Monday, February 13, 2012

Retaliation Case Against Florida School District Survives Motion to Dismiss

In Florida, a federal district court judge has denied the Citrus County School Board's motion to dismiss claims filed by students who allege they were retaliated against after one of them reported that she was "offended and uncomfortable" by sexual behavior of their soccer coaches. As we noted in an earlier post, the case began when a female high school soccer player named Stacey Bigge and her teammate known in the complaint as A.M. reported to their parents that they were uncomfortable with their coaches' tendencies to make sexual comments, which included remakes about players' physicality and genitalia, and that on one occasion, a coach pulled down a player's pants. After their parents reported this conduct to school district officials, the coaches became threatening and intimidating to Stacey and A.M., interrogating them in front of their teammates and threatening to disband the team because of what they did. Eventually, the players quit to avoid this hostility. Later, Stacey and her sister Kathryn Bigge were ordered to be transferred to another high school after the coaches then told the school officials that the Bigges lived outside the district. This transfer order was rescinded after the Bigges' father supplied proof of residency.

Both Bigge sisters sued Citrus County School Board, alleging that the threat to transfer them to another high school was retaliation for Stacey's complaints about the coaches' harassing conduct. The school board argued that Kathryn Bigge's claim for damages on this retaliation theory should be dismissed because she was not the person who engaged in the requisite "protected conduct" by complaining about the coaches' behavior, her sister was. But the court rejected this argument, applying the Supreme Court's recent decision in an employment law case that a whistleblower's fiance could challenge the retaliation directed at him in response to the whistleblower's complaint about sex discrimination on the job. The judge concluded that the threats against Kathryn were actionable on a theory of retaliation because it was "reasonable to infer that the School Board’s threat to transfer Kathryn Bigge to another school district (a threat that was allegedly made in direct response to the Plaintiffs’ complaints) would dissuade her father and sister from making any further charges of discrimination and/or retaliation."

The case is scheduled for a jury trial in February 2013.