SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE CLASSROOM: The Student Who Sued Her Professor For Calling Her "Monica Lewinsky"
By JOANNA GROSSMAN
Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2001
Inbal Hayut then a student at the State University of New York at New Paltz alleges that her professor called her "Monica Lewinsky" in front of the class, at the same time that the real Monica was making headlines for her salacious relationship with Bill Clinton. She also alleges that the professor made comments in the classroom such as "How was your weekend with Bill?" and "Shut up, Monica. I'll give you a cigar later."
Based on these allegations, Hayut has sued Professor Alex Young, his supervisors, and the University that employed them bringing claims pursuant to both Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a federal statute that provides a monetary remedy for deprivations of federal constitutional and statutory rights.
Last month, a federal district court permitted Hayut to go forward with her Title IX claims against the university and her Section 1983 claims against the individual defendants. Her case illustrates interesting issues about how the law addresses claims of teacher-student harassment.
Title IX and Sexual Harassment
Title IX prohibits schools that receive any federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of sex, and sexual harassment is one form of intentional sex discrimination. To win a sexual harassment suit under Title IX, Hayut must prove both that she suffered actionable harassment, and that someone can be held liable for it.
Hayut's theory of sexual harassment is that Young created a hostile educational environment. To prevail on this theory, she needs first to prove that she was subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct. Assuming the facts are as she claims, that should be straightforward.
Moreover, if Hayut's allegations are true, those comments were clearly unwelcome. Hayut says that she never gave any indication that she thought the professor's comments were funny or appropriate, and that she eventually asked him to stop. (The "unwelcomeness" requirement possibly could have been subject to legitimate debate had there, for example, been a teacher-student sexual relationship, but no one claims that happened here.)
To establish a "hostile environment," Hayut must also prove that Young's conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her learning environment. One incident of unwelcome physical contact is usually sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment, but most courts require mere verbal conduct to be a recurring problem.
Here, the conduct is alleged to have continued throughout the semester, and to have occurred in front of Hayut's classmates. Those allegations, if proven, will be helpful in providing severity or pervasiveness as is the fact that Hayut was majoring in the subject the professor taught but they will still not be dispositive.
Supervisory and Institutional Liability: Is There A Proper Defendant?
Proving actionable harassment is only half the battleHayut must also prove that someone can be held responsible for it. Hayut is going after Young, his supervisors, and the university. But liability rules are different for individuals and educational institutions, and in any case can be quite complicated.
Most courts, for example, agree that individuals cannot be held liable under Title IX, and the federal district court in Hayut's case accordingly dismissed those claims. Schools, however, can be held liable under Title IX, and thus Hayut's claims against the university still stand.
Prior to 1998, most courts found schools automatically liable for teacher-student harassment, on the theory that teachers are agents of the school. But in 1998, the Supreme Court, in Gebser v. Lago-Vista Independent School District, imposed a much more stringent standard of liability. There, the Court ruled that educational institutions can only be forced to pay damages for teacher-student harassment when school officials with the capacity to stop the harassment had actual notice of the harassment and responded with deliberate indifference.
Gebser, therefore, makes it exceedingly difficult for students to hold schools liable for teacher-student harassment. Such a high standard is unfortunate given the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools at all levels and the devastating impact it can have on its victims. To prevail on her claim against the university, Hayut needs to prove that she gave actual notice of the harassment to someone with the power to stop it, and that that person (or other officials) were deliberately indifferent to her complaint.
Hayut alleges that she first asked the offending professor to stop, and then complained to an associate dean about the comments. The associate dean, in turn, referred her to the chair of the political science department. She went to see the chair, told his staff of the reason for her visit, and waited for an hour, but never actually spoke to him.
Still, given Gebser's tough standards, the success of her case is anything but a sure thing. If the university can show that the dean did not have the requisite authority, and that Hayut never gave notice of her complaint to anyone who did have such authority, then the university may avoid liability.
Section 1983 and Sexual Harassment
Hayut also filed suit under Section 1983, a statute that permits the enforcement of other federal statutory and constitutional rights, by ensuring that plaintiffs may receive damages if these rights are violated. Hayut is trying to use Section 1983 to enforce her rights under both Title IX and, because the university is a state institution, the federal Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
One of the benefits of using Section 1983 in a situation like Hayut's is that it may be easier to hold supervisors liable for the harasser's misconduct than under Title IX so that the same claims may have a higher likelihood of success if brought under Section 1983 rather than directly under Title IX. The Supreme Court, however, has never decided whether a plaintiff may concurrently pursue claims under both Title IX and Section 1983, if they are based on the same underlying conduct.
Most of the lower courts to address the question have held that Section 1983 cannot be used to enforce Title IX directly. They have reasoned that Title IX itself supplies a sufficiently comprehensive remedial scheme, and thus the extra damages remedy that Section 1983 would add is unnecessary.
Courts also generally agree that because Title IX does not permit individual liability, the existence of Title IX (a remedy against institutions alone) cannot possibly extinguish Section 1983 equal protection claims against individuals. As a result, Hayut's Section 1983 equal protection claims against her professor and his supervisors have been allowed to proceed.
But courts have split on whether, in a teacher-student case in which Title IX claims are brought, an institution can concurrently be sued under Section 1983 to enforce equal protection rights. Some courts have said yes. But some courts including the Hayut court have said no. They have reasoned that since plaintiffs can sue institutions under Title IX, they need not also sue them under Section 1983 and the equal protection clause.
These latter decisions are poorly reasoned: How can a statutory remedy extinguish a constitutional right? Nevertheless, they will govern Hayut's case as it proceeds to trial, limiting her to bringing only Title IX claims, but no Section 1983 claims, against the university.
What We Can Learn From Hayut
Second, victims of sexual harassment may possess a second avenue of attack, at least with respect to individual professors alleged to be harassers: an equal protection claim enforced through Section 1983. But that is an option only for students attending state universities. For them, using Section 1983 may mean they can redress their complaints without meeting the heightened liability standards of Title IX, and thus more easily obtain compensation for harassment.
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