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Is a teacher’s pattern of inappropriate conduct toward students sufficient proof to support a Title IX sexual harassment lawsuit against the school district? Not necessarily, according the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
J.F.K. and M.C.K. sued the Troup County School District for sexual harassment under Title IX after learning that Elizabeth Gaddy, a 45-year-old teacher, had molested O.K.K., their 12-year-old son. O.K.K.’s parents claimed that multiple parents had alerted the school principal, Thomas Whatley, to Gaddy’s unprofessional behavior toward O.K.K. and other students, but Whatley failed to intervene.
The Supreme Court has recognized an implied right of action under Title IX against a school district for sexual harassment of a student by a teacher. The Eleventh Circuit's take on that case is that "the Supreme Court made plain that not all sexual harassment by teachers is sufficient to impose liability on a school district."
To beat summary judgment on a schoolhouse sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff must satisfy three different inquiries. The plaintiff must be able to:
1. Identify a person with authority to take corrective measures in response to actual notice of sexual harassment
2. Demonstrate that the notice was sufficient to alert the school official of the possibility of the Title IX plaintiff's harassment
3. Show that the authority figure acted with deliberate indifference to the notice of harassment.
There's no debate that Whatley satisfies the first inquiry. The issue on appeal was the substance of the actual notice.
The district court combined Title VII workplace discrimination standards with Title IX teacher-on-student harassment standards when it articulated the plaintiffs' burden for this inquiry. The district court said the plaintiffs had to demonstrate that a reasonable person in Whatley's position would conclude, based on what he had learned, that O.K.K. had been subject to unwelcome sexual harassment by Gaddy, and that the harassment was so severe and pervasive that it threatened to create a hostile environment in an educational program or activity.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the district court's explanation improperly added the "unwelcome" and "severe and pervasive" provisions. The proper standard, according to the Eleventh Circuit, is that "the actual notice must be sufficient to alert the decision-maker to the possibility of sexual harassment by the teacher."
The plaintiffs, however, still did not defeat summary judgment.
Based on the record, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that that Whatley was never put on notice of any single act, or combination of acts, of actual sexual harassment by Gaddy of other students of the type to which O.K.K. was subjected. While the court noted that Whatley clearly knew Gaddy's conduct was inappropriate, devoid of professionalism, and reeked of immaturity, he did not have actual notice of sexual harassment.
Accordingly, the court affirmed summary judgment, albeit for different reasons than the district court.
Elizabeth Gaddy's guilt was not enough to revive the sexual harassment lawsuit against the school district; plaintiffs in similar situations must demonstrate that school officials had actual notice of sexual harassment.