Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Title IX Litigation in Montgomery County, Georgia

From a reader, I learned of a Title IX retaliation suit that was filed in federal court recently against the Montgomery County (Georgia) Board of Education. The plaintiff, Christopher Bowman, was a teacher at Montgomery County High School until he was fired, he alleges, because he provided evidence to state officials of a sexual relationship between the guidance counselor, Carrie O'Connor, and a 16-year-old male student. Soon after cooperating in the state's investigation of the charges against O'Connor, Bowman was informed by the district superintendent of his termination -- ostensibly, for "insubordination." Incidentally, the superintendent, Dale Clark, is also O'Connor's mother. Bowman alleges that Clark also sabotaged his efforts to find employment with other school districts in Georgia.

Though a jury recently cleared O'Connor of criminal charges due to insufficient evidence to substantiate the victim-student's claims, this will not have an affect on the legal arguments in Bowman's suit. That is because Title IX protects whistleblowers who reasonably believe that a violation of the statute -- here, severe and pervasive sexual harassment -- has occurred. Otherwise, whistleblowers would only come forward if they were absolutely certain that a violation had occurred, which is to say, hardly ever.

Bowman's suit is not the only Title IX case arising out of this circumstance. The victim's mother has also sued the school district, claiming among other things that the district violated Title IX in failing to protect her son from the guidance counselor's sexual conduct, which could qualify as severe and pervasive harassment under Title IX. Though the outcome of O'Connor's criminal trial -- especially the fact that the jury returned its "not guilty" verdict within 30 minutes -- casts some doubt on the viability of this case, it does not necessarily foreclose it as a matter of law. The plaintiff need only prove that it's more likely than not that the sexual misconduct occurred, where the state had to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.