A California school district recently sought to have Title IX and related claims against it dismissed. The plaintiff was a high school student who filed suit through his guardian ad litem against the school district, several individually named administrators and athletics personnel, and unnamed “Doe” defendants. The defendants filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss and asked the court to strike the plaintiff’s request for punitive damages.
In reviewing a 12(b)(6) motion, the court considers whether the plaintiff has stated a legally sufficient claim. The court’s review is therefore limited to the complaint.
According to the court’s order, a student recorded a Snapchat video of the plaintiff and his girlfriend in a classroom. The school administrators claimed this video showed the pair engaged in a sexual act, but the plaintiff denied that there had been any sexual activity. A vice principal interviewed other students who said there had been sexual activity and subsequently suspended the plaintiff for three days on December 19.
The plaintiff’s parental guardians met with the vice principal on December 21. The complaint alleged the vice principal showed them the video but would not give them a copy. He only interviewed four students, when twenty students had been in the classroom. He did not let the plaintiff or his guardians see the witness statements or cross-examine the witnesses. Despite multiple meetings, the school refused to provide witness names, witness statements, or a copy of the video. The school also refused to expunge the suspension.
The plaintiff alleged the defendants violated his procedural due process rights. He claimed the defendants violated Title IX and discriminated against him based on sex and race. He alleged other students and even teachers harassed him because of the video and the suspension. He claimed he was kicked off the basketball team as a result of the suspension, but his girlfriend stayed on the basketball team. The complaint alleged the school did not discipline the students and teachers who harassed him or the student who posted the video.
Procedural Due Process
The plaintiff alleged the school defendants violated his procedural due process rights by using improper procedures. The defendants argued that the plaintiff was given sufficient procedural due process before he was suspended. They also argued he did not have a protected interest in participating in school basketball. Finally, the argued he did not sufficiently plead causation or personal involvement of the defendants.
The defendants argued they notified the plaintiff of the suspension and provided the reasons before the suspension. They claimed they gave him a chance to tell his version of events “within a reasonable time after the imposition of the suspension.” The plaintiff argued, however, that due process required the hearing to occur before the suspension took effect.
Case law has held that even temporary suspension from public education is deprives a student of a protected property interest. The U.S. Supreme Court has held a student facing suspension must be given notice and a hearing. The hearing does not have to be formal, but should generally occur before the suspension takes effect. Pursuant to 9th Circuit case law, if the student denies the charges against him, he must be given an explanation of the evidence and a chance to give his side of the story. The notice and hearing may happen after the suspension if the student is a danger to other people or property or a threat of disruption.
The court noted that the first hearing occurred after the plaintiff had been out of school for two days. There was nothing in the complaint to suggest that immediate removal was warranted. The court found there were sufficient allegations in the complaint for the procedural due process claim to proceed.
The defendants argued there is not a recognized liberty or property interest in participation in school athletics. The court noted that property rights are determined based on state law and California case law has held that there is not a protectable interest in school athletics participation. The court therefore dismissed the due process claim as to removal from the basketball team.
The court dismissed any disparate treatment Title IX claim based on the allegation that the plaintiff was removed from the basketball team while his girlfriend was allowed to stay on the team. The defendants argued the allegations failed to state a valid claim because they did not state how the school district had notice of or participated in the decision. The plaintiff had not responded to the defendant’s argument, so the court dismissed the disparate treatment Title IX claim.
A school may be liable for a Title IX sexual harassment claim if it acted with “deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment. . .” Davis Next Friend LaShonda D. v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ. Deliberate indifference occurs when the school has actual notice or knowledge of harassment and acts in a “clearly unreasonable” manner under the circumstances. The harassment must be severe, pervasive, and offensive enough to “effectively [bar] the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”
The defendants argued the plaintiff’s complaint did not allege facts that showed the school district had notice of the alleged harassment. The complaint stated, however, that the plaintiff’s guardians met with several members of the administration and reported the comment made by a baseball coach. The complaint also alleged the plaintiff’s parents and grandparents talked about the alleged harassment in several meetings. The complaint also alleged that the school did not take disciplinary action against the alleged harassers.
Taken as true, the complaint sufficiently pled actual notice of the harassment. The allegations of actual notice and the decision not to take any remedial action was sufficient to plead deliberate indifference.
The defendants also argued the plaintiff failed to allege there was severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment. The court noted, however, that the complaint alleged the plaintiff faced ongoing harassment from December 2018 to the end of May 2019. The complaint alleged that the school falsely accused the plaintiff of engaging in sexual activity based on the video and that one of the coaches made a sexual comment regarding the plaintiff. There were not details regarding other incidents of alleged harassment. The court concluded that the allegations did not provide sufficient details for the court to determine if the alleged harassment was objectively offensive to the extent it barred the plaintiff from participating in the school’s educational programs. The court concluded the two described incidents were not sufficient to show pervasive conduct. The court dismissed the Title IX claim.
The court struck the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim. Additionally, the court dismissed the procedural due process claims against some of the individual defendants.
The court dismissed the procedural due process claim based on his removal from the basketball team and his racial discrimination claim without leave to amend. The court granted the plaintiff leave to amend the dismissed procedural due process claims against certain individual defendants, the disparate treatment Title IX claim, and the sexual harassment Title IX claim.
Contact a Knowledgeable Title IX Defense Attorney
This case is interesting because the plaintiff alleged both a due process claim and a sexual harassment claim for conduct following the incident that led to his disciplinary action. He will need to amend his complaint to proceed. If your child has been accused of any type of sexual misconduct at school, you should promptly seek the guidance of a skilled Washington Title IX defense attorney. Schools may not be aware of or comply with their due process requirements. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.