Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eighth Circuit Affirms Jury's Dismissal of Gay-Slur Harassment Case

Earlier this month, the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the a jury's dismissal of a Title IX harassment case against the Fayetteville (Arkansas) School District (earlier posts here, here, and here). The plaintiff, William "Billy" Wolfe sued the district to challenge their response to harassment that included anti-gay epithets by his peers. After a trial, the jury decided that as a matter of fact, the anti-gay name-calling was not motivated by Wolfe's perceived sexual orientation or any gender nonconforming behavior, and therefore could not be addressed by Title IX. The school district presented evidence that the students who harassed Billy were retaliating against him for bullying someone else, which allowed the jury to label this an instance of generic bullying rather than sexual harassment.

Wolfe's appeal challenged the language of the jury instructions, which required evidence that the harassers were targeting Wolfe because they perceived him to be gay or gender-nonconforming, in order to find in his favor. Wolfe argued that the jury should have been given broader leeway to find in his favor, including based on a finding that his harassers spreading of false rumors about his homosexuality in order to "debase his masculinity." But citing Supreme Court and other court decisions that emphasize Title IX's application to discrimination because of sex, the appellate panel rejected Wolfe's argument that Title IX applies when the means of harassment are linked to gender when the motive is apparently not.