States Ask Supreme Court to Review Harassment Decision That Could Affect Schools' Federal Funding

States Ask Supreme Court to Review Harassment Decision That Could Affect Schools' Federal Funding
Ken Paxton, Texas attorney general, speaks during a panel discussion during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 27, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Matthew Vadum

Texas and eight other states are asking the Supreme Court to hear the University of Toledo’s appeal of a lower court ruling in a campus sexual harassment case they say threatens educational institutions with possible liability and loss of funding by the federal government.

The decision, if left undisturbed, “threatens educational institutions with significant unknown liability and loss of federal funding by not clarifying the full scope of their Title IX obligations,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said in a statement on Sept. 20.

Title IX refers to Public Law 92-318, or the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which amended four federal education-related statutes.

“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,” the legislation begins.

For its first quarter-century, Title IX enforcement aimed at equalizing the participation of the sexes in high school and college sports. But that changed in 1980, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled in Alexander v. Yale University that under Title IX, sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination.

The petition in the case, University of Toledo v. Wamer (court file 22-123), was filed with the Supreme Court on Aug. 9.
A friend-of-the-court brief was filed with the court this month by Texas, Utah, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, and South Carolina.

The case at hand “raises important questions about the scope of an educational institution’s liability under the right of action implied in Title IX,” the brief states.

The states involved in the brief say that they have “a significant role in the education of millions of students in public primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions ... [and they] have a significant—and constitutionally protected—interest in ensuring that any conditions accompanying federal education funding are clear and unambiguous.”

In March, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit found in favor of University of Toledo student Jaycee Wamer, who claimed that the Ohio-based university violated Title IX by being deliberately indifferent to her claim that she was sexually harassed by a professor.

Wamer claims she was working on a school project when a male professor placed his arm around her, touched her hair, and made inappropriate comments. The professor allegedly continued to make sexual advances toward her by text messages, and another professor helped her file a complaint with the university’s Title IX office.

The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit at the university’s request, rejecting Wamer’s claims. The 6th Circuit held the trial court erred in tossing the suit because Wamer “has sufficiently stated a claim for deliberate indifference to teacher–student harassment.”

The nine states filing the brief say the 6th Circuit made a mistake that needs to be corrected.

The implied right of action under Title IX only exposes an educational institution to liability if it possesses actual knowledge of discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex in the institution’s programs and that it remained deliberately indifferent to the discrimination, according to the brief.

But federal courts of appeal disagree on whether a school may be liable for damages related to harassment that took place before the school knew about the harassment.

Some appellate courts have held that a student has to experience further harassment for the school to incur Title IX liability, the brief states.

The Supreme Court should agree to hear the case “to resolve the circuit conflicts ... and create a single standard.”

“Clarification of the standard is critically important to the states. There are over 22,000 Title IX educational institutions serving tens of millions of students across the nation. Guidance from the court will permit the states’ institutions to understand the scope of their obligations and potential liability,” the brief states.

Wamer’s counsel of record, Kelsi Brown Corkran, didn't respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.