High Court To Hear Sexual-Harassment Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court will use a lawsuit filed by a former Florida lifeguard to help clarify when employers may be held liable for the sexual harassment of employees by supervisors.

Legal experts said the high court's ruling could have important implications for school districts, both for cases involving sexual harassment among employees as well as cases involving teachers and students.

It's less clear whether the case would affect the developing area of the law involving student-to-student sexual harassment. The courts are divided about whether districts can be held responsible at all for so-called peer harassment.

The high court announced Nov. 14 that it would hear the case of Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (Case No. 97-282), in which a former beach lifeguard for the Florida city alleges that she was subjected to unwanted touching and offensive comments by two supervisory lifeguards over the course of five years.

The lifeguard, Beth Ann Faragher, says she complained to a third supervisor, who did not take any action. Another female lifeguard complained to city officials that the two supervisors had sexually harassed her, and the city later disciplined the two men.

Ms. Faragher, after entering law school in 1992, sued the city of Boca Raton under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex.

A federal district court ruled in 1995 that the supervisors' conduct was sufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment for Ms. Faragher. The court held that the city was liable under Title VII because it reasonably should have known about the harassment.

But the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, reversed the district court earlier this year. The court ruled 7-5 that the city cannot be held liable for the unauthorized misbehavior of its supervisors.

"This case provides the archetypal example of employees stepping outside the scope of their employment and seeking to further their personal ends," the majority ruling said.

The supervisors did not try to use their authority to require Ms. Faragher to submit to their harassing conduct, the court said.

The dissenting judges said it is not necessary for the top management of an organization to know about the alleged harassment for the organization to be liable.

"An employer cannot insulate itself from liability by abandoning its employees in a remote location to be supervised by someone who makes their work lives miserable by offensive touching," the dissenting opinion said.

Guidance Sought

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Ms. Faragher's lawyers argued that several federal appeals courts have set differing standards for determining whether employers can be held liable for sexual harassment by their "agents." The court is likely to clarify the standard that should be applied in such cases.

The ruling could be important for districts because they are increasingly the target of sexual-harassment lawsuits, said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association.

"This whole area is a bit of a maze," she said. "I think it will be helpful to have the court provide some more guidance on it."

The case could have an impact not only on Title VII cases involving school district employees, but also on teacher-student harassment cases filed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal money.

The Department of Education's office for civil rights relies heavily on Title VII case law for guidance in its regulations on teacher-student sexual harassment and student-to-student harassment under Title IX.

Ms. Gregory said the Boca Raton case would undoubtedly affect the potential liability of districts in teacher-student harassment cases.

The NSBA strongly disagrees with the view of the OCR that districts can be liable for student-on-student harassment. But if the courts ultimately agree with the OCR's approach, the ruling in the Faragher case could have an impact there, too, Ms. Gregory said.

The high court will hear the case early next year and will issue a ruling by the end of its term in late June or early July.

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