Students Claiming Sex Harassment Win Right To Sue

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WASHINGTON--Victims of sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in schools may sue for monetary damages under federal civil-rights law, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

The decision, in a case brought by a former Georgia high-school student who alleged she had been sexually harassed and abused by a teacher, greatly expands the ability of students to obtain redress from school districts for acts of discrimination.

The ruling "could result in some substantial damage awards," said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

The High Court's Feb. 26 decision represented a rejection of the position of the Bush Administration and the Gwinnett school district, which argued that the Congress did not intend to provide a damages remedy when it approved Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law bars sexual discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges.

"Absent clear direction to the contrary by Congress, the federal courts have the power to award any appropriate relief'' in a private lawsuit brought under a federal statute, said the majority opinion by Associate Justice Byron R. White in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (Case No. 90-918).

"Unquestionably, Title IX placed on the Gwinnett County Schools the duty not to discriminate on the basis of sex," Justice White wrote.

"When a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate's sex, that supervisor 'discriminate[s]' on the basis of sex,'' he contended, quoting the Court's 1986 precedent on sexual harassment in the workplace, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.

"We believe the same rule should apply when a teacher sexually harasses and abuses a student," Justice White added.

'Real Teeth' Seen in Title IX

Women's-rights groups and others that had taken Ms. Franklin's side said they were surprised and elated by the Court's 9-to-0 ruling.

"This sends a clear message to schools and universities throughout the country that there is real teeth in Title IX, particularly with respect to sexual harassment," said Joel I. Klein, the lawyer who argued Ms. Franklin's case before the Justices.

"In the long term, the message to educational institutions that discrimination costs money will only heighten efforts to eliminate it," said Ellen J. Vargyas, the senior counsel to the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

Ms. Vargyas added that more lawsuits are now likely to be filed against educational institutions alleging discrimination in employment and athletics.

Many legal experts believe, moreover, that the Title IX ruling will clear the way for monetary damages as a remedy for race and disability discrimination in schools.

The language and legislative histories of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination in federally funded programs, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by institutions that receive federal money, are similar to Title IX. So the courts may also extend a damage remedy to those areas of the law.

"We believe this decision confirms the Congressional intent that damages be available for people with disabilities," said Linda D. Kilb, a lawyer with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif.

Right To Sue Questioned

Justice White's opinion was joined by Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, and David H. Souter. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a concurring opinion agreeing that a damages remedy is available under Title IX. The opinion appeared to question, however, a 13-year-old High Court precedent giving private citizens the right to sue to enforce the law.

As passed by the Congress, Title IX was designed primarily to be enforced by the federal government, which could withhold funds from schools that were found to discriminate.

But in the 1979 case, Cannon v. University of Chicago, the High Court found an "implied right of action" in the law that gave private citizens the right to sue schools and universities to enforce Title IX. That decision is the foundation for last week's ruling authorizing damages. Although Justice Scalia questioned the 1979 precedent, he conceded that it was "too late in the day" to conclude that damages would not be a remedy available to enforce such laws. He noted that the Congress has passed two civil-rights laws since then that have validated the Court's holding in Cannon.

Justice White and Justice Scalia both agreed that when the Congress adopted the Civil Rights Remedies Equalization Amendment of 1986 and the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, it made no effort to restrict the right to sue under Title IX that the Court had enunciated in Cannon.

Other Remedies 'Inadequate'

Christine Franklin was a student at North Gwinnett High &:bool in suburban Atlanta from 1985 to 1989. She alleged in her 1988 lawsuit agamst the district that her economics teacher began making unwelcome sexual advances toward her during her sophomore year. (See Education Week, Dec. 11, 1991 .)

The teacher allegedly made sexually suggestive remarks to her over the course of a year and on three occasions pressured her into having sex. Ms. Franklin claims that school officials were informed of the alleged harassment but failed to take steps to end it.

The U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights investigated Ms. Franklin's complaints in 1988 and concluded that Title IX was violated. But it took no further action, since the teacher had resigned and school officials had promised additional steps to avoid future violations.

Ms. Franklin sued the district in federal court, but her suit was dismissed because the judge ruled she could not collect damages under Title IX. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

In arguments before the Supreme Court, both the Bush Administration and the district maintained that the only remedies available under Title IX were the awarding of back pay or "prospective relief," such as an injunction to end discriminatory practices.

But Justice White said in his opinion that the position of the Administration and the district "conflicts with sound logic," while their proposed remedies "are clearly inadequate" for Ms. Franklin. Back pay is of no use because she was a student, not an employee, Justice White noted, and an injunction "accords her no remedy at all" because the teacher who allegedly harassed her no longer teaches at the school and Ms. Franklin no longer is enrolled there.

Ms. Franklin's lawsuit will be returned for trial to federal court in Atlanta, where she is seeking $11 million in damages from the district.

No Right to Safety

The Supreme Court also issued another ruling last week that has implications for school districts.

In a civil-rights case involving the death of a Texas municipal employee in a sewer accident, the High Court ruled that there is no federal constitutional right for public employees to have a safe workplace.

In a unanimous ruling in Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Texas, (No. 90-1279), the Justices held that the constitutional guarantee of due process of law "does not impose an independent federal obligation upon municipalities to provide certain minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace."

Many school districts also face lawsuits asserting violations of the federal civil-rights laws at issue in this case.

The National Education Association filed a brief on the side of the widow of the dead employee, arguing that local governments should be subject to special constitutional scrutiny over employee safety.

The opinion by Justice Stevens rejected the "unprecedented" argument by the widow that local governments had a constitutional obligation for minimum employee safety.

Vol. 11, Issue 24, Pages 1, 24

Published in Print: March 4, 1992, as Students Claiming Sex Harassment Win Right To Sue
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