Thursday, July 21, 2016
New Transgender Discrimination Case Against Wisconsin School District Could Be Quick Repeat of Grimm or Present Several Wrinkles
Ashton Whitaker, A transgender high school student in Wisconsin, has filed suit against Kenosha School District. He alleges that the district has denied him access to male restrooms consistent with his gender and continues to refer to him by the female name on his birth certificate. He argues that this treatment violates Title IX and the U.S. Constitution. His factual and legal claims are nearly identical to those in Grimm v. Gloucester, in which the Fourth Circuit earlier this year sided with the student. Whitaker's case could be a simple repeat or move the law and courts in new directions.
Will the school district contest the question of whether Title IX protects transgender students in access to restrooms or will it simply contest Whitaker's version of the facts? If it concedes the facts and only contests the law, Grimm is the only case on point at the moment. Thus, the district court would a) rule quickly in favor of Whitaker, b) affirmatively counter the reasoning in Grimm or c) take the route the 6th Circuit did in the gay marriage cases, holding that until the Supreme Court or its own circuit speaks, it will rule in favor of the district. The same options would presumably exist for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in reviewing the district court.
Option A would create two circuits firmly aligned in favor of transgender students and make the grant of cert in Grimm or Whitaker's case less likely (Grimm is currently pending before the Supreme Court). Option B or C would eventually create a circuit split and, even if the Court denies cert in Grimm, make a grant of cert in Whitaker's case more likely a couple of years from now.
Also interesting in Whitaker's case will be questions of qualified immunity. The district officials may argue that regardless of what the law requires moving forward that the law was unclear at the time they acted. This is after all new law. This was attempted in several cases dealing with sexual orientation claims over the past decade or two. On the other hand, the Office for Civil Rights has held a firm position for longer on this issue. And in Title IX cases, the Court has tended to rely heavily on OCR policy guidance to provide the necessary notice of illegality to school districts.
One thing, however, is clear: Whitaker is represented by exceptional counsel. Relman, Dane & Colfax has taken his case. The firm has been nationally recognized for its civil rights work and victories for decades.