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Court To Weigh Compensatory Damages in Title IX Cases

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Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to decide whether individuals can seek compensatory damages under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

The Justices accepted a Georgia case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County School District (Case No. 90-918), that arises from a teacher's alleged sexual relationship with a student.

School-law experts said a decision in the case could affect not only the interpretation of Title IX, but also that of two other statutes that apply to schools: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Title VI bars racial discrimination, while Section 504 protects the rights of handicapped persons.

At issue is whether remedies under Title IX include compensatory damages to individual victims of sex bias, or are limited to such penalties as ordering the erring institution to cease its biased activity or withdrawing the school's federal funding.

In a brief filed in late May, Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr concluded that Title IX does not authorize payment of compensatory damages to individuals. But the brief, filed at the High Court's request, urged the Justices to hear the Gwinnett County case to resolve "a square conflict" over lower-court interpretations of Title IX and similar statutes.

Title IX, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, provides that no one "shall on the basis of sex be ... subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

"In our view," Mr. Starr wrote, "Title IX does not impliedly [sic] authorize a private plaintiff to recover compensatory legal damages,'' the remuneration specifically sought in the Gwinnett County suit. Yet, he added, the case gives the Court "an opportunity to clarify the principles governing the remedies available to private parties under other statutes prohibiting discrimination in federally funded programs."

The case began when a high-school student, Christine Franklin, claimed that she had been sexually harassed by a male teacher, with whom she said she had engaged in sexual relations during 1987.

The teacher alleged to have been involved in the incidents resigned.

In 1988, Ms. Franklin filed a complaint with the Education Department's office for civil rights, alleging sex discrimination.

The ocr found in late 1988 that civil-rights violations had occurred. But it accepted the school system's promises of change and said that the district was thus complying with Title IX.

Ms. Franklin then filed suit in federal district court seeking compensatory damages. The court, agreeing with the school system that Title IX does not provide for compensatory damages to individuals, dismissed the case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the ruling.

Hillard Quint, a lawyer for Ms. Franklin, said last week that "the facts [of the case] are egregious."

"Compensatory damages have to be allowed" in such cases, he argued. "That's what I hope the Court will recognize."

In court documents, Ms. Franklin's lawyers argued that compensatory damages are necessary to lend clout to Title IX and "to vindicate rights guaranteed" by the 14th Amendment, which ensures the rights of due process and equal protection of the laws.

In a response, the school district argued that providing compensatory damages to an individual "would drain off monies meant for all students and deposit that money in the pocket of an individual student."

"This result would be at odds with the original intent of Title IX,'' the district said.

Solicitor General Starr noted in his brief that in a 1979 case, Cannon v. University of Chicago, the Supreme Court held that private parties can sue under Title IX. Other rulings, he said, have allowed such actions under laws barring bias based on race or handicap.

Courts "have not, however, settled the separate question of what types of relief are authorized," he maintained.

The Supreme Court's civil-rights rulings have offered insufficient guidance, Mr. Starr added, and in fact "have spawned uncertainty" over Title IX and comparable statutes. Furthermore, he said, Title IX itself "is silent on the nature of the relief that may be awarded to private parties."

Gwendolyn H. Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said last week that the Justices' opinion could be crucial to education.

"How they come down on this could affect Title VI and Section 504 as well as [Title IX]," she said. The issue of compensatory damages for individuals does not arise often in education law, she added, "but that doesn't mean it wouldn't" if court rulings made such claims feasible.

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