Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

PETITIONER: Davis
RESPONDENT: Monroe County Board of Education
LOCATION: Kimberley Thompson's Apartment

DOCKET NO.: 97-843
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 526 US 629 (1999)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1999
DECIDED: May 24, 1999

ADVOCATES:
Barbara D. Underwood - Department of Justice, for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Verna L. Williams - Argued the cause for the petitioner
W. Warren Plowden, Jr. - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

Aurelia Davis sued the Monroe County Board of Education (the "Board"), on behalf of her fifth grade daughter LaShonda, alleging that school officials failed to prevent Lashonda's suffering sexual harassment at the hands of another student. Davis claimed that the school's complacency created an abusive environment that deprived her daughter of educational benefits promised her under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX). On appeal from successive adverse rulings in both district and appellate court, the Supreme Court granted Davis certiorari.

Question

Can a school board be held responsible under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, meant to secure equal access of students to educational benefits and opportunities, for "student-on-student" harassment?

Media for Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1999 in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 24, 1999 in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

The opinion of the Court in No. 98-843, Davis vresus The Monroe County Board of Education will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

This case is here on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation and be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

In this case, the petitioner filed suit seeking damages and other relief under Title IX against the respondent school board.

The petitioner alleged that her fifth grade daughter, LaShonda had repeatedly been the victim of a fellow student's sexually offensive comments and actions over a five month period.

Not withstanding notice of the misconduct, the teachers and that the school principal, petitioner alleged that no disciplinary action was taken against the offending student.

Although the school failed for many months even to change LaShonda's assigned seat next to the student, who was harassing her, the student's misconduct was sufficiently severe to warrant criminal charges and he ultimately pleaded guilty to sexual battery.

The District Court dismissed petitioner's Title IX claim and the en banc Court of Appeals for Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal, concluding that Title IX does not create a private damages action for a school's failure to respond the reports of student-on-student sexual harassment.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse the Court of Appeals decision and remand for further proceedings.

In our decision last term in Gebser versus Lago Vista Independent School District, we concluded that Title IX supports a private damages action against the School District, which receives federal funds in cases of sexual harassment of a student by a teacher, where the recipient School District remained deliberately indifferent to known acts of sexual harassment.

In the opinion filed today, we conclude that school boards, which are federal funding recipients may likewise be liable where they remain deliberately indifferent to known acts of sufficiently severe peer harassment in their schools.

Remindful that as legislation enacted pursuant to Congress' authority under the Constitution's Spending Clause that Title IX must provide the putative recipients, the schools accepting the money, with notice of the scope of their potential liability should they choose to accept federal funds.

Reading the statute with this notice requirement in mind, we conclude that student-on-student harassment must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive its victims of access to a school's educational programs or activities.

Recognizing the practical and legal constraints facing school administrators, we also make clear that funding recipient school board can be liable in damages only where its response to the harassment, is clearly unreasonable.

In various ways federal law affects the ability of school administrators to discipline their students and the law sometimes works to deter disciplinary action.

Title IX cuts in the opposite direction; it encourages schools to fulfill their obligation to protect students from extreme misconduct by their peers.

The dissent urges that the Court's holding today will teach little Johnny a perverse lessons in federalism.

In fact, Title IX works to ensure that little Mary may attend class unhindered by severe and pervasive acts of the sexual harassment by her classmate.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting oinion in which the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have joined.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In view of the importance of the case it seems appropriate to read some portions of rather lengthily dissent.

A vital safeguard for the federal balance is the requirement that when Congress imposes a condition on the States' receipt of federal funds it must do so unambiguously.

Only if States receive clear notice of the conditions attached to federal funds can they guard against excessive federal intrusion into state affairs and be vigilant in policing the boundaries of federal power.

While the majority opinion purports to give effect to these principles, in fact it eviscerates the clear-notice safeguard of our Spending Clause jurisprudence.

The majority's opinion purports to be narrow, but the limiting principle it proposes are illusory.

The fence the court has built has made of little sticks, and it cannot contain the avalanche of liability now set in motion.

The potential costs to our schools of today's decision are difficult to estimate.

But it is clear, they are so great that it is most unlikely Congress intended to inflict them on the States.

Rather than beginning with a language of Title IX itself, the majority begins with our last term's decision in Gebser.

It appears to discover there are sweeping legal duty-divorced from agency principles for schools to remedy third-party discrimination against students.

It should surprise no one, however, the schools, which are the primary locus of most children's social development are rife with inappropriate behavior by children who are just learning to interact with their peers.