Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sexual Harassment Roundup

Here are summaries of three recent decisions in Title IX sexual harassment cases from around the country.

As reported here, a federal judge will let the mother of a bullied middle school student continue to pursue her lawsuit against the Cypress-Fairbanks (Texas) Independent School District, having denied the district's motion to dismiss her claims under Title IX. The bullied student, Asher Brown, committed suicide in 2010 after enduring two years of bullying and harassment by his peers, who targeted Brown for his perceived sexual orientation among other reasons. Brown's Asperger's syndrome challenged his ability to interact socially with his peers. Additionally, Brown was small, not athletically inclined, talked with a lisp, and pigeon-toed -- a condition that caused him to walk with a "sashay." The court determined that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged that Brown was targeted because of sex, in that the bullies' perception of Brown's homosexuality was rooted in his gender nonconforming behavior, as evidenced by the gay slurs and other sexual behavior that they used to taunt him. The court also accepted plaintiff's allegations that the school district was on notice of the harassment, notwithstanding that the middle school principal did not know, because Brown and his parents complained regularly to counselors, teachers, and other school officials with authority to take corrective action. They further allege that in response to their complaints, no action was taken to address the bullies or protect Brown from further harassment. Barring settlement, a trial will take place likely next year. Brown v. Ogletree, 2012 WL 591190 (S.D. Tex. Feb. 21, 2012).

Another federal court dismissed Title IX claims against Blackburn College, in Illinois, stemming from the rape of a female student, the plaintiff, by an unknown attacker. According to the court, undisputed facts demonstrate that the college did not have actual notice of the threat. While agreeing with the majority of courts that the threat of harassment need not be "plaintiff-specific," the court nevertheless found insufficient basis to conclude that college was aware of a risk in this case, as prior instances of campus rape known to officials at the time of plaintiff's assault did not involve unknown attackers. Nor was Blackburn indifferent to sexual harassment after plaintiff reported the rape to college officials. College counselors met with the plaintiff on the night of the assault and many times thereafter, officials held a town hall meeting about campus safety, assisted her with off-campus resources, and offered academic accommodations. This response is not deliberate indifference as required for Title IX liability to attach. Doe v. Blackburn College, 2012 WL 640046 (C.D. Ill. Feb. 27, 2012).

A federal court dismissed Title IX and other claims against the District of Columbia arising out of a teacher's alleged sexual relationship with a high school student. According to the court, the student-plaintiff did not allege that she reported the relationship to anyone. Though her pregnancy was known, she did not report nor was anyone aware that the pregnancy resulted from a sexual relationship with a teacher. Once the District officials did receive report of the relationship, they investigated the matter and ultimately found the teacher not liable. According to the court, "In light of the breadth of this investigation and its inconclusive results, DCPS can hardly be said to have acted with deliberate indifference by not firing Weismiller [the teacher] then. Finally but significantly, Plaintiff does not allege that further sexual harassment occurred as a result of [DCPS's] deliberate indifference." Blue v. District of Columbia, 2012 WL 746400 (D.D.C. Mar. 8, 2012).