Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District

Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998) established the legal standards under which school boards that receive federal funds can be liable for damages for teacher-to-student sexual harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Gebser is one of the Supreme Court’s three rulings on sexual harassment in schools and was the second to address teacher-to-student harassment. The Court’s other case involving sexual harassment by a teacher of a student was Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992). The Court’s final case on the topic, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), addressed student-to-student sexual harassment.

Facts of the Case

Gebser was a ninth-grade student in the Lago Vista Independent School District, a public school system in Texas that received federal funds. A male teacher made sexually suggestive comments to Gebser in school and initiated sexual contact with her during a home visit. For about a half year, the teacher engaged the student in sexual relations but never on school grounds. This relationship ended when police arrested the teacher after the two were discovered having sexual relations. The board fired the teacher and sought to have his credentials revoked. At that time, the board did not have an antiharassment policy or an official grievance procedure as required by federal regulations.

The student and her mother unsuccessfully sued the school board for monetary damages under Title IX. Both a federal trial court in Texas and the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the board. On further review, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed by a 5-to-4 margin.

The Court’s Ruling

The Court held that a school board that receives federal funds cannot be liable for damages for teacher-to-student sexual harassment unless officials with the authority to correct the harassment had actual notice of, and were deliberately indifferent to, the actions of the harasser.

The majority opinion distinguished Title IX suits from Title VII claims in refusing to apply commonlaw agency principles to teacher-student harassment. The Court pointed out that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs employment discrimination, and it is applicable to staff-to-staff sexual harassment in schools. The Court explained that Title VII explicitly defines employer to include any “agent,” and it holds the employer responsible for its employees’ misconduct of sexual harassment based on the principles of respondeat superior and constructive notice. In other words, the Court ruled that a school board can be liable only if harassment is aided by a person in authority and in situations where they should have known about the behavior but failed to discover it and/or prevent it from occurring. The Court indicated that Title VII also contains an express cause of action, provides monetary damages as a remedy, and establishes the maximum amount of such damages.

In contrast, the Supreme Court majority in Gebser found that under Title IX, “agent” was not included in the definition of employer and that a private right of action was judicially implied. The Court decided that Title IX is “contractual” in nature, because based on the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Congress awards federal funds conditioned on funding recipients’ compliance with federal nondiscrimination law. When Congress does not explicitly provide a private course of action, the Court was of the opinion that its duty was to reconcile its judicial power in granting all appropriate relief with congressional purpose. The Court reasoned that Title IX focused more on protection of individuals from sexual harassment, while Title VII aimed to remedy individuals for injuries from past discrimination. Here, the Court was unable to uncover congressional intent to grant monetary damages to private parties when funding recipients are unaware of discrimination.

The Court added that the legal standards for an implied-damages remedy should be fashioned similarly to the express remedial scheme under Title IX, which requires that appropriate persons in the funding recipient have actual notice of, but demonstrate deliberate indifference to, the discrimination. The Court specified that such appropriate persons should at least have authority to take corrective action to stop discrimination. The Court concluded that since the school board’s failure to develop an antiharassment policy or a grievance procedure did not constitute actual notice or deliberate indifference, it was not liable for damages under Title IX.

The remaining four members of the Court authored two dissents in Gebser. Regarding the majority opinion as a departure from Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992), the dissent endorsed the application of agency law principles, under the belief that the school board should have been liable for damages when the teacher misused his authority in sexually harassing a student. The dissents further maintained that the board may well have been able to use an affirmative defense if it had already had a well-publicized antiharassment policy and an effective grievance procedure in place.

Ran Zhang

See also Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education; Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools; Sexual Harassment of Students by Teachers; Title VII; Title IX and Sexual Harassment

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