Supreme Court Addresses Two More Harassment Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court disposed of two more cases last week dealing with peer sexual harassment, but with no clear message expanding on last month's decision that schools can be held liable under Title IX for such harassment.

In one appeal, the high court let stand without comment a federal appeals court ruling upholding a jury verdict against a New York state student who alleged she was subjected to sexual harassment by other students when she was in 6th grade.

In the other case, which involved alleged peer sexual harassment of an Illinois high school girl, the justices told another federal appellate court to re-examine the case in light of the high court's recent 5-4 ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education.

The high court ruled May 24 in Davis that schools receiving federal funds may be sued for damages for peer sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Schools can be held liable, the majority emphasized, only when officials show deliberate indifference to information about "severe, pervasive and objectively offensive" harassment that interferes with a student's access to an educational program or benefit. ("Harassment Ruling Poses Challenges," June 2, 1999.)

Since they raised similar issues, the high court held the New York and Illinois appeals pending the outcome of the Davis case. As is customary, the Supreme Court then decides whether a related appeal merits full consideration by the justices, reconsideration by a lower court based on the new high court ruling, or a denial of review that leaves the previous lower-court ruling intact.

In the New York state appeal, Bruneau v. South Kortright Central School District (Case No. 98-1541), the justices declined without comment to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 2nd Circuit upholding the school district's victory.

The case involved allegations that student Eve Bruneau faced a torrent of sexual harassment when she was a 6th grader in 1993-94, including bra snapping, hair pulling, punching, pushing, and being called a "dog face bitch" by a male classmate.

A federal district court allowed Ms. Bruneau's case to go to trial on a Title IX claim, but a jury ruled in favor of the school district.

The 2nd Circuit appeals court, based in New York City, ruled that there was no clear error in the jury trial. The appeals court also upheld the district judge's legal ruling dismissing a separate civil rights claim from the lawsuit.

Ms. Bruneau's lawyers based her Supreme Court appeal on that issue. They argued that her 14th Amendment equal-protection claim should have been allowed separate from her Title IX claim.

The justices declined the appeal without comment.

Issue of Immunity

The appeal in Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois v. Doe (No. 98-126) involves a female student who alleged sexual harassment at University High School, a public school in Urbana, Ill., overseen by the University of Illinois.

The student, identified only as Jane Doe, alleged that school officials failed to respond adequately to complaints about a campaign of sexual taunts and unwanted touching by a group of boys in the school.

A federal district court threw out her suit, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, reinstated it. The appeals court ruled that schools could be sued for peer sexual harassment under Title IX.

The appellate court also rejected the high school's claim that it was immune from a Title IX lawsuit because of the U.S. Constitution's 11th Amendment guarantee of state sovereign immunity.

Under past Supreme Court rulings, Congress must be clear when it removes a state's sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and exposes the state to liability under a federal law.

It is possible the high court returned the case to the 7th Circuit court for further exploration of that issue, since the appeals court's ruling on the issue of Title IX liability appears to have been consistent with what the Supreme Court ruled in Davis.

The sovereign-immunity issue is peculiar to a school like University High that is run directly by a state university. Under the Supreme Court's precedents, local school districts typically do not enjoy the same 11th Amendment immunity as states and state agencies.

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 19

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Supreme Court Addresses Two More Harassment Cases
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