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General Counsel’s Corner: Title IX Update [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (Fourth Quarter 2013)]

Author: Michael L. Buckner, Esquire (Shareholder)

Minnis v. Bd. of Supervisors of La. State Univ., Case No. 3:2013cv00005 (M.D. La., Sept. 18, 2013): In a September 17, 2013, ruling and order to resolve the defendants’ motions to dismiss a complaint, a federal district court declined to permit a plaintiff’s assertion of punitive damages when the Court determined the complaint could “be read to seek punitive damages under Title IX.” The case involved a plaintiff, Anthony Minnis ("Minnis"), who filed a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University ("LSU") and university administrators after he was terminated from his position as women's tennis coach. Minnis alleged various claims: impairment of contract on the basis of race in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1981; various claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, including violations of Minnis’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal constitution. Minnis’ complaint included a claim for punitive damages “pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” However, the Court held if “Minnis seeks punitive damages under Title IX” then “such damages are not allowed. Title IX is modeled after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and interpreted and applied in the same manner. Recipients of federal funding under Title VI ‘have not, merely by accepting funds, implicitly consented to liability for punitive damages.’ Therefore, punitive damages are also not available in private action brought to enforce Title IX” (internal citations omitted).

Butler v. Mountain View Sch. Dist., Case No. 3:12-CV-2038 (M.D. Pa., Aug. 26, 2013): In an August 26, 2013, memorandum order granting the defendant's motion to dismiss, a federal district court ruled a plaintiff is not required to provide detailed factual support for its allegations for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, but the allegations must amount to more than mere conclusory allegations. The case included a Title IX claim asserted by the plaintiff, Jeffrey Butler, as administrator of the estate of deceased student Aleshia Butler, against the student's school district, Mountain View School District. In analyzing the motion to dismiss, the Court reviewed the plaintiff’s allegation that bullying by a female student amounted to "gender-based harassment." The Court opined sexual harassment must be both viewed subjectively as harassing by the victim and be objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that it is harassment. The Court noted “mere gender-based taunting does not rise to the level of sexual harassment.” Thus, whether gender-oriented conduct rises to the level of actionable harassment "depends on a constellation of surrounding circumstances, expectations, and relationships, including, but not limited to, the ages of the harasser and the victim and the number of individuals involved.” Further, the Court determined although a plaintiff is not required to provide detailed factual support for his or her allegations for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's allegations must amount to more than mere conclusory allegations. Accordingly, the Court ruled “the unsupported allegations of bullying by one other female student, presumably of close to the same age as the female decedent, does not, on its face, suffice to allege a sexual harassment claim as a matter of law” against the school district.

Contact Michael L. Buckner (954-941-1844; mbuckner@bucknersportslaw.com) for additional information on Title IX and gender-equity issues.