Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education

Decided on May 24, 1999; 526 US 629


A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (gender), sex discrimination

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Can a school board be liable for damages for failing to control harassment among students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972?


A. Background:

Aurelia Davis, mother of fifth grader LaShonda Davis, sued the Monroe County Board of Education alleging that the school board was negligent in preventing and trying to end the sexual harassment her daughter suffered at the hands of another student. Davis’s lawsuit maintained that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 guaranteed her daughter certain educational benefits, and that her rights were being violated by the school district when they failed to control the harassment.

Title IX states that no person in the United States shall be denied the benefits of any education program assisted by federal funds or be subjected to discrimination on the basis of sex. Although one of the most common uses of Title IX is in regards to equality between girls’ and boys’ high school and collegiate sports, it can be applied to any avenue of educational programs, or simply refer to equality and fair treatment in school environments.

Davis had two unsuccessful cases in district and appellate court seeking over $500,000.00 in damages for the suffering and pain experienced by her daughter, as well as the trauma that she claimed led to the decline of LaShonda’s academic performance. Davis appealed to the Supreme Court, who agreed to hear her case and grant her certiorari.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side

Verna L. Williams argued the case for the Petitioner. With her on the briefs were Marcia D. Greenberger, Leslie T. Annexstein, Nancy Perkins, and Stevenson Munro.

W. Warren Plowden, Jr. appeared for the Respondent

C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Under Title IX, the school board should be held liable for denying LaShonda equal educational opportunities and benefits because they chose not to intervene in her ongoing harassment despite being made aware of the situation. The petitioner also claimed that the school board’s complacency contributed to an abusive environment where LaShonda’s civil and educational rights were being violated. The respondents moved to dismiss Petitioner’s complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court granted respondents’ motion. In response to the petitioner’s claims under Title IX, the individual defendants (some of the classroom teachers and administrators who were accused of standing by and doing nothing to end the harassment) argued that only Federally funded educational institutions are subject to liability in private causes of action. The Board argued that Title IX could not force liability on them without a direct allegation that the Board itself or an employee had any role in the harassment.
Opposing Side
Deputy Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With her on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee, Beth S. Brinkmann, Dennis J. Dimsey, and Linda F. Thome.

Additional briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed on behalf of the following:

American Civil Liberties Union by Sara L. Mandelbaum and Steven R. Shapiro;

National Education Association by Judith L. Lichtman and Donna R. Lenhoff;

The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund by Martha F. Davis, Julie Goldscheid, Yolanda S. Wu, David S. Ettinger, and Mary-Christine Sungaila;

The Rutherford Institute by John W. Whitehead and Steven H. Aden.

On behalf of the National School Boards Association, briefs urging affirmance were filed by Lisa A. Brown, Jennifer Jacobs, and Julie Underwood

On behalf of Students for Individual Liberty, James A. Moody filed briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance.


In deciding the legal question of whether a school board can be found liable for private damage actions, the court determined, "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." The Court established that because Title IX contains an implied private right to education, school boards can be held responsible.

The Court ruled in favor of the petitioner because according to the Spending Clause of Title IX, all schools receiving federal funding are given proper notice that they are forced to comply with the guidelines of Title IX or face the threat of legal action. Additionally, the Court determined that the school board acted deliberately indifferent towards the situation, as the harassment was deemed to be serious and constant, thus entitling Davis and her daughter to the damages they sought.

"If a funding recipient does not engage in harassment directly, it may not be liable for damages unless its deliberate indifference 'subject[s]' its students to harassment. That is, the deliberate indifference must, at a minimum, 'cause [students] to undergo' harassment or 'make them liable or vulnerable' to it."

Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • O’Connor, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined minority opinion, joined Kennedy’s dissent)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined minority opinion, joined Kennedy’s dissent)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Joined minority opinion, joined Kennedy’s dissent)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court, siding with the petitioner Aurelia Davis and her daughter LaShonda. This resulted in an apparent win for the ACLU.