Thursday, April 29, 2010

Eleventh Circuit Reinstates Teacher Harassment Case

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a Title IX case in favor of the plaintiff, who alleged that a school district was liable under Title IX for sexual harassment perpetrated by her 9th-grade math teacher. The plaintiff, identified as Jane Doe, sued the Broward County, Florida school board after teacher Conraad Hoever sexually assaulted her in his classroom. She claimed that the school board was liable because it had failed to appropriately respond to two prior complaints that the same teacher had sexually harassed other female students. The district court granted the school district's motion for summary judgment, finding that the principal's response to the earlier complaints was sufficient. But this week, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the lower court's decision in this respect, paving the way for the plaintiff's case to proceed to trial.

The Eleventh Circuit analyzed the following elements for institutional liability for harassment under Title IX: whether an appropriate official had notice of harassment, whether the substance of that notice was sufficient to alert the school district of the harassment against the plaintiff, and whether the school district responded to that notice with deliberate indifference. First, the court held that the principal, who had received earlier complaints about the teacher in question, was an appropriate person to receive notice because he had been vested authority by the school board to take corrective action in response to sexual harassment complaints. Though the court acknowledged that this element will necessarily require a case-specific inquiry, as officials roles may vary among school districts, its reasoning suggests that notice to school principals will usually be sufficient.

Next, the court decided that the prior complaints against Hoever put the principal on notice of the sexual harassment he committed against the plaintiff. The district court suggested they were not, because prior complaints involved less severe conduct than Hoever's violent assault on the plaintiff. But relying on its earlier decision in Williams v. University of Georgia, the appellate court acknowledged that notice of prior instances of sexual harassment may be sufficient to warn officials of a later sexual assault. In Williams, the Eleventh Circuit held that school officials had notice that one of its students, a football player, had sexually harassed women at his prior institution, and the court reasoned that this constituted actual notice of the student's later rape against the plaintiff in that case.

Finally, the court determined that the principal responded to those earlier charges--specifically, the second one--with deliberate indifference. The district court had decided this element in the school district's favor based on evidence that the principal had confronted the teacher, taken statements of the students involved, and reported the incidents to the appropriate official on the school board. Moreover, in response to the first complaint, the school district placed the teacher on administrative leave while it conducted an investigation, and eventually determined that there was not enough evidence to warranted further discipline against the teacher.

The appellate court's analysis of deliberate indifference focused on the principal's response to the second charge of harassment. Even though the earlier investigation had been inconclusive, the fact of an earlier charge meant that the principal should have responded to the second charge more vigorously rather than less. But in response to the second charge, the principal did not conduct an investigation at all; he merely took the student's and the teacher's statement. And "most unreasonably," when he reported the complaint it to the school board, he did not indicate that the complaint was against a teacher who had been investigated already for sexual harassment. The principal then capped off this lackluster response by giving Hoever a satisfactory performance evaluation, and resigned without leaving any indication for the next principal that Hoever posed a risk of sexual harassment or assault. This, in the Eleventh Circuit's mind, constituted deliberate indifference.

This opinion provides important guidance to lower courts on all three elements discussed, but particular the deliberate indifference standard. As the lower court's decision in this case demonstrates, sometimes courts reason that any response at all by a school official is sufficient to overcome a claim of deliberately indifferent. The Eleventh Circuit has appropriately instructed the courts in its circuit to look at the school's response in the context of an emerging pattern of complaints.

Decision: Doe v. School Bd. of Broward County, 2010 WL 1655918 (11th Cir., Apr. 27, 2010)