Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education

At issue in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education was whether a private person—in this instance, an athletic coach who was removed from his position when he complained about sexual discrimination against a girls’ team—could file suit under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in school programs that receive federal funds. The Supreme Court found that employees may file a private action for retaliation under Title IX, in that it constitutes a form of sexual discrimination in itself.

Insofar as Jackson was a 5-to-4 decision, some legal scholars think that it is not the final word on the issue. Even so, Jackson puts school officials on clear notice that they must comply with the requirements of Title IX when it comes to spending and support for athletics for female students. In addition, Jackson stands for the proposition that school boards may not retaliate against employees who challenge their policies and procedures under Title IX. Accordingly, school boards should examine their policies and procedures related to Title IX and do whatever is necessary to bring them into full compliance with its requirements.

Facts of the Case

Roderick Jackson was a physical education teacher and the girls’ basketball coach at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Alabama. After investigating the level of support for the boys’ basketball program, he began to complain that the girls’ program was receiving inadequate funding and did not have equal access to facilities and equipment. Eventually, he received negative evaluations about his coaching and was removed from those duties; however, he continued to be employed as a teacher.

Jackson then filed suit, claiming that the board retaliated against him for voicing his complaints under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. After a federal trial court dismissed his complaint, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed in favor of the coach.

The Court’s Ruling

In its ruling, the Supreme Court reviewed precedents related to Title IX and concluded that plaintiffs have a private right to action for damages under Title IX. The Court explained that discriminating against employees who complain about discrimination on the basis of sex (retaliation) is itself sex discrimination.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly mentions practices that constitute sexual discrimination. Title IX does not. The Court rejected the school board’s argument that Title IX does not allow an individual to initiate a private action for retaliation for alleging sexual discrimination. If the board retaliated against the plaintiff because he alleged discrimination against the girls’ program, the Court pointed out that it was discrimination covered under Title IX.

The board also argued that the plaintiff was an indirect victim of discrimination because an actual bias would have been against the girls in the basketball program, not against their coach. Although the coach was not the original subject of discrimination, the Court was convinced that retaliating against him made him a victim of discrimination. The Court found that it is important under Title IX for people to report incidents related to sexual discrimination. Title IX would have little meaning, the Court thought, if schools systems were allowed to retaliate against people who report such discrimination.

The school system further argued that because Title IX is based upon the Spending Clause of the Constitution, states were not put on notice that they could be sued for retaliating against persons who allege sexual discrimination. The Court disagreed, because previous cases of discrimination based on sex should have placed the school system on notice insofar as Title IX prohibits many diverse forms of sexual discrimination. The Court ruled that it may be much easier to establish retaliation than it is to establish deliberate indifference.

On remand, the Birmingham Board of Education reached a settlement with the plaintiff in November 2006, naming him head coach at Jackson-Olin High School with the same benefits as other head coaches. The board also agreed to level the playing field and to ensure compliance with Title IX.

Justice Thomas filed a lengthy dissenting opinion in which he was joined by three other justices. Justice Thomas argued that retaliation was not discrimination. According to Justice Thomas, the clear language of Title IX means that the discrimination has to be on the basis of the sex of the person who is alleging the discrimination. Justice Thomas also argued that the coach was alleging retaliation, which is not the same as complaining about sexual discrimination. In other words, Thomas determined that the coach was not alleging that the sexual discrimination underlying his complaint occurred. He added that the fact that Title IX does not mention retaliation is also very significant. Justice Thomas was of the opinion that the plain language of Title IX should have been analyzed, because it places a financial burden on the states.

J. Patrick Mahon

See also Sexual Harassment; Title IX and Athletics; Title IX and Sexual Harassment

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