Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education

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  • Equal Educational Opportunities
  • Fairness in the Courts
  • Authored Amicus Brief
2005

Determined whether a person who is retaliated against for complaining of sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs may bring a lawsuit for damages under Title IX.

In March 2005, the Supreme Court decided this case, holding that a person who is retaliated against for complaining of sex discrimination in federally funded education programs may bring a lawsuit for damages under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits such discrimination. This is an important victory for equal education opportunity.  It also marks another case defining the limits of the "new federalism," a doctrine that seeks to severely limit congressional power to protect civil rights. Legal Momentum supported a brief on behalf of the appellant, Roderick Jackson.

Summary of the Case

Mr. Jackson was removed as coach of the girls basketball team at Ensley High School in Birmingham, Alabama, after complaining that the team was treated less favorably than the boys’ teams.  He filed suit alleging that school authorities had violated Title IX by removing him as coach in retaliation for his discrimination complaints.  Although courts and federal agencies have long interpreted Title IX to prohibit retaliation for protesting unlawful gender discrimination, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mr. Jackson had no right to sue because of the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Alexander v. Sandoval.  In Sandoval, the Supreme Court held that an individual cannot sue to enforce the disparate impact regulations issued under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the Act itself did not prohibit disparate impact discrimination and because Congress did not intend there to be a private right of action for those regulations.  In the Jackson case, the School Board claimed that because retaliation was mentioned only in Title IX regulations—not in the text of the statute, itself—Mr. Jackson similarly could not bring suit for retaliation. 

Decision

The Supreme Court’s decision upholding Jackson's right to sue reflects the arguments in our amicus brief.  The Court agreed that Sandoval does not preclude retaliation claims under Title IX, because courts have long held that protection from retaliation is an integral and necessary part of protection from discrimination.  Thus, retaliation claims arise directly under the statute-which Congress intended to be enforced through private rights of action-and not only under the regulations.  Our brief also pointed out that courts only allow suits against schools for sexual harassment when school officials failed to respond after receiving actual notice of the harassment.  Reading Title IX to offer no protection against retaliation would place complainants in an impossible bind: if they notified officials of harassment, they could be retaliated against without redress; but if they did not notify officials of harassment, they could not take effective legal action against it.  The Supreme Court clearly heard this argument, as well: it wrote, "[I]f retaliation were not prohibited, Title IX’s enforcement scheme would unravel."