Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Two Sexual Harassment Cases Survive Summary Judgment

Federal district court judges have denied defendants' motions for summary judgment in two separate sexual harassment cases this past week, paving the way for factfinding by a jury in both cases.

In Padula v. Morris, a district court in California held that the allegations by a female high school student that her male high school principal hugged her, "rubbed her shoulders and asked her what was the matter in the school hallway, and, during a disciplinary meeting, told her, 'I don't know whether to hug you or spank you' and then hugged her and swatted her on the buttocks as she walked out the door" were legally sufficient to constitute severe and pervasive harassment under Title IX. The court rejected the defendants' attempts to analogize to workplace discrimination cases and peer harassment cases in which acts of similar severity did not constitute sexual harassment, stating "what may not be offensive enough to be actionable between adults [or between children] could be actionable between an adult and a child."

In Hurd v. Delaware State University, the district court in Delaware held that the plaintiff, a female college student, could proceed against both her professor, Dr. Panda, and Delaware State University. The plaintiff had alleged "at least seven detailed instances, involving sexually explicit statements and advances" and that "because of Dr. Panda's harassment, she missed approximately six to ten classes." Concluded the court, "a reasonable jury could find that the environment was sexually hostile." Moreover, a jury could find that Delaware State responded with indifference to knowledge of the harassment, even though "Hurd did not file a formal complaint and chose, instead, to send an e-mail to Dr. Panda." Action by the plaintiff does not necessarily absolve the university of a responsibility to address the harassment, so "DSU's inaction was reasonable is a question for the jury."

Also notable in light of the Supreme Court's pending resolution of Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, the court denied plaintiffs' claims under section 1983 that Dr. Panda and Delaware State had violated her constitutional rights, calling those claims "subsumed by Title IX."

Decisions are:
Padula v. Morris, 2008 WL 4370075 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 24, 2008).
Hurd v. Delaware State Univeristy, 2008 WL 4369982 (D. Del. Sept. 25, 2008).