Law & Courts

High Court Limits District Liability on Harassment

By Mark Walsh — June 24, 1998 6 min read
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In a major victory for school districts, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it more difficult for students who are sexually harassed by teachers to win money damages from district coffers.

The court said in a 5-4 ruling June 22 that districts cannot be held liable for teacher-student harassment unless an official in a position to take corrective action knew of the harassment and was “deliberately indifferent” to it.

That means officials such as a principal, superintendent, or school board member would have to have known about the harassment and ignored it before a plaintiff could win damages from the district.

The ruling in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (Case No. 96-1866) interprets Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in any school or educational program receiving federal funds.

“We hold that a damages remedy will not lie under Title IX unless an official who at a minimum has authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures ... has actual knowledge of discrimination ... and fails adequately to respond,” said the majority opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The case involved a high school teacher in a small Texas district who had an affair with one of his students. District officials said they had no knowledge of the affair, and once it was discovered, the teacher was fired. The district argued it should not be held liable merely because the teacher was its employee and used his position to foster the sexual relationship.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in dissent, said that few Title IX plaintiffs who allege sexual discrimination “will be able to recover damages under this exceedingly high standard.”

“The court ranks protections of the school district’s purse above the protection of immature high school students,” he said.

Title IX Appeal

The Lago Vista case began when Alida S. Gebser first encountered teacher Frank Waldrop in an after-school great-books discussion group. In the fall of 1991, when the then-14-year-old Ms. Gebser entered Lago Vista High School, Mr. Waldrop singled her out for special attention.

By spring of 1992, Mr. Waldrop had had sex with the student for the first of numerous times. Ms. Gebser testified that she viewed the 52-year-old teacher as a mentor and was “terrified” about what to do about his sexual advances.

In her sophomore year, Ms. Gebser was in Mr. Waldrop’s class, and the teacher would occasionally ask if she had time to “study psychology,” which was his code for having sex.

The affair came to light when the police discovered the couple having sex in a wooded area in January 1993. Mr. Waldrop was immediately barred from the school and later lost his job and state teaching certificate. He served jail time on a charge of attempted sexual assault.

Ms. Gebser and her mother sued the 650-student district based on Title IX as well as under a federal civil rights statute and various state-law claims. A federal district court granted summary judgment for the school district.

Ms. Gebser appealed only the district court’s rejection of her Title IX claim. Various federal courts have reached conflicting rulings about the standard for liability of a district for a teacher’s harassment of a student.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, last year adopted the standard that requires district officials to have actual knowledge and deliberate indifference of teacher-student sexual harassment to be in violation of Title IX.

Ms. Gebser appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, where the Clinton administration and women’s groups joined her in asking the justices to set a different standard that would make it easier to win damages in harassment cases.

They called for either a “vicarious liability” standard, in which the district would be responsible for the misconduct of a teacher merely because he was its employee, or a “constructive knowledge” standard, in which a district could be held responsible if it knew or should have known of the harassment. The constructive-knowledge standard is somewhat easier for plaintiffs to meet than actual knowledge.

$120,000 in Funding

Justice O’Connor, joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas, rejected those lower standards.

She said that when Congress adopted Title IX in 1972, it did not include a right for private citizens to sue to enforce its protections. But the high court itself found in a 1979 case that such private lawsuits were authorized by implication. In a 1992 case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the court held that plaintiffs could seek money damages under Title IX. But that case left open the question of the liability standard for school districts.

Justice O’Connor said that Title IX works as a contract between the federal government and school districts, and thus differs from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal law that prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

Some federal courts have applied Title VII principles to Title IX cases involving sexual harassment of students. But Justice O’Connor said Congress did not intend to allow damages under Title IX “where liability rests solely on principles of vicarious liability or constructive notice.”

She said Congress probably did not intend violations of Title IX to result in penalties to districts that exceeded their level of federal funding. The Lago Vista district received about $120,000 in federal funding in 1992-93. But a money-damages award in a sexual-harassment case was likely to be substantially more than that, she noted.

Justice Stevens warned that the standard adopted by the majority could work as a disincentive for districts to root out sexual harassment.

“As long as school boards can insulate themselves from knowledge about this sort of conduct, they can claim immunity from damages liability,” he said in a dissent joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

Not a Referendum

Lisa A. Brown, a Houston lawyer who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National School Boards Association, disputed Justice Stevens’ worries.

“This standard does not encourage school officials to keep their heads in the sand,” said Ms. Brown, whose firm represents 60 Texas districts. Her brief supported the Lago Vista district and recommended the actual-knowledge standard adopted by the high court.

“No one wants children to be abused or harmed by adults,” she said. “This lawsuit by Ms. Gebser was not a referendum on sexual harassment. It [harassment] must be condemned.”

Marcia D. Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, called the ruling “very unfortunate.”

“It will make it harder to eliminate sexual harassment in schools,” said Ms. Greenberger, whose organization filed a brief supporting Ms. Gebser.

Ms. Greenberger said that the actual-knowledge standard was limited to private lawsuits seeking money damages. The federal Department of Education could still enforce regulations and guidelines on sexual harassment that could subject districts to penalties under the vicarious-liability standard, she maintained.

Roger Murphey, a spokesman for the Education Department, said June 23 that officials had no immediate comment on the ruling.


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