Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Commandant Not Individually Liable for Peer Harassment

Here's another decision from Massachusetts involving Title IX's application to peer harassment. The plaintiffs in this case were two female cadets at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. They sued the Academy's commandant, Rick Gurnon, seeking damages to remedy his deliberate indifference to their reports that they had been sexually assaulted by two male cadets in 1996. Commandant Gurnon responded with a motion for summary judgment, arguing that had qualified immunity from individual liability. The superior court denied his motion, and Gurnon appealed.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled in Gurnon's favor. When plaintiffs are seeking to hold individuals liable for civil rights violations (rather than the school itself), the right at issue must have been clearly established at the time of the defendant's unlawful conduct. Otherwise, the defendant is entitled to a qualified immunity defense. The plaintiffs here actually convinced the court that the evidence presented could have satisfied the fact finder that Gurnon was deliberately indifferent in violation of Title IX as construed by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. But Gurnon was entitled to qualified immunity, said the Court of Appeals, because in 1996 when the events of this case occurred, the right secured in Davis was not yet clearly established by the courts.

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