In recent years, some federal courts -- at the urging of lawyers for educational institutions and administrators charged with sex discrimination and other alleged wrongdoing, and to the dismay of advocates for women's rights -- have embraced the notion that students or employees who sue under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 should not also have the ability to sue under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a rare display of unanimity, soundly rejected that view. Overturning a 2007 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, the justices ruled 9-0 that the parents of a preschool student could sue a Massachusetts school district for unconstitutional gender discrimination for failing to stop a third grader's school-bus bullying and abuse of their daughter, even though they had also brought suit under Title IX, the law that forbids sex bias by educational institutions.
The appeals court had rejected the plaintiffs' Title IX case on the grounds that the school district had undertaken a reasonable response to the alleged peer harassment of the kindergartner. That court went further, declaring that the remedies available to plaintiffs under Title IX were “sufficiently comprehensive” to preclude the use of Section 1983 of the 14th Amendment to pursue the same discrimination claims.
“Congress," the First Circuit court wrote, summing up the line of reasoning challenged in this case, "saw Title IX as the sole means of vindicating the Constitutional right to be free from gender discrimination perpetrated by educational institutions.” In other words, Title IX alone should be used to prevent sex discrimination in schools and colleges.
Numerous civil rights and other groups, including the American Association of University Professors and the American Association of University Women, filed amicus groups challenging the First Circuit's ruling and asking the Supreme Court to overturn it.
In its ruling in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee on Wednesday, the Supreme Court took issue with the lower court's analysis, citing significant differences between both the protections and the remedies guaranteed, respectively, by Title IX and Section 1983 of the Constitution. While Title IX gives individuals the right to sue institutions and programs, it does not grant the right to sue individual officials of those schools and colleges; similarly, it exempts "military service schools and traditionally single-sex public colleges from all of its provisions," the court notes. In addition, Title IX allows plaintiffs to receive compensatory damages, but does not provide a mechanism for punitive damages, as the Equal Protection Clause allows.
"Because the protections guaranteed by the two sources of law diverge in this way, we cannot agree with the Court of Appeals that 'Congress saw Title IX as the sole means of vindicating the constitutional right to be free from gender discrimination perpetrated by educational institutions,' " the court wrote. "We conclude that Title IX was not meant to be an exclusive mechanism for addressing gender discrimination in schools, or a substitute for §1983 suits as a means of enforcing constitutional rights."
Legal experts said they believed the case could have significant implications for colleges and universities, ensuring that students and employees who perceived themselves as having been wronged by their institutions could sue all potentially liable parties, and for the full range of damages. "If an athletics director or dean is the one who makes a discriminatory decision, you can sue them" under the Supreme Court's ruling, said Kristen Galles, a Washington lawyer who heads the American Bar Association's Committee on the Rights of Women. "And they can be on the hook not only for compensatory damages, but punitive damages."
Such liability is important, in Galles's view, because "it's not until schools start getting hit with awards ... that schools say, 'Oh crap, we better start enforcing it.' "