Federal Judge in Gavin Grimm Case Backs Transgender Student Rights

By Mark Walsh — May 22, 2018 3 min read
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A federal district judge ruled on Tuesday that Title IX and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause protect transgender students from discrimination and that the lawsuit by transgender student Gavin Grimm may proceed against his former Virginia school district.

“This court joins [other federal district and appellate courts] in concluding that claims of discrimination on the basis of transgender status are per se actionable under a gender stereotyping theory under Title IX” of the Education Amendments of 1972, says the decision by U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of Norfolk, Va.

Grimm is the student who was at the forefront of the transgender rights movement when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 2016 to take up an appeal by the Gloucester County School District of a lower court ruling in Grimm’s favor. Grimm challenged the school district’s policy that barred him from using restrooms corresponding with his gender identity.

The Supreme Court case centered on guidance issued by President Barack Obama’s administration interpreting a Title IX regulation to require schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms of their gender identity. When President Donald Trump’s administration rescinded that guidance, the Supreme Court sent Grimm’s case back to the lower courts.

Wright Allen ruled last December that Grimm could still pursue his case against the Gloucester County district even though he graduated from high school last year because his suit sought nominal damages.

In the new decision, on May 22, the judge ruled on the heart of Grimm’s claims that discrimination against transgender students violates Title IX and the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

Wright Allen said the school district’s policy of requiring students to use the restrooms of their “biological sex” likely violates Title IX, and “the provision of a gender-neutral alternative is insufficient to relieve a school board of liability, as it is the policy itself which violates Title IX.”

“Offering restroom alternatives that impose hardships like unreasonable distances to a student’s classroom and increased stigma on a student is inadequate,” the judge said, referring to the school district’s suggestion that Grimm use a gender-neutral restroom at his high school.

“The location of the bathrooms, coupled with the stigmatization and physical and mental anguish inflicted upon Mr. Grimm, caused harm,” Wright Allen said.

The judge noted that a number of other federal district and appellate courts have in recent years found differential treatment of transgender students or employees to be a form of gender stereotyping that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Title IX.

Wright Allen also found that the Gloucester County policy also likely violates the equal-protection clause.

“The court concludes that, as pled by Mr. Grimm, the policy at issue was not substantially related to protecting other students’ privacy rights,” the judge said. “There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a nondiscriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.”

Wright Allen rejected the school district’s motion to dismiss and ordered the parties to schedule a settlement conference.

“I feel an incredible sense of relief,” Grimm said in a statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which represents him. “After fighting this policy since I was 15 years old, I finally have a court decision saying that what the Gloucester County School Board did to me was wrong and it was against the law. I was determined not to give up because I didn’t want any other student to have to suffer the same experience that I had to go through.”

[UPDATED 10 p.m. May 22] The Gloucester County school district issued a statement that it was aware of the district court’s decision.

“The School Board continues to believe that its resolution of this complex matter fully considered the interests of all students and parents in the Gloucester County school system,” the statement said.

Photo: Transgender student Gavin Grimm arrives for a news conference in Richmond, Va., last year. (Steve Helber/AP-File)

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.