This week Democrats in the House and Senates introduced the Civil Rights Act of 2008 (H.R. 2159 & S. 2554). In a variety of contexts, this bill would strengthen civil rights protection and/or restore such protections that have been undermined by recent Supreme Court decisions. Some aspects of this proposed legislation would affect Title IX. One would make it easier to state a cause of action for harassment. Another would confirm that plaintiffs can sue schools for unintentional discrimination that has a disparate impact. I will address each one of these in turn.
The Civil Rights Act of 2008 would make it easier for students to bring sexual harassment claims against educational institutions receiving federal funds. As noted in the bill, the Supreme Court decisions regarding sexual harassment under Title IX, Gebser and Davis, limit schools' liability to only those instances of harassment about which they had actual notice, acted with deliberate indifference, and which were so severe and pervasive to preclude victims' access to educational programs.
The proposed legislation would "reverse Gebser and its progeny and restore the availability of a full range of remedies for harassment" on the basis of sex, as well as harassment on the basis of race, age, and disability. Specifically, the statute would allow harassment victims to seek money damages against a school unless the school can show that it acted with "reasonable care"and that the victim "unreasonable failed to take advantage" of preventive or corrective opportunties offered by the school that would have likely prevented the harm.
In this article posted by the American Constitution Society, NWLC's Fatima Goss Graves makes a compelling case in support of this reform. She provides examples of real court decisions that dismissed victims' claims under the deliberate indifference standard, but would likely have come out differently had the courts applied a reasonable care standard instead.
II. Disparate Impact
In 2001, the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs did not have a private right of action under Title VI, the statute prohibiting race discrimination in public entities, to sue a covered entity for discrimination that was unintentional but had a disparate impact on members of the plaintiffs' race. Ever since then, the right of action to bring disparate impact claims under other civil righs statutes, including Title IX, has been in question. Prior to the 2001, for example, a court had held that female applicants to a scholarship program could challenge the program's reliance on a standardized test on which men tended to do better. After 2001, similar disparate impact challenges are likely foreclosed.
The Civil Right Act of 2008 would "reinstat[e]" that right of action for Title VI claims and "confirm" that right for other civil rights statute. Specifically, the statute would allow a plaintiff to maintain a cause of action against a school if the plaintiff can show that the school "has a policy or practice that causes a disparate impact on the basis of sex and that the [school] fails to demonstrate that the challenged policy or practice is related to or necessary to achieve the nondiscriminatory goals of the program or activity alleged to have been operated in a discriminatory manner."
The bill is now being considered by appropriate committees in each house.
h/t Feminist Law Profs
See also Workplace Prof Blog