Ignoring Limits on Harassment Liability

Back in 1999, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court laid down a test for when sexual harassment rises to the level of “discrimination” for purposes of Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools. Recognizing the fact that students frequently insult and tease one another in ways that would be intolerable in the workplace, the court set the bar higher for plaintiffs suing schools rather than employers. Instead of having to show just that harassment was “severe or pervasive” enough to create a “hostile or offensive environment,” as employees do, students have to show that harassment was severe and pervasive enough to interfere with access to an education.

Oddly, this protection against lawsuits has been overlooked not just by some lower court judges, but also by the very schools that benefit from it. In Jennings v. University of North Carolina, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is rehearing en banc a recent panel decision which ruled 2-to-1 against a harassment claim based on inappropriate sexual discussions between a male coach and female athletes, which the plaintiff witnessed.

The panel majority argued that the conduct was not “severe or pervasive” enough to create a “hostile environment,” since the discussions were seldom aimed at the plaintiff. (Courts have typically given little weight to such “second-hand harassment”). The dissent argued that the conduct was severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile environment. The University seems not to have disputed that the “severe or pervasive” standard applied, or that the plaintiff could prevail merely by showing the existence of a “hostile environment,” even though other courts have recognized that harassment of students by school employees must be both severe and pervasive enough to interfere with access to an education.

But the standard for harassment claims against schools is more exacting, by design. In the higher education context, there are additional reasons for a more demanding standard. As Justice Kennedy observed in his dissent in the Davis case, the lower courts have repeatedly invalidated college harassment codes on First Amendment grounds. Most of the cases Justice Kennedy cited involved codes that banned speech that creates a hostile environment, much like workplace harassment law.

While a single offensive utterance doesn’t create a hostile work environment all by itself, a complainant can allege a hostile environment based on the offensive utterances of many different speakers, even if none of them individually make many offensive statements or intend to create a hostile environment. That effectively forces many employers to adopt “zero tolerance” policies banning racist or sexist speech.

By contrast, the Fourth Circuit’s own ruling in Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University, 993 F.2d 386 (4th Cir. 1993), prevented a university from prohibiting racist and sexist student speech that allegedly created a “hostile and distracting learning environment.”

Moreover, students routinely have R-rated discussions in college dorm rooms that might give rise to a sexual harassment claim under the PG-rated standards of the workplace. As the Eleventh Circuit observed in Sparks v. Pilot Freight Carriers, 830 F.2d 1554, 1561 n.13 (11th Cir. 1987), “most complaints of sexual harassment are based on actions which, although they may be permissible in some settings, are inappropriate in the workplace.”

By relying on workplace standards, the university may well lose a case it would otherwise win. As a result, colleges in the Fourth Circuit may end up having to police private sexual conversations among students in ways that are difficult to enforce, especially if the full Fourth Circuit rejects the panel’s reasoning and treats comments overheard by a plaintiff, but not aimed at her, as harassment.