Federal courts have recently issued several decisions in Title IX cases involving allegations of sexual harassment. I am grateful to Western New England law student Shiona Heru for helping me prepare these case summaries!
- The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a harassment case against a school district in Texas, calling it “petty squabble, masquerading as a civil rights matter.” Drawing a distinction between sexual harassment, which is covered by Title IX, and generic bullying, which is not, the court refused to consider incidents arising out of dispute between cheerleaders, in which one female student allegedly spanked the plaintiff’s butt, spread rumors that plaintiff was pregnant and had hickies, could not be viewed as harassment motivated by the victim’s sex. Also, in addressing the plaintiff’s claim that the school district’s failure to notify the Title IX coordinator constituted deliberate indifference, the court made it clear that ineffective responses to harassment do not establish deliberate indifference. Sanches v. Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School Dist., 2011 WL 2698975 (5th Cir. Jul 13, 2011).
- A federal court in Wisconsin rejected a school district’s attempt to dismiss a sexual harassment case involving a seventh grade student who is alleging that school officials failed to protect her from extensive verbal and physical abuse by four fellow classmates. The most egregious acts alleged included three consecutive attacks by two of the students who repeatedly hit the plaintiff with spiked track shoes resulting in the approximately 38 puncture wounds on the plaintiffs head, as well as an incident where two students beat her with a three-foot long tree limb which resulted in bleeding, lacerations, welts, bruising, emotional trauma, permanent scarring and severe bruising of several vertebrae. When the parents of the plaintiff requested that the plaintiff be permitted to attend another school, the school district refused and would not remove her harassers from her classes. The court considered these allegations, if proven true, to constitute deliberate indifference that could thereby subject the school district to liability under Title IX. Doe v. Galster, 2011 WL 2784159 (E.D. Wis. Jul 14, 2011).
- A federal court in California refused to dismiss a case filed by a high school student who alleged she had endured severe sexual harassment by a school counselor. Specifically, the plaintiff had alleged that the counselor’s behavior over the course of six months, which included sexually suggestive comments, inappropriate physical contact and unwarranted monitoring, rendered the district liable under Title IX and other law. Though the district court dismissed those portions of the plaintiff’s claim based on conduct that took place prior to the plaintiff’s notifying the school of the counselor’s conduct, it did accept that the plaintiff’s allegations of deliberate indifference were specific enough to withstand a motion to dismiss claims arising from conduct that occurred after the plaintiff notified officials. Lilah R. ex rel. Elena A. v. Smith, 2011 WL 2976805 (N.D. Cal., Jul. 22, 2011).
- A federal district court in New Jersey dismissed a sex discrimination and harassment case filed by a 22-year old male student against his undergraduate institution, the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The court found that the plaintiff’s selective enforcement claim, alleging that NJIT’s actions were motivated by gender, was flawed because he failed to demonstrate that his circumstance was sufficiently similar to a female student’s complaint where she reported a threatening comment made by the plaintiff. The court also dismissed the student’s sexual harassment under Title IX because his complaint did not include specific allegations that the institution had notice of the harassment he was facing from his peers, or that it responded to that harassment with deliberate indifference. Tafuto v. New Jersey Inst. of Technology, 2011 WL 3163240 (D.N.J., Jul. 26, 2011).