Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District

PETITIONER: Gebser
RESPONDENT: Lago Vista Independent School District
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-1866
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 524 US 274 (1998)
ARGUED: Mar 25, 1998
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1998

ADVOCATES:
Beth S. Brinkmann - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners
Beth Ann Brinkmann - for United States as amicus curiae by special leave of the Court
Terry L. Weldon - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Wallace B. Jefferson - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Alida Star Gebser, a high school student in the Lago Vista Independent School District ("Lago Vista"), had a secret sexual affair with one of her teachers. At the time, Lago Vista had no official procedure for reporting sexual harassment nor any formal anti-harassment policy, as required by federal law. One day, after the two were discovered having sex, the teacher was arrested and fired. Claiming she was harassed in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (the "Amendments"), providing that no person "be subjected to discrimination" under any federally funded education program or activity, Gebser sought damages against Lago Vista. On appeal from a decision affirming a district court's ruling in favor of Lago Vista, the Supreme Court granted Gebser certiorari.

Question

Can a federally funded educational program or activity be required, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to pay sexual harassment damages to a student who was involved in a secret relationship with a member of its staff?

Media for Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 25, 1998 in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 96-1866, Alida Star Gebser and Alida Jean McCullough v. the Lago Vista Independent School District.

Mr. Weldon.

Terry L. Weldon:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The issue in this case is the standard under which a school district can be held liable for violation of Title IX of the education amendments when one of its teachers intentionally discriminates against one of his students by engaging in sexual harassment of her.

Petitioner was clearly subjected to intentional discrimination under, using the terminology of this statute, under the educational programs and activities provided by the respondent.

William H. Rehnquist:

Was there some showing that it was discriminatory?

Because I read many of the statements in the various briefs in the proceeding and there's virtually no mention of discrimination.

There's a lot of mention of sexual harassment.

Terry L. Weldon:

We're using in the briefs and in the documents in the case that are in the joint appendix, we're using the term, sexual harassment, as synonymous with discrimination, and I believe the Franklin court--

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, I think in Oncale we said it wasn't.

Terry L. Weldon:

--Well--

William H. Rehnquist:

That you have to show that the treatment... not only that the treatment was harassing, but that it was... you were treating one sex on a basis that you would not have treated the other sex.

Terry L. Weldon:

--And I think that's amply shown by the record in this case and I think that the Franklin case simply stands for the proposition that when a teacher intentionally harasses a student, that is discrimination based on sex.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, the Franklin case said there's a private cause of action.

Terry L. Weldon:

Yes, sir.

William H. Rehnquist:

But are you saying that it would be enough if you showed there was just harassment of a student by a teacher of a different sex?

Terry L. Weldon:

If the harassment was based on sex, yes.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, I think the statute says you have to discriminate on the basis of sex.

You have to... the teacher has to treat students of one sex differently from another.

Terry L. Weldon:

And in this case that's exactly what happened.

The teacher singled out this young girl.

William H. Rehnquist:

Because of her sex?

Terry L. Weldon:

Because of her sex.

The Fifth Circuit standard from which we appeal would require proof of actual knowledge not only in the school district generally but in the superior of the teacher who was guilty of the discrimination, or at least in some person who had immediate power over that teacher with respect to--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, you know, I think the tough question we need to answer here is whether a suit under Title IX, which this is, I think--

Terry L. Weldon:

--Yes, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--should be governed by the principles of Title VII suits, or whether there is some different standard here under Title IX because essentially it's a Federal financial grant program under Title IX, and it's quite possible that agency principles don't apply to Title IX at all.

Are you going to address that question?

Terry L. Weldon:

I'll do it right now.

The... there are obvious similarities between Title VII and Title IX in that they have as their object the prevention or redress of sexual discrimination, but there are important differences as well.