Supreme Court To Hear Appeals in 2 Employment Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week accepted two appeals dealing with employment issues that could hold important implications for school districts.

The court said it would use a police-brutality case from Oklahoma to re-examine the issue of under what circumstances local governments can be held liable when one of their employees violates a person's constitutional rights.

The high court will also use an employment-discrimination case from the private sector to clarify whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal job-discrimination law, covers retaliation by employers against former employees as well as job applicants and current workers.

In the Oklahoma case, Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County v. Brown (Case No. 95-1100), the court will review a lawsuit brought under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which allows suits for damages when government authority is used to deny a person's constitutional or statutory rights. The statute, often referred to as Section 1983 for its place in the federal code, is used in cases alleging excessive force by police officers. But it is also frequently cited in suits seeking to hold school districts liable for actions by teachers and other employees, such as sexual abuse or failure to protect children from dangers in school.

In a 1978 decision, Monell v. Department of Social Services, the Supreme Court removed local governments' complete immunity from lawsuits under Section 1983. The court ruled that cities, counties, and school boards could be held liable if a deprivation of rights could be tied to an official policy or practice of the local government.

Thus, many plaintiffs who sue school districts under Section 1983 seek to establish that an official board policy or custom led to a rights violation. Such attempts, however, are rarely successful.

"These standards of 'failure to train' [employees] and 'deliberate indifference' arise of police-custody cases, and we like to say they are not relevant" to schools, said Gwendolyn N. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "But the plaintiffs always cite them, and sometimes they find a judge or jury who will buy it."

The Oklahoma case deals with a woman who was injured when thrown to the ground by a police officer after a traffic stop. A federal court found Bryan County partially liable for a violation of the woman's civil rights because it had hired the officer despite the knowledge of a misdemeanor arrest for assault and battery.

The woman won more than $800,000 in damages and lawyer's fees from the officer and the county, an award that was largely upheld by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Title VII Case

In Robinson v. Shell Oil Co. (No. 95-1376), the high court will decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act covers retaliation against former employees. Charles T. Robinson Sr., a black former employee, had complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Shell terminated him because of his race. While that charge was pending, he applied for a job with another company, which received a negative reference about Mr. Robinson from Shell.

The man filed a second charge with the EEOC, arguing that Shell had sabotaged his application in retaliation for the first discrimination complaint. A federal district judge and the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that Title VII did not cover his retaliation complaint because he was no longer a Shell employee.

The federal courts of appeals are split on the question of whether Title VII's retaliation language covers former workers.

The high court will hear both cases in its next term.

Admissions Case

In other action last week, the court rejected an emergency appeal aimed at delaying implementation of a uniform admissions standard for all public colleges in Mississippi.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. ordered the new admissions standard last year in the wake of the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling that the state must dismantle its dual system of higher education.

A group of black plaintiffs argued that adopting a uniform admissions standard could reduce enrollment in the state's three historically black universities by half.

The 5th Circuit appeals court refused to delay the new standard, and the high court denied the emergency request for a stay without comment (Application A-835).

Vol. 15, Issue 32

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