Federal appellate court upholds $200,000 jury verdict against Florida district for student-on-student sexual harassment

Mathis v. Wayne County Bd. of Educ., No. 11-5979 (6th Cir. Aug. 23, 2012)

Abstract: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (KY, MI, OH, TN) has upheld a jury verdict for $200,000 for the parents of two male middle school students who were sexually harassed by their basketball teammates in the school’s locker room, affirming the district court’s denial of the school board’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Having reviewed the evidence, the panel rejected WBOE’s allegation and agreed with the district court that there was ample evidence before the jury from which reasonable jurors could have concluded that WBOE’s response constituted “deliberate indifference” under Title IX, and was insufficient to provide a safe environment in this student-on-student sexual harassment case.

Facts/Issues:  In the fall of 2008, the Plaintiffs’ sons, John and James Doe, then 7th graders at Waynesboro Middle School (WMS), had made the boys’ basketball team. From the beginning of that season, players would roughhouse in the locker room, which often involved the 8th grade boys ganging up on the 7th graders. At the start of the season, a number of 8th graders subjected John and James, as well as other team members, to a game of “lights out,” which involved turning off all the lights in the locker room, and then “humping and gyrating” on the 7th graders. The 8th graders also played a game called the “blind-folded sit-up.” The prank entailed convincing James that it was impossible to do a sit-up blind-folded, so that when James came to the end of the sit-up, one of the 8th graders had placed his naked buttocks in front of James, which he hit with his blind-folded face.

On October 22 or 24, 2008, the pranks grew more aggressive when a number of 8th graders on the team grabbed John, forced him to the ground, pulled his pants down, and subjected him to a situation involving penetration of a body cavity with a marker. John did not initially report this incident to his parents or the school because he felt threatened by the 8th graders. On October 26th, Coach David Sisk learned of the “marker incident” from his step-daughter, who was also a WMS student and had heard rumors of the incident at school. Sisk spent the next few days trying to determine the accuracy of the report, but did not report the allegations to WMS Principal Ryan Keaton, John’s parents, or anyone else.

After learning of the marker incident from her son on October 29th, Plaintiff Shawnee Mathis met with Keaton to report the incident. Keaton took the report, but informed Mathis that he could not take any formal disciplinary actions until the Director of Schools, Wanda Johnston, returned from out of town. Keaton did cancel basketball practice for October 30th and 31st. When Johnston returned on October 31st, she met with Keaton, Mathis, and other school officials, and determined that there was sufficient evidence supporting John’s allegation to justify suspending the perpetrators from school for ten days. The students’ suspensions began on November 3rd, they were placed in an alternative school, and suspended from the basketball team.

On November 4th, after learning from her son James of the blind-folded sit-up and “lights out” incidents, Tammy McGuire, along with another parent, met with Keaton to discuss their concerns of locker room misconduct. McGuire asserted that Keaton was not “overly concerned” about these incidents and viewed them as just a bad prank. Keaton did punish this conduct months later through a verbal reprimand, but made no indication to McGuire that he would investigate this conduct.

From November 4th through 7th, John and James were harassed at school, including students repeatedly making comments about John’s sexuality, after learning about the marker incident. The harassment escalated to the point where McGuire removed James from WMS on November 7th, concerned for her son’s safety in light of the perceived lack of action from the district. McGuire and two other parents met with school officials to discuss the locker room incidents. WMS also issued Sisk a written reprimand for failing to report the marker incident.

On November 17th, the Disciplinary Hearing Authority (DHA), a committee comprised of high ranking school officials, met to discuss the marker incident, voting to add one day of suspension to the marker incident perpetrators and to reinstate them to the basketball team on January 1, 2009. The suspended students appealed the decision to the Wayne County Board of Education (WBOE), which changed the reinstatement date back to December 1, 2008. After this decision, Mathis removed John from WMS.

On July 14, 2009, Mathis and McGuire, on behalf of their sons, filed suit in federal court alleging that their sons were subjected to student-on-student sexual harassment. By the time the case went to trial, the only remaining claim was a Title IX count against WBOE. At the close of the Parents’ case, WBOE moved for judgment as a matter of law, which was denied. WBOE renewed its motion at the close of all evidence, but the motion was again denied. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found in favor of the Parents and awarded $100,000 each in damages. WBOE then renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial. The district court denied both motions. WBOE appealed, seeking to set aside the jury verdict.

Ruling/Rationale:  The three-judge panel affirmed the district court’s denial of WBOE’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, upholding the jury’s damages award of $200,000 for the two plaintiff students. The panel found that WBOE could not meet the high standard that WBOE had to “show that the evidence in favor of its position was so overwhelming that reasonable jurors could not have found for Mathis and McGuire.”

Under Title IX, the panel stated that a plaintiff claiming student-on-student sexual harassment must establish that (1) the sexual harassment was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it could be said to deprive the plaintiff of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school; (2) the board had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment, and (3) the board was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

WBOE’s renewed motion alleged that Mathis and McGuire failed to produce sufficient evidence of “deliberate indifference” following actual notice. The panel stated that a showing of “deliberate indifference” requires Mathis and McGuire to prove that WBOE’s response to the harassment is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.  Specifically, WBOE alleges that Mathis and McGuire failed to present evidence at trial that any sexual harassment occurred after WBOE had actual notice and, because the harassment stopped, the Plaintiffs could not demonstrate the WBOE’s response was clearly unreasonable.

The panel rejected WBOE’s allegation, and agreed with the district court that “there was ample evidence before the jury from which reasonable jurors could have concluded that WBOE’s response constituted deliberate indifference.” The panel stated that the jury could also have reasonably viewed the evidence of the marker incident as a serious incident of sexual assault, which requires a punishment more severe than an eleven-day suspension from WMS and a month-long suspension from the basketball team. The panel also agreed with the district court that “the jury could have reasonably concluded that any decision that returned the alleged perpetrators to the basketball team was clearly unreasonable, given that John Doe would be subjected to interacting with these boys in close quarters on a daily basis ….” Given the evidence at trial, therefore, the jury’s conclusion that WBOE acted with deliberate indifference as to John could reasonably have been reached.

As for James, the panel found the testimony at trial suggested that WBOE took little to no immediate action to protect James from, nor substantively investigate, the two forms of harassment he endured, and that school officials concentrated their investigation on the marker incident, not the continuing behavior that affected James. The panel found the jury could have reasonably concluded that WBOE’s remedial steps were insufficient to provide James a safe environment. As such, WBOE’s renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law cannot prevail.

Mathis v. Wayne County Bd. of Educ., No. 11-5979 (6th Cir. Aug. 23, 2012)

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