high school community. 

            Toward the end of his sophomore year, Ash asked his school counselor for permission to use the boys’ restroom. The school district denied this request and assigned him to a gender-neutral restroom in the school’s main office, where he was the only student allowed to use that restroom. Ash initially reacted by restricting the intake of liquids to lessen his need to use the restroom and to combat the attention he thought would be drawn to the situation. But that approach aggravated a medical condition, which subjected him to an increased risk of fainting and seizures. During his junior year, Ash was also provided access to two other gender neutral and single-user restrooms. However, Ash used the boys’ restroom, notably without any incidents, disruptions or complaints to the district’s administration, until one day a teacher observed him and reported him to the administration. During the remainder of his junior year, Ash continued to use the boys’ restroom and was counseled several times about violating the District’s directives. 

            Heading into his senior year, Ash filed a federal lawsuit and requested a preliminary injunction to halt the school district’s “policy” prohibiting his use of the boys’ restroom. Ash alleged violations of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. For his Title IX claim, Ash argued that he was being unjustifiably discriminated against based upon the basis of his “sex.” For the Equal Protection claim, Ash argued that as a transgendered person, he is a member of a protected classification of individuals and his denial of equal access to the boys restroom was not justified by the school district. 

            In granting Ash’s preliminary injunction, the Court made quick work of finding that the school district’s policy decision subjected Ash to irreparable harm (a mix of physical and emotional injuries) and that Ash lacked other adequate remedies – both prerequisites of an injunction. The bulk of the Court’s analysis turned on whether Ash had viable claims under Title IX of the Civil Rights act of 1964 or the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. 

          Title IX.           The ultimate question in the Title IX claim was whether Congress intended to include transgender students in the statute’s protections against “sex” discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court has not decided that question, leaving the Seventh Circuit to look to its own precedent and that of other circuits. Recognizing the lack of precedent in the student context and Title IX, the Court relied on its decisions in the employment context under Title VII.  

        First, the Seventh Circuit recognized that in 1984, it ruled in a transgender employment discrimination case that the definition of “sex” should be “given a narrow, traditional interpretation, which would…exclude transsexuals.” But the Court then acknowledged that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Title VII does protect against “sex stereotyping,” including workplace policies that require employees to conform to certain standards of femininity or masculinity (e.g., sex-based dress codes). This is where the Court’s decision marked a sharp turn in transgender jurisprudence. Under a definition of “sex” that includes “sex stereotyping,” the Court ruled that Title IX does protect against discrimination of transgendered students, stating: “By definition, a transgender individual does not conform to the sex-based stereotypes of the sex that he or she was assigned at birth.”  

            Equal Protection.        The Court then turned its attention to the Equal Protection claim and centered its analysis on whether the restroom decision was an intentional or arbitrary discriminatory decision by the school district. In an equal protection analysis, courts must first determine whether the discriminatory act affected a “protected class.” If so, the judicial scrutiny of the decision becomes elevated and less deference is given to the policymaker. Here, the Court held that the school’s decision was in fact based on “sex,” thus prompting “heightened scrutiny.” Under a “heightened scrutiny” standard, precedent requires the school district to prove that its policy is both “genuine” and “exceedingly persuasive” (as opposed to the lesser standard of merely being “rational”). At every turn, the Court rejected the school district’s claimed justifications, finding:  

  • The district does not treat all boys and girls the same with its segregated restroom policy (as claimed by the school district) because it treated Ash differently than any other student by assigning him to single-user facilities;

  • All privacy arguments raised by the school district for the other students sharing the restroom with Ash were unfounded conjecture (there were no complaints or protests from students);

  • Identifying an individual’s “sex” is not a black and white exercise that can be determined even by reliance on a birth certificate since that marker “does not take into account an individual’s chromosomal makeup, which is also a key component of one’s biological sex.”

  • Restrooms in general are not a purely private place and any student wanting privacy can use a stall.

Notably, the Court wrote:  

A transgender student’s presence in the restroom provides no more of a risk to other student’s privacy rights than the presence of an overly curious student of the same biological sex who decides to sneak glances at his or classmates… [I]f the School District’s concern is that a child will be in the bathroom with another child who does not look anatomically the same, then it would seem that separate bathrooms also would be appropriate for pre-pubescent and post-pubescent children who do not look alike anatomically.  

Impact on Legal Landscape.   It is first noteworthy that the posture of the case makes the Court’s decision technically less authoritative. The decision is “preliminary” and is officially just a prediction by the Court of how it will rule when the case runs its full course. The Kenosha School District will be given an opportunity put on a more exhaustive factual demonstration to persuade the Court to decide differently before it issues a final decision on the underlying merits. If the parties presented a fairly complete factual record at the time of the preliminary injunction hearing, however, the Court’s decision can reasonably be expected to stand. The practical effect of the decision cannot be understated, however. The Court’s reasoning on the rudimentary “legal” questions of whether transgender students are entitled to the legal protections of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause are not expected to change absent reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Therefore, if a school district denies a transgender student use of the bathroom associated with his or her gender identity, or requires use of a single-occupancy bathroom, this case will almost certainly be followed by federal district judges should the student seek legal relief. School districts can expect transgender advocacy groups to widely publicize this decision, so you may see an increase in bathroom requests from transgender students, or an increase in transgender students no longer “asking” for what may now be considered a right. 

            This case is different than the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board. In Grimm, the Fourth Circuit’s transgender-friendly decision was largely rooted in administrative guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) under the Obama Administration. After that case worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, OCR (then under the Trump Administration) rescinded its guidance and the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back down for further proceedings. This Seventh Circuit decision, however, does not rely on OCR’s position – in fact it makes no mention of OCR or the Grimm case at all.   

            The transgender student access issue is a politically charged and emotional matter that only in the last few years has come to the forefront of the school law landscape. Unless and until the Seventh Circuit reverses itself or is reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, its decision can practically be treated as controlling for school districts in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Scariano, Himes and Petrarca is prepared to assist you in reviewing your transgender student practices and procedures in light of this significant decision.

 

RECENTLY ENACTED LEGISLATION AFFECTING SCHOOL DISTRICTS

September 2, 2016

             As school districts begin a new school year, Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, Chtd. is pleased to provide the following summary of some of the new laws that may affect your district’s operations. To access our recent eBlackboard on the Local Government Travel Expense Control Act, which was approved by Governor Rauner on July 22, 2016, please click here.  If you have any questions or concerns about the following, please contact your attorney at Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, Chtd. 

Student Residency Procedures

 Public Act 99-0670 

            This amendment to the School Code makes several significant changes to the process by which school districts adjudicate student residency matters. As of January 1, 2017:

 1. The school district’s initial determination that the student is a non-resident must detail the specific reasons why the school district arrived at that determination.

 2. If a hearing is requested, at least 3 calendar days before the hearing, both parties must submit to each other all written evidence, testimony, and a list of witnesses. The hearing notice sent by the school district must notify the person requesting the hearing that if the above is not disclosed in time, it will be barred at the hearing unless the other party consents.

 3. Extends the deadline for a school board to decide residency matters to 30 calendar days (from 15) after the conclusion of the hearing.

4. Gives the person who enrolled the student the ability to petition the regional superintendent for review of the board’s decision regarding the student’s residency and details the procedures governing that review.

 Open Meetings Act and Transparency of IMRF Retirement Payments

 Public Act 99-0646

             This law requires school boards to discuss, and disclose, at a minimum, the following at an open meeting before making a “disclosable payment” to IMRF employees (a payment that would increase the employee’s reportable monthly earnings by at least 6%, and is made between a year and 90 days before the employee retires) who began participation in IMRF before January 1, 2011, and are not subject to a collective bargaining agreement: (1) the employee’s name; (2) the purpose and amount of the increase or payment; (3) the employee’s retirement date; (4) the effect of the payment upon the employee’s expected retirement annuity; and (5) the effect of the payment upon the liability of the employer to the Article 7 fund.

FOIA – Noncompliance and Associated Fees and Presumptions

 Public Act 99-0586 

            This Public Act makes the following changes to the Freedom of Information Act effective January 1, 2017:

 1. If a requester seeks relief in circuit court after a request is denied, there will be an automatic presumption that the school district willfully and intentionally failed to comply with FOIA if: (1) the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (“PAC”) issued a binding opinion regarding the request; (2) the school district does not seek administrative review of the PAC’s opinion within 35 days of being served with the PAC’s opinion; and   (3) the school district does not comply with the PAC’s opinion within 35 days of being served with the PAC’s opinion.

 2. The school district can rebut the presumption in #1 above by showing that it is making a good faith effort to comply with the PAC’s opinion, but compliance was not possible within the 35-day time frame.

 3. If a requester seeks relief in circuit court after a request is denied, and the court determines that the school district willfully and intentionally failed to comply with FOIA, or acted in bad faith, an additional penalty of $1,000.00 (on top of any civil penalties assessed per occurrence of bad faith or willful non-compliance) may be imposed for each day non-compliance continues if: (1) the school district fails to comply with the court’s order after 30 days; (2) the court’s order is not on appeal or stayed; and (3) the court does  not allow additional time for compliance with the court order. 

Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act

 Public Act 099-0678 

            Effective July 29, 2016, public high school students who gather, compile, write, edit, photograph, record, or prepare information for dissemination in school-sponsored media have the right to exercise freedom of speech and press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school district or produced in conjunction with a class. The Act prohibits prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications unless the speech is: (1) libelous, slanderous, or obscene; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or State law; or (4) incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school. The Act places the burden on school officials to show justification without undue delay prior to limiting the student speech that is in question, and provides civil and criminal immunity to school districts, employees, and parents/guardians for student expression, except in cases of willful or wanton misconduct. 

Prevailing Wage Resolutions

Senate Bill 2964 (vetoed) 

            Senate Bill 2964’s most significant amendment to the Prevailing Wage Act would have required the locally approved prevailing wage to be no less than the rate for similar work performed under collective bargaining agreements in the area so long as those agreements covered at least 30 percent of workers on the project. However, on July 22, 2016, Governor Rauner issued an amendatory veto, which returns the bill to the House and Senate. Both houses can vote to either accept the Governor’s proposed amendments with a simple majority, or with at least 60% of the vote in both houses, override the Governor’s amendatory veto. Unless either of those actions happen, SB 2964 is dead. 

School Construction Projects and Zoning Compliance

Public Act 99-0890 

            Boards of education are now required to comply with any valid local government zoning ordinance or resolution that applies where the pertinent part of the school district is located. This law amends the Counties Code, Township Code, and Illinois Municipal Code and requires counties, townships, and municipalities to make reasonable efforts to streamline the zoning application and review processes for school boards and minimize the administrative burdens involved in the zoning review process. This includes requiring counties, townships, and municipalities to reduce application fees and other costs, limiting the number of times a school board must amend site plans, and reduce the number of copies that need to be submitted to each body of local government during the zoning review process.  

Amendment to the School Breakfast and Lunch Program Act

 Public Act 99-0850 

            This law requires school boards to provide “breakfast after the bell” (i.e. breakfast in class, grab and go breakfast, and second-chance breakfast) to students in each school building: (1) in which at least 70% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based upon the previous year’s October NSLP claim; or (2) in which at least 70% of students are low-income based upon the Fall Housing Data from the previous year (for schools that do not participate in the NSLP). The effective date of the law is January 1, 2017. However, the program would not need to be implemented until the first school day of the 2017/2018 school year. 

            There is a “safe-haven” for school districts who are already providing school breakfast effectively to 70% or more of free or reduced-price-eligible students or if expense reimbursement would not cover the costs of implementing a “breakfast after the bell” program. The board must hold a public hearing and pass a resolution if it finds that, pursuant to a cost analysis, the reimbursement would not cover the cost of the program. 

Food Contracts

 Public Act 99-0552 

            Effective July 15, 2016, school boards are prohibited from entering into a contract to purchase food if the contract terms prohibit the board or school district from donating food to food banks, including, but not limited to, homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens. 

Insuring School Buses

 Public Act 99-0595 

            Allows the Illinois Vehicle Code’s minimum insurance requirement for school buses of $2,000,000 to be satisfied by either: (1) a $2,000,000 combined single limit primary commercial automobile policy; or (2) a $1,000,000 primary commercial automobile policy and a minimum $5,000,000 excess or umbrella liability policy. 

Prohibition of Employers’ Access to Employees’ and Applicants’ Online Accounts

 Public Act 99-0610 

            Effective January 1, 2017, the Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act will be amended to prohibit employers or prospective employers from requiring or coercing any employee or applicant for employment to: (1) provide their username, password, or any other information that would allow the employer or prospective employer to gain access to the employee’s or applicant’s personal online account; (2) access the employee’s or applicant’s personal online account in the presence of the employer or prospective employer; (3) invite the employer to join a group affiliated with any personal online account of the employee or applicant; and (4) join an online account established by the employer or add the employer to the employee’s or applicant’s list of contacts that enable the contacts to access the employee’s or applicant’s personal online account. The amendments also prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who refuse to do any of the above.

             The amendments also carve out several “safe havens” for employers who may, under certain circumstances, need to screen, access, or gather content from employees’ or applicants’ personal online accounts. 

Withdrawal from Special Education Joint Agreements (Elementary Schools)

 Public Act 99-0729 

            This law amends the School Code immediately to allow elementary school districts (maintaining grades up to and including the 8th grade) to withdraw from special education joint agreements subject to various, specific conditions.

ADA Training During Teacher Institute Days

 Public Act 99-0616 

            Beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, teacher institute days must include, at least once every 2 years, professional development on the subject of the Americans with Disabilities Act as it pertains to the school environment.

Interfund Transfers

 Public Act 99-0713 

            In a previous eBlackboard, we told you that Section 17-2A of the School Code granted boards of education the authority to transfer money between the Educational, Operations and Maintenance and Transportation Funds for any reason, but that authority would expire on June 30, 2016. Through Public Act 99-0713, the legislature has extended the authority for the transfers under Section 17-2A to June 30, 2019. In addition, Section 17-2.11(j), which grants boards of education the authority to transfer surplus life safety tax revenue and interest to the Operations and Maintenance Fund, was similarly extended. Both types of transfers require notices, hearings and resolutions. 

Monthly Reports of Concussions from High Schools

 Public Act 99-0831 

            This law immediately requires the IHSA to mandate its member schools that employ certified athletic trainers to complete a monthly report on concussions suffered by its student-athletes during a school-sponsored activity or event. This mandate requires the reporting to take place immediately during the months of the 2016-2017 school year. The law provides immunity to IHSA-member high schools from civil and criminal liability that could result from reporting the required information, except for willful or wanton misconduct. The law also gives the IHSA the authority to “take action” against a member school if the member school fails to adhere to its reporting requirements. 

Epi-Pen Administration

 Public Act 99-0711 

            We previously reported on amendments to the School Code that affected epinephrine administration in schools. This law further amends those School Code provisions to add school buses to the list of locations where asthma medication and epinephrine auto-injectors (better known as Epi-Pens) can be carried and administered. Additionally, if a school district’s independently-contracted transportation provider maintains a supply of undesignated Epi-Pens, the amendments require those school districts to send a report to ISBE detailing how many undesignated Epi-Pens are in the transportation contractor’s supply. Recall that “undesignated” Epi-Pens are prescribed in the name of a school district instead of a particular student.    

Charter School Authorizations and Renewals

 Public Act 99-0840 

            This law amends the Charter Schools Law to provide that initial charters granted on or after January 1, 2017 shall be for 5 school years. Additionally, charters granted on or after the bill’s effective date may be renewed by a local board for incremental periods not to exceed 10 school years, and not to exceed 5 school years if renewed by the Charter Schools Commission.