5.31.05

The United States Supreme Court on March 29, 2005 in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education held that a high school girls basketball coach who was given negative evaluations and then removed from his coaching duties after he complained that the girl’s team was not given adequate funding, equipment and facilities, can sue under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal funds. The law essentially provides that female students must have equal opportunities to participate in educational programs, including participation in athletics programs. The law can apply to educational institutions from elementary schools to colleges and universities. Title IX is probably best known for its impact on women’s athletics, especially at the college and university level.

Roderick Jackson coached girls’ basketball at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Shortly after transferring to Ensley High, he learned that the girls’ team was not receiving the same level of support and funding as the boys’ team. This lack of equipment, funding and facilities made it difficult for Jackson to effectively coach his team so he began complaining to the school about the unequal treatment. His complaints went unanswered. However, after complaining, he began receiving negative evaluations and was removed from his coaching duties. Although still employed as a physical education teacher, Mr. Jackson filed suit in federal court alleging that the Board of Education violated Title IX by retaliating against him for complaining about the unequal treatment.

The Board of Education successfully moved to dismiss his claim arguing that a private cause of action alleging retaliation could not be brought under Title IX. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, leading Mr. Jackson to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 decision, held that Mr. Jackson could assert a retaliation claim under Title IX against the Board of Education. The Court noted that its past decisions allowed for private lawsuits to enforce Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination in education and had provided for monetary damages for Title IX violations. The Court construed the law’s prohibition on “discrimination on the basis of sex” broadly to conclude that retaliation against a person who complained of sex discrimination is another form of intentional sex discrimination. In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Thomas, on behalf of the minority, argued that it was commonsense that a claim of retaliation is not a claim of sex discrimination. He further used Title VII principles in an attempt to distinguish Mr. Jackson’s retaliation claim from a sex discrimination claim. The dissent further argued that whistleblowers should not be given protection unless Congress specifically authorizes such protection in the law and noted, for example, that Title VII provides protection from sex discrimination and retaliation separately.

Nonetheless, the majority of the Court concluded that when an educational program subject to Title IX retaliations against a person because he or she complains of sex discrimination, such constitutes intentional discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. To prevail at trial, Mr. Jackson will have to prove that the Board of Education retaliated against him because he complained of sex discrimination.

As a result of this ruling, educational programs receiving federal funds should be aware that they now can be sued for compensatory and punitive damages by employees who complain of sex discrimination under Title IX. For further information on the Jackson decision or on whistleblower protections under Title IX and other state and federal laws, contact your Constany attorney or Jonathan W. Yarbrough at jyarbrough@constangy.com or call (828) 277-5137. 

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