Friday, September 16, 2011

Sexual Harassment Round-up

Here is a round-up of recent judicial decisions in Title IX sexual harassment cases. These summaries were prepared at my direction and supervision by Western New England law student Shiona Heru.
  • The First Circuit Court of Appeals addressed important questions regarding the actual notice requirement of a Title IX claim when they affirmed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a hostile environment harassment claim filed by the mother of a six-year-old special education student against Puerto Rico for alleged sexual abuse by a bus driver. According to the record, the mother reported the abuse to a special education teacher who in turn referred the mother to a social worker. The mother claimed that the social worker “did not do anything” and that she tried to meet with the principal several times before removing her son from school and filing a lawsuit. The appellate court dismissed the mother’s claim because she failed to allege that the principal had actual knowledge of the sexual abuse and had the authority to enforce corrective measures against the alleged harasser on behalf of the school department.. The court rejected that the principal had “, constructive knowledge” sufficient to satisfy the notice requirement by virtue of the mother’s unsuccessful attempts to contact the principal. The court emphasized that a plaintiff cannot establish institutional liability through allegations that a school employee did not inform someone with the proper authority to take corrective action. Perhaps more importantly, the plaintiff has to prove that the funding recipient not only has control over the service provided and the environment in which the harassment occurs, but also that the appropriate person has actual knowledge of the harassment. In this case, the plaintiff is free to pursue her local law claims in Puerto Rico. Santiago v. Puerto Rico, 2011 WL 3689000 (1st Cir. Jul. 27, 2011).
  • A high school student’s Title IX claim against a school district in Pennsylvania survived a motion for summary judgment when the lower court determined found that a jury could find that a teacher conditioned the plaintiff’s ability to pass a driving test on her submission to his unwelcome sexual harassment advances. (We had earlier blogged about the case surviving a motion to dismiss.) The court also determined that there was sufficient evidence to warrant the conclusion that an appropriate school official had notice of prior violations by the teacher and the school district responded with deliberate indifference by pressuring the student to change her story, failing to prevent the teacher from contacting the student, assigning his wife as the student’s substitute teacher and publicly displaying support for the teacher’s innocence. Additionally, some of the 14th Amendment claims survived a prior motion to dismiss and were retained under Section 1983 which was enacted to provide a private remedy for violation of federal law. Even though a state is not subject to suit under section 1983, a state officer can be sued in his official capacity. This means that although punitive damages cannot be awarded against a municipality, the municipality can be held jointly and severally liable and ultimately be held liable through section 1983. E.N. v. Susquehanna Tp. School Dist., 2011 WL 3608544 (M.D. Penn., July 05, 2011).
  • A district court in Pennsylvania dismissed a high school student’s claim that North Allegheny School District officials permitted student-on-student harassment and failed to remedy a sexually hostile environment where the plaintiff was raped by a classmate in the school parking lot during school hours. Taking a narrow view of the requirement that school officials have actual notice of harassment – a view that conflicts with other courts’, see, e.g., Williams v. University of Georgia (institutional liability could be premised on university’s failure to respond to actual notice of football player’s sexual assault at a prior institution)-- the district court determined that notice of two prior incidents of sexual assaults filed by other high school students against the harasser did not constitute actual notice of sexual harassment of the plaintiff. Once school officials were aware of the assault, they took immediate action, thus insulating themselves from institutional liability for peer harassment under Title IX. Additionally, though the court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for failing to sufficiently allege notice and deliberate indifference, it did emphasize that the harasser’s the repeated requests throughout their high school education that the plaintiff perform sexual acts upon him could qualify as sexual harassment. The fact that the plaintiff had consented to sex acts with the harasser in the past does not necessary preclude a jury from finding that the solicitation of those acts is “unwelcome.” Doe ex rel. Doe v. North Allegheny School Dist., 2011 WL 3667279 (W.D. Penn., Aug. 22, 2011).