Federal Court Orders Wisconsin to Cover Transition Medical Costs for Transgender State Employees
By Arthur S. Leonard. This article appears in the Summer Issue of LGBT Law Notes, the most comprehensive monthly publication covering the latest legal and legislative developments, here and abroad. Subscribe:
U.S. District Judge William M. Conley ruled on September 18 in Boyden v. Conlin, 2018 WL 4473347, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 158491 (W.D. Wis.), that Wisconsin’s refusal to cover “procedures, services, and supplies related to surgery and sex hormones associated with gender reassignment” for its transgender state employees violates the ban on sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the Affordable Care Act, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Conley had previously awarded a preliminary injunction to transgender Medicaid participants in Wisconsin who were seeking similar coverage under that program, having concluded that they were likely to prevail on the merits of their claims. See Flack v. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2018 WL 3574875 (W.D. Wis., July 25, 2018). In this new decision, Judge Conley was ruling on motions for summary judgment by the plaintiffs and the defendants, so this is a final ruling on liability, although there may be a trial on damages if the state doesn’t settle the case.
A Wisconsin statute mandates the state to provide insurance coverage to “aid public employees in protecting themselves against the financial hardships of illness, thereby promoting economy and efficiency in public service by facilitating the attraction and retention of competent employees, by enhancing employee morale and by establishing equitable benefit standards through public employment.” A Government Insurance Board (referred to as GIB) adopts “Uniform Benefits” for the state’s Group Health Insurance Plan, which then contracts with private insurance companies to provide the mandated benefits to state employees. Employees and their government employers pay money into an Employee Trust Fund (ETF) to finance the benefits.
The exclusion of coverage for hormones and surgery for gender transition has been part of the “Uniform Benefits” standard in Wisconsin in some form since 1994, when GIB adopted the exclusionary language, explaining that such benefits and services were generally deemed by insurance companies to be “experimental and not medically necessary.” The defendants claim that the exclusion of coverage is not total — that hormone treatment for gender dysphoria is covered “unless specifically made a course of treatment leading to or involving gender conforming surgery,” but there is some dispute about how this is interpreted and applied in practice.
“Still,” wrote Conley, “there is no dispute that mental health counseling as a stand-alone treatment for gender dysphoria is covered, whereas hormone therapy involving gender reassignment surgery is not covered; and there is no dispute that the surgery itself is not covered.” Furthermore, the “Uniform Benefits” also excludes from coverage “treatment, services, and supplies for cosmetic purposes,” with the explanation that “psychological reasons do not represent a medical/surgical necessity.”
During the Obama Administration, it appeared as if GIB might change its position, as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was taking the position that the Affordable Care Act’s ban on sex discrimination in insurance benefits would include gender identity discrimination, but the guidance HHS put out stopped short of stating this meant the gender-confirming surgery must be covered. There seemed a possibility that GIB would authorizes changes for the plan year beginning January 1, 2017, but the state’s Republican administration was pressing GIB to find economies rather than expanding existing benefits.
The ETF staff at first recommended that the exclusion be removed, based on the possibility that the ACA would require coverage, and at its July 12, 2016, meeting, GIB voted unanimously to amend the uniform benefits to remove the exclusion effective January 1, 2017. But GIB subsequently reconsidered that decision at the request of the Governor’s Office, and on December 29, 2016, voted to reinstate the Exclusion if four contingencies were satisfied. A Deputy Attorney General had sent GIB a memo arguing that the federal HHS rules interpreting the ACA to cover gender identity discrimination were “unlawful,” a position that a group of states including Wisconsin had taken in a lawsuit filed in the federal district court for the Northern District of Texas. Subsequently, the federal district judge there issued a nationwide injunction, blocking HHS from enforcing its gender identity discrimination policy.
Also, of course, after Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, bringing in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, Republican leaders announced their goal of repealing the ACA, so it appeared likely that the exclusion might not need to be lifted to comply with that law.
At a GIB meeting on December 13, 2016, an attorney from the Wisconsin Department of Justice recommended that “the Board follow the law as it currently stands,” noting that Wisconsin was a plaintiff in the Texas lawsuit. Ultimately, one of the contingencies that GIB embraced for rescinding their prior decision on December 30 would be the federal court in Texas issuing its injunction, the other contingencies being compliance with Wisconsin statutes, renegotiation of contracts with insurance companies that maintained or reduced premium costs, and receiving an opinion from the state’s lawyers that “the action taken does not constitute a breach of board members’ fiduciary duties.” In January 2017, the administrators concluded that the contingencies justifying rescinding the prior vote had been met.
For Judge Conley, however, this political by-play was essentially irrelevant to his ruling on the claims by the plaintiffs, transgender state employees whose federal statutory and constitutional rights were being violated. He focused on the reasons articulated by GIB members for their votes, which varied from person to person. Some were concerned about the Texas court’s preliminary conclusion that the Obama Administration’s interpretation of ACA was unlawful. There was some discussion of costs, but nobody would testify that specific numbers were discussed by GIB, and several members testified that there was no discussion about the medical necessity or safety of the transition procedures, although in this litigation the state presented “expert testimony” (which Judge Conley found deficient) questioning both of those issues.
One GIB member testified that he voted to remove the exclusion because he “viewed the exclusion as discriminatory and supports the right of transgender individual to get the healthcare they need” and that “it’s not costly to add it to the group plan.” This proved to be an apt prediction of what Judge Conley ultimately found, based on the testimony of experts on behalf of the plaintiffs.
Wisconsin is within the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction. The 7th Circuit’s rulings are binding on Judge Conley’s District Court in Madison, the state capital. And, he found, the 7th Circuit has emerged as a champion of LGBT rights with its 2017 decisions in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), and Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017). In Hively, the appeals court held that discrimination because of sexual orientation is prohibited by Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination in employment. In Whitaker, the court ruled that discrimination because of gender identity is prohibited by Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination in public schools. Putting them together, Conley found it easy to conclude that gender identity discrimination violates Title VII as well, despite an old 7th Circuit decision, Ulane v. Eastern Airlines, Inc., 742 F.2d 1081 (7th Cir. 1984), ruling out such claims, which has never been explicitly overruled by the circuit court.
He wrote that “all individuals, whether transgender or cisgender, have their own understanding of what it means to be a woman or a man, and the degree to which one’s physical, sexual characteristics need to align with their identity. For example, a cisgender woman who has a mastectomy for treatment of breast cancer may opt not to have reconstructive surgery. That choice, however, may be untenable to another cisgender woman placed in the same position. Similarly, a transgender woman may require breast augmentation to address her gender dysphoria, whereas another transgender woman may not. Nothing about offering coverage without regard to one’s natal sex forces individuals to have surgery to conform their physical traits to their identified gender. Instead,” he wrote, “the Exclusion implicates sex stereotyping by limiting the availability of medical transitioning, if not rendering it economically infeasible, thus requiring transgender individuals to maintain the physical characteristics of their natal sex. In other words, the Exclusion entrenches the belief that transgender individuals must preserve the genitalia and other physical attributes of their natal sex over not just personal preference, but specific medical and psychological recommendations to the contrary. In this way, defendants’ assertion that the Exclusion does not restrict transgender individuals from living their gender identity is entirely disingenuous, at least for some portion of that population who will suffer from profound and debilitating gender dysphoria without the necessary medical transition.”
In other words, this judge really “gets it.” The opinion exhibits a profound understanding of why this challenged Exclusion is really a form of sex discrimination, which is outlawed by the relevant statutes. Furthermore, since it is sex discrimination in a government policy, it is subject to “heightened scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause, throwing the burden on the government to show that the policy substantially advances important state interests. And, as to that, Judge Conley found that the evidence presented by the state as to its purported reasons for rejecting ETF’s recommendation falls short.
“Not only is the record devoid of any evidence to show that GIB members voted as they did for cost or efficacy reasons,” he wrote, “the evidence is overwhelming that the actual or genuine reason for the reinstatement [of the Exclusion] had to do with the DOJ’s guidance — specifically, the belief that the Texas court’s entry of an injunction absolved defendants of any legal obligation to provide coverage.” But, confusingly, the defendants did not put this forward as their reason in support of their motion for summary judgment, instead pointing to costs and efficacy, as to which their expert’s supporting testimony was woefully deficient. Indeed, Judge Conley questioned whether he actually qualified as an “expert” at all. “Accordingly,” he wrote, “the court concludes that the Exclusion does not survive heightened scrutiny,” and thus is unconstitutional.
While Judge Conley concluded that the individual named government defendants who were sued in their official capacity were entitled to qualified immunity against personal liability, since thus far there is no 7th Circuit or Supreme Court precedent holding that the exclusion is unconstitutional, this is no bar to equitable and monetary relief for the plaintiffs against the state agencies who made the challenged decisions.
This doesn’t conclude the case before Judge Conley. In the final part of his opinion, titled “Trial Plan,” he laid out the various claims for relief that plaintiffs can pursue at trial, having won a summary judgment that the Exclusion violates their statutory and constitutional rights. “While the court will determine any equitable relief at trial, as well as award of attorneys’ fees and costs,” he wrote, “defendants have demanded a jury trial as to plaintiffs’ claims for compensatory and/or punitive damages, which is their right. And so a jury there shall be.” The court scheduled a pretrial conference for the last week in September.
The role of the jury in such a case is to determine that amount of money to which the plaintiffs are entitled for the violation of their rights. The state is undoubtedly counting on a jury of taxpayers to be revolted by the thought of awarding substantial sums to transgender plaintiffs, but they should not be so confident, as public opinion has been swinging behind the transgender rights movement. The judge will determine appropriate attorneys’ fees and costs to award to plaintiffs as the prevailing parties on the merits of their claims.
On September 24, Judge Conley issued an Opinion and Order setting a trial date on damages of October 9, 2018, and ruling on motions in limine and related motions. Most notably, he found moot a motion to exclude testimony by the defendants’ experts, inasmuch as their testimony went to the issues of cost and efficacy, which were no longer in play as a result of the grant of summary judgment on the merits to plaintiffs. See 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162757.
Plaintiffs Alina Boyden and Shannon Andrews are represented by John Anthony Knight of the ACLU Foundation, Chicago, Laurence J. Dupuis, of the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, Inc., Milwaukee, WI, and local counsel Michael Godbe and Nicholas E. Fairweather, of Hawks Quindel, S.C., Madison, WI.