Argued September 9, 2013
Appealed from No. 2702 of 2006. Common Pleas Court of the County of Fayette. Wagner, Jr., J.
Anthony G. Sanchez, Pittsburgh, for designated appellant Albert Gallatin School District.
Thomas W. Shaffer, Uniontown, for appellee.
BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge.
BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, Judge
Before the court are the cross-appeals of Rebecca Harden and Albert Gallatin School District from orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County disposing of post-trial motions following a jury verdict in favor of Harden and against the School District. Harden's action was based on a teacher-student sexual harassment claim under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § § 1681 - 1688 (Title IX). Common pleas granted the new trial after concluding that it had erroneously admitted irrelevant evidence that may have been highly prejudicial to the School District, thereby depriving it of a fair trial. The trial court also denied the School District's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (jnov), concluding that the issues raised therein, including whether Harden had met her burden of demonstrating that the School District had sufficient notice or knowledge of the harassment and failed to respond appropriately, were simply issues of fact for the jury rather than questions of law for the court. After review of the arguments and record, we conclude that common pleas erred in denying the motion for jnov.
For all intents and purposes, it is undisputed that in 2006, Harden was a sixteen
year old high school student in the School District, and Donald Rosie, although on sabbatical at the time, was a sixth grade teacher at the School District's middle school. Rosie also coached the girls' high school softball team until his resignation from the position in April 2005. Rosie taught Harden in sixth grade during the 2001-02 school year and the two remained in contact after Harden completed sixth grade. Between March and June of 2006, while Rosie was on sabbatical, Rosie and Harden were involved in a consensual sexual relationship, which they both kept private from others. In June 2006, the Pennsylvania State Police contacted the School District's Superintendent, Walter Vicinelly, and informed him that a parent and student made a complaint, indicating that the student was involved in a sexual relationship with one of the District's teachers; the Police did not identify the student or teacher. Shortly thereafter, Harden's mother contacted Vicinelly and informed him that her daughter, Rebecca, was sexually involved with Rosie. After meeting with Harden's mother, Vicinelly filed a report with Children and Youth Services regarding Rosie and contacted the local district attorney. Rosie was suspended without pay in August and formally terminated by the School Board in February 2007.
In October 2006, Harden, through her mother, commenced the underlying civil action against Rosie and the School District, proceeding to trial against the District on the theory that its actions violated Title IX, causing Harden harm and entitling her to monetary damages. As noted, although the jury found in favor of Harden against both defendants, common pleas granted the District's motion for a new trial. Before addressing the issues and arguments raised on appeal to this court, it is helpful to set forth the relevant statutory scheme and the elements of a Title IX claim.
Title IX provides in pertinent part that: " No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance[.]" Section 1681(a), 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Title IX is designed to prevent recipients of federal funds from using such funds in a discriminatory manner. It is now well settled that this statutory prohibition against discrimination based upon gender encompasses a teacher's sexual harassment or abuse of a student and provides the student with a private cause of action for damages against the school district. Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 277, 118 S.Ct. 1989, 141 L.Ed.2d 277 (1998). See also Bostic v. Smyrna Sch. Dist., 418 F.3d 355, 359 (3d Cir. 2005); Warren v. Reading Sch. Dist, 278 F.3d 163, 168-9 (3d Cir. 2002). However, Title IX cannot be invoked by a student to impose liability on a particular teacher or school official. Douglas v. Brookville Area Sch. Dist., 836 F.Supp.2d 329, 343 (W.D. Pa. 2011) [citing Fitzgerald v. Barnstable Sch. Comm., 555 U.S. 246, 257, 129 S.Ct. 788, 172 L.Ed.2d 582 (2009)].
In discussing the private cause of action under Title IX, the United States
Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has distinguished the cause of action under Title IX from that provided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e -- 2000e-17 (pertaining to discrimination and harassment in the workplace), noting that the two acts serve different purposes. Warren, 278 F.3d at 170. " The explicit cause of action in Title VII is intended to punish acts of discrimination, whereas the cause of action in Title IX is intended as protection for the student." Id. (citing Gebser, emphasis in original). Focusing on the concern that school districts should first be afforded the opportunity to remedy a discriminatory situation before facing penal measures, the Third Circuit observed in Warren:
[T]he Court in [ Gebser ] was therefore concerned that an implied right of private action not interfere with the opportunities for voluntary compliance built into the statutory scheme of Title IX, and administrative remedies that Congress included in the statutory scheme. Holding a school district responsible for actions of a principal [or other responsible school official] fixes responsibility at [a] sufficiently high level to afford the recipient of Title IX funds an opportunity to respond to claims of discrimination before funds are jeopardized by a teacher's conduct. It also affords an opportunity for voluntary compliance with the contractual undertakings that are part of Title IX funding.
Id. at 170-01. It also bears emphasizing that the United States Supreme Court in Gebser expressly held that a private cause of action against a school district under Title IX cannot be premised on principles of respondeat superior or constructive notice; rather, actual notice of discrimination must be demonstrated in order to prevail on a claim under Title IX. Gebser, 524 U.S. at 285. Consequently, following Gebser and its progeny, a school district may be held liable for a teacher's sexual harassment or abuse of a student only if: " (1) the school district received federal financial assistance, (2) the student was subjected to discrimination on the basis of sex, and (3) an 'appropriate person' (4) had actual notice of, and was deliberately indifferent to, the discrimination." Chancellor v. Pottsgrove Sch. Dist., 501 F.Supp.2d 695, 704 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (footnote added). See also Bostic, 418 F.3d at 360.
Regarding the specificity of knowledge required to impose liability on a school district, the federal courts have held that mere knowledge of the possibility of harassment or potential for abuse is insufficient to impose liability under Title IX. See Bostic, 418 F.3d at 360-61; Baynard v. Malone, 268 F.3d 228, 237-38 (4th Cir. 2001) [discussing standard of actual notice required by Gebser and Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629,
119 S.Ct. 1661, 143 L.Ed.2d 839 (1999)]. Rather, Title IX is violated when the district is " deliberately indifferent to known acts of teacher-student discrimination." Bostic, 418 F.3d at 361 [quoting Davis, 526 U.S. at 643 (emphasis in original)]. Moreover, if the notice of the discriminatory conduct does not involve the plaintiff, the notice provided to the school district must either involve known acts of sufficiently similar conduct to that alleged by the plaintiff or known actions that are relatively recent and sufficiently concerning that school officials are alerted to a substantial risk of danger to students.
Significantly, after construing Title IX to require school officials to possess actual notice of known acts of discrimination, the Supreme Court held in Gebser that complaints by parents to a high school principal regarding a teacher's improper sexually suggestive comments to students in the classroom were insufficient to demonstrate that school officials had the requisite ...