United States District Court Enjoins Enforcement of Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students; Decision May Impact OCR Guidance on Sexual Violence
August 23, 2016
On August 21, 2016, in a case entitled State of Texas et al. v. United States of America et al ., Judge Reed O’Connor of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction prohibiting the United States government (specifically, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (“OCR”), the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) from enforcing the terms of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter issued by OCR and DOJ. As institutions are aware , the Dear Colleague Letter articulated OCR’s and DOJ’s interpretation of Title IX and its implementing regulations as requiring K-12 schools, colleges and universities to treat a student’s gender identity as the student’s “sex” for purposes of Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination based on sex, and described several areas where schools and institutions must provide transgender students with equal access to education programs and activities “even in circumstances in which other students, parents and community members raise objections or concerns.” In reaching its decision, the Court found that there was a likelihood that the plaintiffs (13 states and two school districts) would prevail on their claim that the Departments’ interpretation of Title IX is contrary to the plain language of the statute and its implementing regulations, and is therefore incorrect as a matter of law. Specifically, the Court determined that the term “sex,” as understood at the time that the statute and regulations were initially adopted, was understood to refer to an individual’s biological sex, rather than the individual’s gender identity. Perhaps more significantly, in an aspect of the decision that could impact OCR’s enforcement strategy in other areas, the Court also determined that OCR and DOJ were required to comply with the federal Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”) prior to issuing the Dear Colleague Letter, and that their failure to do so rendered the Dear Colleague Letter invalid. By way of background, the APA requires federal agencies to publish proposed rules in the Federal Register, and to provide the public a period of time to comment on them (this is commonly referred to as the “notice and comment” process). The purpose of this requirement is to enable an agency to consider the perspectives of persons or entities that would be impacted by proposed rules before they are finalized. However, not every action an agency takes is required to go through the notice and comment process, and the APA specifically excludes from its ambit agency pronouncements that amount merely to interpretations of existing rules (rather than the imposition of new substantive requirements). In concluding that OCR and DOJ were required (and failed) to comply with the APA prior to issuing the Dear Colleague Letter, the Court noted that OCR and DOJ have applied the guidance contained in the Dear Colleague Letter as if it were binding law in a manner different than the underlying regulation had previously been applied, and that the guidance is “compulsory in nature” in that schools must comply with the guidance or be deemed in breach of their Title IX obligations. This decision is obviously significant insofar as it impacts the enforceability of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter. However, colleges and universities that have voluntarily implemented measures consistent with the Dear Colleague Letter may certainly continue to do so, unless they are located in states that have adopted legislation prohibiting such action. Where the decision (or, at a minimum, the reasoning underlying the decision) may have a greater impact is in its potential effect on OCR’s subregulatory guidance with respect to institutions’ obligations to prevent and address sexual violence (e.g., OCR’s April 3, 2011 Dear Colleague Letter and its April 29, 2014 Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence). Although the arguments for and against the validity of OCR’s substantive interpretation of Title IX are different as between these two subject areas, there are certainly parallels between OCR’s use of purported subregulatory guidance on both issues. Indeed, the District Court noted the impact of the May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter on institutions, as evidenced by the government’s efforts to enforce its requirements, as a significant factor in characterizing it as legislative (and thus subject to the APA) rather than interpretive in nature, and OCR’s enforcement of its guidance on sexual violence is undeniable, with over 250 active investigations at more than 200 institutions currently pending. It is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that the federal government will appeal the Court’s decision in State of Texas, and in any event OCR can be expected to assert that the Court’s rationale does not apply to its guidance on sexual violence. However, the Court’s decision will certainly be used in support of pending litigation challenging the validity of OCR’s guidance on sexual violence, and in connection with congressional efforts to overturn that guidance. Needless to say, the situation merits further watching.