High Court’s Ruling Means Colleges Face Enhanced Risk Associated with Gender Discrimination

Feb 27, 2009

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that individuals alleging gender discrimination against a school can take an additional legal path when pursuing their claim. Notably, the court ruled the plaintiffs can pursue a claim under Section 1983, which enforces the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, in addition to the more common route of filing a claim under Title IX.
The ruling may mean more exposure for schools and their athletic departments, where gender discrimination claims have become something of a fixture.
In the latest ruling, the high court was reviewing a decision by the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that lawsuits filed under Title IX could not also include claims under Section 1983.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that the two statutes were not mutually exclusive because each offers different protections and penalties.
“Because Title IX’s protections are narrower in some respects and broader in others than those guaranteed under the equal-protection clause, the court cannot agree with the First Circuit that Congress saw Title IX as the sole means of correcting unconstitutional gender discrimination in schools,” Justice Alito wrote.
In sum, the court found that Title IX was not meant to be an exclusive mechanism for addressing gender discrimination in schools, nor a substitute for §1983 suits as a means of enforcing constitutional rights.
The suit surfaced when a kindergarten student in Massachusetts, Jacqueline Fitzgerald, informed her parents that an older elementary school student was sexually harassing her on their school bus. Dissatisfied with the school’s efforts to remedy the alleged problem, the parents sued the Barnstable School Committee and the superintendent, under Title IX for peer sexual harassment and under §1983 for violating Jacqueline’s Title IX and equal protection rights. The district court dismissed the claims, and the First Circuit affirmed.
Fitzgerald v. Barnstable Sch. Comm.; U.S.; No. 07-1125; 1/21/09)


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