Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Teachers' Sexual Misconduct at Issue in Recent Cases

In the last month or so federal courts have made decisions in several cases in which sexual misconduct by teacher and coaches have given rise to Title IX litigation. Here is a summary.

A federal court in Pennsylvania refused to dismiss Title IX claims stemming from a music teacher's ongoing sexual assault of a student that began when she was in middle school and extended into high school. The male teacher had intercourse and engaged in other acts of sexual assault with the female student on multiple occasions and the student had gotten pregnant as a result. Twice the student reported the teacher's misconduct to another teacher.  School officials claimed they did not ever hear about the first report, but they did get the second.  Rather than investigating, however, they allegedly pressured the victim to rescind her claims against the music teacher. (Eventually the teacher plead guilty in a criminal proceeding.)  Especially when factoring in earlier complaints that this same teacher had harassed other female students, the court agreed that she had satisfactorily alleged notice and deliberate indifference, the key elements for institutional liability under Title IX. K.E. v. Dover Area Sch. Dist., 2016 WL 2897614 (M.D. Pa. May 18, 2016).

Also in Pennsylvania, a school district prevailed at summary judgment on claims that it violated Title IX by failing to protect a student from sexual abuse by her coach. In this case, school officials found out about the ongoing misconduct when the coach was arrested by police. There was no evidence suggesting that they knew about what was happening and failed to intervene. The coach had been dismissed from another school for sexual misconduct, but on inquiry from the defendant's athletic director, the coach's prior employer said that his dismissal was due to "excessive texting" of a student, which did not put the defendant on actual notice that the coach posed an imminent sexual threat to his players. Nace v. Pennridge Sch. Dist., 2016 WL 2609789 (E.D. Pa. May 6, 2016).

A female student on the predominantly-male wrestling team sued her Pennsylvania school district for failing to respond to her allegations of sexual harassment by the coach. The court disagreed with the plaintiff's characterization of the coach's behavior as sexual harassment and dismissed the claim. Specifically, the court acknowledged that the coach was "vulgar and inappropriate" -- he told the plaintiff and another female wrestler that they had to "be the boy" and ought to wear strap-ons. He teased other male wrestlers on the team that the plaintiff is the only girl he would ever touch or have on top of him. But, the court determined, this harassment was not sufficiently pervasive because the plaintiff alleged only about 10 sexually-tinged comments over 2-3 years.  Also, because the coach acted this way towards all the wrestlers on the team, he was not singling out the plaintiff because of sex.  Moeck v. Pleasant Valley Sch. Dist., 2016 WL 1553440 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 15, 2016).

Other states besides Pennsylvania contributed cases to this collection. A federal court in Georgia determined that the plaintiff had not sufficiently alleged that the school district was on notice of a teacher's sexual misconduct, and dismissed her case accordingly. The very day that the student's stepfather reported evidence of the teacher's misconduct to school officials, the district commenced an investigation. By the end of the day, the teacher had resigned and was facing criminal charges. Nothing in the plaintiff's complaint suggested that the school district had missed earlier opportunities to intervene, the court concluded. Specifically, the court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the school district was on notice because it knew that the teacher had been fired from an earlier job for sexual harassment. According to the court, this knowledge did not put officials on notice that the teacher posed an imminent threat to this particular student. Though the court did acknowledge past misconduct can in some cases provide notice of an imminent threat against a new victim, there must be a stronger pattern of past misconduct than what was alleged here. S.W. v. Clayton County Public Schools, 2016 WL 2755607 (M.D. Ga. May 12, 2016).

In this last case, the student did not claim that the school district was liable for the teacher's misconduct, but instead, for retaliating against him for having been involved in a sexual relationship with the teacher.  The court quickly dismissed this claim, noting that it failed to allege many required elements of retaliation. For one, the student himself did not engage in the requisite protected conduct by reporting the teacher's abuse; instead, school officials discovered it based on reports of other students. Additionally, there was no basis for concluding that the disciplinary action that the student later faced for chewing tobacco and other offenses were in any way related to his relationship to the teacher.  Gordon v. Traverse City Public Schools, 2016 WL 1566721 (W.D. Mich. Apr. 19, 2019).