DAVIS v. MONROE COUNTY BD. OF ED.
NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
DAVIS, as next friend of LaSHONDA D. v. MONROE COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION et al.
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit
Petitioner filed suit against respondents, a county school board (Board) and school officials, seeking damages for the sexual harassment of her daughter LaShonda by G. F., a fifth-grade classmate at a public elementary school. Among other things, petitioner alleged that respondents' deliberate indifference to G. F.'s persistent sexual advances toward LaShonda created an intimidating, hostile, offensive, and abusive school environment that violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which, in relevant part, prohibits a student from being "excluded from participation in, be[ing] denied the benefits of, or be[ing] subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance," 20 U. S. C. §1681(a). In granting respondents' motion to dismiss, the Federal District Court found that "student-on-student," or peer, harassment provides no ground for a Title IX private cause of action for damages. The en banc Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
1. A private Title IX damages action may lie against a school board in cases of student-on-student harassment, but only where the funding recipient is deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment, of which the recipient has actual knowledge, and that harassment is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school. Pp. 7-22.
(a) An implied private right of action for money damages exists under Title IX, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'Connor
DAVIS v. MONROE COUNTY BD. OF ED.
On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit
Petitioner brought suit against the Monroe County Board of Education and other defendants, alleging that her fifth-grade daughter had been the victim of sexual harassment by another student in her class. Among petitioner's claims was a claim for monetary and injunctive relief under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), 86 Stat. 373, as amended, 20 U. S. C. §1681 et seq. The District Court dismissed petitioner's Title IX claim on the ground that "student-on-student," or peer, harassment provides no ground for a private cause of action under the statute. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, sitting en banc, affirmed. We consider here whether a private damages action may lie against the school board in cases of student-on-student harassment. We conclude that it may, but only where the funding recipient acts with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment in its programs or activities. Moreover, we conclude that such an action will lie only for harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim's access to an educational opportunity or benefit.
Petitioner's Title IX claim was dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Accordingly, in reviewing the legal sufficiency of petitioner's cause of action, "we must assume the truth of the material facts as alleged in the complaint." Summit Health, Ltd. v. Pinhas, 500 U. S. 322, 325 (1991).
Petitioner's minor daughter, LaShonda, was allegedly the victim of a prolonged pattern of sexual harassment by one of her fifth-grade classmates at Hubbard Elementary School, a public school in Monroe County, Georgia. According to petitioner's complaint, the harassment began in December 1992, when the classmate, G. F., attempted to touch LaShonda's breasts and genital area and made vulgar statements such as " `I want to get in bed with you' " and " `I want to feel your boobs.' " Complaint ¶ ;7. Similar conduct allegedly occurred on or about January 4 and January 20, 1993. Ibid. LaShonda reported each of these incidents to her mother and to her classroom teacher, Diane Fort. Ibid. Petitioner, in turn, also contacted Fort, who allegedly assured petitioner that the school principal, Bill Querry, had been informed of the incidents. Ibid. Petitioner contends that, notwithstanding these reports, no disciplinary action was taken against G. F. Id., ¶ ;16.
G. F.'s conduct allegedly continued for many months. In early February, G. F. purportedly placed a door stop in his pants and proceeded to act in a sexually suggestive manner toward LaShonda during physical education class. Id., ¶ ;8. LaShonda reported G. F.'s behavior to her physical education teacher, Whit Maples. Ibid. Approximately one week later, G. F. again allegedly engaged in harassing behavior, this time while under the supervision of another classroom teacher, Joyce Pippin. Id., ¶ ;9. Again, LaShonda allegedly reported the incident to the teacher, and again petitioner contacted the teacher to follow up. Ibid.
Petitioner alleges that G. F. once more directed sexually harassing conduct toward LaShonda in physical education class in early March, and that LaShonda reported the incident to both Maples and Pippen. Id., ¶ ;10. In mid-April 1993, G. F. allegedly rubbed his body against LaShonda in the school hallway in what LaShonda considered a sexually suggestive manner, and LaShonda again reported the matter to Fort. Id., ¶ ;11.
The string of incidents finally ended in mid-May, when G. F. was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, sexual battery for his misconduct. Id., ¶ ;14. The complaint alleges that LaShonda had suffered during the months of harassment, however; specifically, her previously high grades allegedly dropped as she became unable to concentrate on her studies, id., ¶ ;15, and, in April 1993, her father discovered that she had written a suicide note, ibid. The complaint further alleges that, at one point, LaShonda told petitioner that she " `didn't know how much longer she could keep [G. F.] off her.' " Id., ¶ ;12.
Nor was LaShonda G. F.'s only victim; it is alleged that other girls in the class fell prey to G. F.'s conduct. Id., ¶ ;16. At one point, in fact, a group composed of LaShonda and other female students tried to speak with Principal Querry about G. F.'s behavior. Id., ¶ ;10. According to the complaint, however, a teacher denied the students' request with the statement, " `If [Querry] wants you, he'll call you.' " Ibid.
Petitioner alleges that no disciplinary action was taken in response to G. F.'s behavior toward LaShonda. Id., ¶ ;16. In addition to her conversations with Fort and Pippen, petitioner alleges that she spoke with Principal Querry in mid-May 1993. When petitioner inquired as to what action the school intended to take against G. F., Querry simply stated, " `I guess I'll have to threaten him a little bit harder.' " Id., ¶ ;12. Yet, petitioner alleges, at no point during the many months of his reported misconduct was G. F. disciplined for harassment. Id., ¶ ;16. Indeed, Querry allegedly asked petitioner why LaShonda " `was the only one complaining.' " Id., ¶ ;12.
Nor, according to the complaint, was any effort made to separate G. F. and LaShonda. Id., ¶ ;16. On the contrary, notwithstanding LaShonda's frequent complaints, only after more than three months of reported harassment was she even permitted to change her classroom seat so that she was no longer seated next to G. F. Id., ¶ ;13. Moreover, petitioner alleges that, at the time of the events in question, the Monroe County Board of Education (Board) had not instructed its personnel on how to respond to peer sexual harassment and had not established a policy on the issue. Id., ¶ ;17.
On May 4, 1994, petitioner filed suit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia against the Board, Charles Dumas, the school district's superintendent, and Principal Querry. The complaint alleged that the Board is a recipient of federal funding for purposes of Title IX, that "[t]he persistent sexual advances and harassment by the student G. F. upon [LaShonda] interfered with her ability to attend school and perform her studies and activities," and that "[t]he deliberate indifference by Defendants to the unwelcome sexual advances of a student upon LaShonda created an intimidating, hostile, offensive and abus[ive] school environment in violation of Title IX." Id., ¶ ;¶ ;27, 28. The complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages, attorney's fees, and injunctive relief. Id., ¶ ;32.
The defendants (all respondents here) moved to dismiss petitioner's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and the District Court granted respondents' motion. See 862 F. Supp. 363, 368 (MD Ga. 1994). With regard to petitioner's claims under Title IX, the court dismissed the claims against individual defendants on the ground that only federally funded educational institutions are subject to liability in private causes of action under Title IX. Id., at 367. As for the Board, the court concluded that Title IX provided no basis for liability absent an allegation "that the Board or an employee of the Board had any role in the harassment." Ibid.
Petitioner appealed the District Court's decision dismissing her Title IX claim against the Board, and a panel of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed. 74 F.3d 1186, 1195 (1996). Borrowing from Title VII law, a majority of the panel determined that student-on-student harassment stated a cause of action against the Board under Title IX: "[W]e conclude that as Title VII encompasses a claim for damages due to a sexually hostile working environment created by co-workers and tolerated by the employer, Title IX encompasses a claim for damages due to a sexually hostile educational environment created by a fellow student or students when the supervising authorities knowingly fail to act to eliminate the harassment." Id., at 1193. The Eleventh Circuit panel recognized that petitioner sought to state a claim based on school "officials' failure to take action to stop the offensive acts of those over whom the officials exercised control," ibid., and the court concluded that petitioner had alleged facts sufficient to support a claim for hostile environment sexual harassment on this theory, id., at 1195.
The Eleventh Circuit granted the Board's motion for rehearing en banc, 91 F. 3d 1418 (1996), and affirmed the District Court's decision to dismiss petitioner's Title IX claim against the Board, 120 F. 3d 1390 (1998). The en banc court relied, primarily, on the theory that Title IX was passed pursuant to Congress' legislative authority under the Constitution's Spending Clause, U. S. Const., Art I, §8, cl. 1, and that the statute therefore must provide potential recipients of federal education funding with "unambiguous notice of the conditions they are assuming when they accept" it. 120 F. 3d, at 1399. Title IX, the court reasoned, provides recipients with notice that they must stop their employees from engaging in discriminatory conduct, but the statute fails to provide a recipient with sufficient notice of a duty to prevent student-on-student harassment. Id., at 1401.
Writing in Dissent, four Judges urged that the statute, by declining to identify the perpetrator of discrimination, encompasses misconduct by third parties: "The identity of the perpetrator is simply irrelevant under the language" of the statute. Id., at 1412 (Barkett, J., Dissenting). The plain language, the Dissenters reasoned, also provides recipients with sufficient notice that a failure to respond to student-on-student harassment could trigger liability for the district. Id., at 1414.
We granted certiorari, 524 U. S. ____ (1998), in order to resolve a conflict in the Circuits over whether, and under what circumstances, a recipient of federal educational funds can be liable in a private damages action arising from student-on-student sexual harassment, compare 120 F. 3d 1390 (CA11 1998) (case below), and Rowinsky v. Bryan Independent School Dist., 80 F. 3d 1006, 1008 (CA5) (holding that private damages action for student-on-student harassment is available under Title IX only where funding recipient responds to these claims differently based on gender of victim), cert. denied, 519 U. S. 861 (1996), with Doe v. University of Illinois, 138 F. 3d 653, 668 (CA7 1998) (upholding private damages action under Title IX for funding recipient's inadequate response to known student-on-student harassment), cert. pending, No. 98-126, Brzonkala v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 132 F. 3d 949, 960-961 (CA4 1997) (same), vacated and District Court decision affirmed en banc, 169 F. 3d 820 (CA4 1999) (not addressing merits of Title IX hostile environment sexual harassment claim and directing District Court to hold this claim in abeyance pending this Court's decision in the instant case), and Oona, R. S. v. McCaffrey, 143 F. 3d 473, 478 (CA9 1998) (rejecting qualified immunity claim and concluding that Title IX duty to respond to student-on-student harassment was clearly established by 1992-1993), cert. pending, No. 98-101. We now reverse.
Title IX provides, with certain exceptions not at issue here, that
"[n]o 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." 20 U. S. C. §1681(a).
Congress authorized an administrative enforcement scheme for Title IX. Federal departments or agencies with the authority to provide financial assistance are entrusted to promulgate rules, regulations, and orders to enforce the objectives of §1681, see §1682, and these departments or agencies may rely on "any . . . means authorized by law," including the termination of funding, ibid., to give effect to the statute's restrictions.
There is no dispute here that the Board is a recipient of federal education funding for Title IX purposes. 74 F. 3d, at 1189. Nor do respondents support an argument that student-on-student harassment cannot rise to the level of "discrimination" for purposes of Title IX. Rather, at issue here is the question whether a recipient of federal education funding may be liable for damages under Title IX under any circumstances for discrimination in the form of student-on-student sexual harassment.
Petitioner urges that Title IX's plain language compels the Conclusion that the statute is intended to bar recipients of federal funding from permitting this form of discrimination in their programs or activities. She emphasizes that the statute prohibits a student from being "subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 20 U. S. C. §1681 (emphasis supplied). It is Title IX's "unmistakable focus on the benefited class," Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U. S. 677, 691 (1979), rather than the perpetrator, that, in petitioner's view, compels the Conclusion that the statute works to protect students from the discriminatory misconduct of their peers.
Here, however, we are asked to do more than define the scope of the behavior that Title IX proscribes. We must determine whether a district's failure to respond to student-on-student harassment in its schools can support a private suit for money damages. See Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., 524 U. S. 274, 283 (1998) ("In this case, . . . petitioners seek not just to establish a Title IX violation but to recover damages . . ."). This Court has indeed recognized an implied private right of action under Title IX, see Cannon v. University of Chicago, supra, and we have held that money damages are available in such suits, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U. S. 60 (1992). Because we have repeatedly treated Title IX as legislation enacted pursuant to Congress' authority under the Spending Clause, however, see, e.g., Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., supra, at 287 (Title IX); Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, supra, at 74-75, and n. 8 (Title IX); see also Guardians Assn. v. Civil Serv. Comm'n of New York City, 463 U. S. 582, 598-599 (1983) (opinion of White, J.) (Title VI), private damages actions are available only where recipients of federal funding had adequate notice that they could be liable for the conduct at issue. When Congress acts pursuant to its spending power, it generates legislation "much in the nature of a contract: in return for federal funds, the States agree to comply with federally imposed conditions." Pennhurst State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 451 U. S. 1, 17 (1981). In interpreting language in spending legislation, we thus "insis[t] that Congress speak with a clear voice," recognizing that "[t]here can, of course, be no knowing acceptance [of the terms of the putative contract] if a State is unaware of the conditions [imposed by the legislation] or is unable to ascertain what is expected of it." Ibid.; see also id., at 24-25.
Invoking Pennhurst, respondents urge that Title IX provides no notice that recipients of federal educational funds could be liable in damages for harm arising from student-on-student harassment. Respondents contend, specifically, that the statute only proscribes misconduct by grant recipients, not third parties. Respondents argue, moreover, that it would be contrary to the very purpose of Spending Clause legislation to impose liability on a funding recipient for the misconduct of third parties, over whom recipients exercise little control. See also Rowinsky v. Bryan Independent School Dist., 80 F. 3d, at 1013.
We agree with respondents that a recipient of federal funds may be liable in damages under Title IX only for its own misconduct. The recipient itself must "exclud[e] [persons] from participation in, . . . den[y] [persons] the benefits of, or . . . subjec[t] [persons] to discrimination under" its "program[s] or activit[ies]" in order to be liable under Title IX. The Government's enforcement power may only be exercised against the funding recipient, see §1682, and we have not extended damages liability under Title IX to parties outside the scope of this power. See National Collegiate Athletic Assn. v. Smith, 525 U. S. ___, ___, n. 5 (1999) (slip op., at 7, n. 5) (rejecting suggestion "that the private right of action available under . . . §1681(a) is potentially broader than the Government's enforcement authority"); cf. Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., supra, at 289 ("It would be unsound, we think, for a statute's express system of enforcement to require notice to the recipient and an opportunity to come into voluntary compliance while a judicially implied system of enforcement permits substantial liability without regard to the recipient's knowledge or its corrective actions upon receiving notice").
We disagree with respondents' assertion, however, that petitioner seeks to hold the Board liable for G. F.'s actions instead of its own. Here, petitioner attempts to hold the Board liable for its own decision to remain idle in the face of known student-on-student harassment in its schools. In Gebser, we concluded that a recipient of federal education funds may be liable in damages under Title IX where it is deliberately indifferent to known acts of sexual harassment by a teacher. In that case, a teacher had entered into a sexual relationship with an eighth grade student, and the student sought damages under Title IX for the teacher's misconduct. We recognized that the scope of liability in private damages actions under Title IX is circumscribed by Pennhurst's requirement that funding recipients have notice of their potential liability. 524 U. S., at 287-288. Invoking Pennhurst, Guardians Assn., and Franklin, in Gebser we once again required " that `the receiving entity of federal funds [have] notice that it will be liable for a monetary award' " before subjecting it to damages liability. Id., at 287 (quoting Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U. S., at 74). We also recognized, however, that this limitation on private damages actions is not a bar to liability where a funding recipient intentionally violates the statute. Id., at 74-75; see also Guardians Assn. v. Civil Serv. Comm'n of New York City, supra, at 597-598 (opinion of White, J.) (same with respect to Title VI). In particular, we concluded that Pennhurst does not bar a private damages action under Title IX where the funding recipient engages in intentional conduct that violates the clear terms of the statute.
Accordingly, we rejected the use of agency principles to impute liability to the district for the misconduct of its teachers. 524 U. S., at 283. Likewise, we declined the invitation to impose liability under what amounted to a negligence standard -- holding the district liable for its failure to react to teacher-student harassment of which it knew or should have known. Ibid. Rather, we concluded that the district could be liable for damages only where the district itself intentionally acted in clear violation of Title IX by remaining deliberately indifferent to acts of teacher-student harassment of which it had actual knowledge. Id., at 290. Contrary to the Dissent's suggestion, the misconduct of the teacher in Gebser was not "treated as the grant recipient's actions." Post, at 8. Liability arose, rather, from "an official decision by the recipient not to remedy the violation." Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., supra, at 290. By employing the "deliberate indifference" theory already used to establish municipal liability under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, see Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School Dist., supra, at 290-291 (citing Board of Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U. S. 397 (1997), and Canton v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378 (1989)), we concluded in Gebser that recipients could be liable in damages only where their own deliberate indifference effectively "cause[d]" the discrimination, 524 U. S., at 291; see also Canton v. Harris, supra, at 385 (recognizing that a municipality will be liable under §1983 only if "the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue" (emphasis in original)). The high standard imposed in Gebser sought to eliminate any "risk that the recipient would be liable in damages not for its own official decision but instead for its employees' independent actions." 524 U. S., at 290-291.
Gebser thus established that a recipient intentionally violates Title IX, and is subject to a private damages action, where the recipient is deliberately indifferent to known acts of teacher-student discrimination. Indeed, whether viewed as "discrimination" or "subject[ing]" students to discrimination, Title IX "[u]nquestionably . . . placed on [the Board] the duty not" to permit teacher-student harassment in its schools, Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, supra, at 75, and recipients violate Title IX's plain terms when they remain deliberately indifferent to this form of misconduct.
We consider here whether the misconduct identified in Gebser -- deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment -- amounts to an intentional violation of Title IX, capable of supporting a private damages action, when the harasser is a student rather than a teacher. We conclude that, in certain limited circumstances, it does. As an initial matter, in Gebser we expressly rejected the use of agency principles in the Title IX context, noting the textual differences between Title IX and Title VII. 524 U. S., at 283; cf. Faragher v. Boca Raton, 524 U. S. 775, 791-792 (1998) (invoking agency principles on ground that definition of "employer" in Title VII includes agents of employer); Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U. S. 57, 72 (1986) (same). Additionally, the regulatory scheme surrounding Title IX has long provided funding recipients with notice that they may be liable for their failure to respond to the discriminatory acts of certain non-agents. The Department of Education requires recipients to monitor third ...