Court rules Title IX covers whistle-blower
Ala. coach, fired after gender bias complaint, can pursue lawsuit
WASHINGTON -- A closely divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a teacher or coach who claims sexual discrimination on behalf of others is protected from firing under the same landmark law that greatly expanded athletic opportunities for women.
New Title IX guidelines prompt criticism. D6
The 5-to-4 decision expands the scope of the Title IX gender equity law to protect whistle-blowers as well as direct victims. It means that school officials, regardless of their gender, may sue when they suffer retaliation for complaining about discrimination.
The ruling was cheered by women's advocates who said the protection would encourage reports of bias that otherwise would never be made. School boards decried it as unfairly exposing them to a new wave of lawsuits.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, said Roderick Jackson, a high school girls' basketball coach in Birmingham, Ala., was entitled to pursue a Title IX lawsuit after he was fired for complaining that the boys' team got better treatment.
''Teachers and coaches such as Jackson are often in the best position to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators," O'Connor wrote.
''Without protection from retaliation, individuals who witness discrimination would likely not report it," she said, and charges that a school was ''deliberately indifferent" to sexual harassment would similarly go unnoticed.
O'Connor was joined by the court's liberal wing -- Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.
The dissent was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the former head of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that investigates claims of discrimination in the workplace. He decried the ruling as defying the language of the congressional statute, which requires that a lawsuit filed under Title IX be for ''sex discrimination."
''A claim of retaliation is not a claim of discrimination on the basis of sex," Thomas wrote, noting that other civil rights laws have specific provisions addressing retaliation. ''The question before us is only whether Title IX prohibits retaliation, not whether prohibiting it is good policy."
Thomas was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
Title IX, the 1972 law best known for promoting women's athletics, bars sex discrimination in any educational program receiving federal funds. It already was settled law that students or others could sue if they thought they were shortchanged based on their sex.
But the statute has been silent as to the rights of whistle-blowers who aren't direct victims but who claim retaliation. Since 1975, the federal government has interpreted Title IX to cover retaliation claims.
Jackson sought to pursue a Title IX lawsuit when he lost his coaching job in 2001 after repeatedly asking Birmingham school officials to provide his team with a regulation-size gym with basketball rims that weren't bent -- as the boys' team had.
He lost in lower courts, which ruled Title IX did not authorize retaliation claims. The Supreme Court's ruling now lets Jackson proceed to trial to prove he was suspended because of his complaints.
''This is a clear message that across the country a person can come forward -- whether they're a teacher, an administrator or a coach -- and speak on behalf of others without fear of retaliation," an elated Jackson said after the ruling.
Marcia D. Greenberger, copresident of the National Women's Law Center, agreed. ''This decision is a slam dunk victory for everyone who cares about equal opportunity," she said. ''The court has confirmed that people cannot be punished for standing up for their rights."
But Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said the ruling was unfair because whistle-blowers already had other legal options, such as claiming a First Amendment violation or filing complaints with the US Education Department's Office of Civil Rights.
''The issue is paving another path to the courthouse when it wasn't necessary," she said. ''As it plays out, it will increase litigation against the school districts."
Legal specialists said the real test will be how broadly lower courts interpret the retaliation claim, since O'Connor's opinion does not make clear whether a teacher or coach is protected if fired for making a Title IX claim that turns out to be false.
Deborah Brake, a gender discrimination specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said that for the ruling to be effective, courts must protect those who bring ''good faith" discrimination claims that don't end up being validated. ''If they don't allow it, it's much too chilling on complaints," she said.
Jackson's case had drawn wide interest, with support from the Bush administration and a coalition of 180 civil rights groups including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as dozens of women's advocacy groups.
Opposing it were nine states: Alabama, Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia.