Jury Award Upheld for Students in Gay-Harassment Case

By Mark Walsh — October 29, 2008 1 min read
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This decision is a couple of weeks old but I just came across it, and it is an interesting intersection of state and federal anti-discrimination law.

A state appeals court in California has upheld jury awards of $175,000 and $125,000 to two students who suffered anti-gay harassment from their peers at school. The court said the Poway Unified School District violated the students’ rights under a state anti-discrimination law because of its insufficient response to the harassment.

The court also upheld findings that the principal and assistant principal at Poway High School violated one student-plaintiff’s federal constitutional right to equal protection under the law, and that the principal violated the other student-plaintiff’s equal-protection rights.

The Oct. 10 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th District California Court of Appeal in Donovan v. Poway Unified School District was unanimous.

The lawsuit by the two students alleged that they kept logs of anti-gay incidents and harassment by other students over the course of two school years. They repeatedly informed school officials of the incidents, their suit said, but the administrators did not take effective action to stop it. The appeals court agreed with the trial jury that the school system’s response was inadequate.

“This is not a case where the harassment was limited to a few isolated incidents of name-calling or is otherwise attributable to mere banter, teasing, shoving, pushing, and gender-specific conduct that is upsetting to students subjected to it,” the court said.

The court went on to hold that the “actual notice” liability standard developed in cases under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 should apply to the state anti-discrimination statute when it came to school district liability for peer sexual harassment.

The court also upheld an award of $421,000 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay-rights organization, represented the students and has this press release about the decision.

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