Supreme Court Allows Title IX Lawsuits to Proceed Against Fairfax Schools, Univ. of Toledo
The Fairfax County School Board and the University of Toledo sought to narrow the scope under which the schools can be held liable under Title IX.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals made by a Virginia school district and an Ohio university to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits filed by female students.
Both the Fairfax County School Board and the University of Toledo sought to narrow the circumstances under which the schools can be held liable under Title IX, a federal law that prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. The cases will now both go to trial in federal court after Monday’s rulings.
In Fairfax County, a female Oakton High School student who was sexually assaulted by a male student on a bus during a 2017 school-sponsored band trip sued the school board in 2018. In 2019, following a two-week trial, a civil jury acquitted the school system of wrongdoing, determining the girl had been assaulted but that the school system had not received notice of the assault. During the trial, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Nachmanoff said the school system either destroyed or failed to preserve notes and text messages relevant to the investigation. The school system argued the documents may have been misplaced during school renovations.
In 2021, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit in a 2-1 ruling that said it was clear that the school system had notice of the assault as the student told administrators she’d been touched without her consent, according to PBS. The court said jurors should have considered whether the school’s response to the assault was unreasonable and made the plaintiff vulnerable to future harassment.
However, a dissenting opinion concluded that the trial verdict should stand because after-the-fact notice about an isolated, one-time incident did not give the school district the opportunity to take preventive action.
The full 4th Circuit then issued a 9-6 en banc opinion affirming the suit should be reinstated. Judges in the majority said if school systems can’t be held liable for their response to a single incident, it would equate to giving them “one free rape.” The school board then sought review from the Supreme Court, which led to Monday’s ruling.
The Supreme Court had asked President Joe Biden’s administration to weigh in on the school board’s appeal. In September, the Justice Department said schools should be held accountable for their response to sexual harassment by students that they are made aware of, and urged the justices to deny the appeal.
“What a shame the School Board wasted taxpayer dollars asking the Supreme Court to adopt positions the Fourth Circuit and the Department of Justice have called ‘absurd,’” Alexandra Brodsky, one of the student’s lawyers, wrote in a statement.
A statement issued by Fairfax County Public Schools after the latest ruling said it “asked the high court to resolve these uncertainties because Congress never intended for schools to be privately sued for money damages when everyone agrees the harassment could not have been foreseen.”
In its appeal, the University of Toledo sought to clarify when schools are legally liable for the harassment of students by teachers, reports Reuters. In 2018, a former undergraduate student accused the university of failing to adequately investigate her complaint regarding sexual advances made by a communications professor.
A federal judge ruled the university was not liable because the alleged harassment stopped before campus authorities were notified. The Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit in March, ruling the university could still be liable under Title IX for its “deliberate indifference” to the woman’s allegation. Nine states filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the university’s appeal of the ruling.