Supreme Court Restricts Civil Rights Remedies

by Thalia Myrianthopoulos, Legal Intern
  • Schools Liable for Harassment
  • Employers' Liability Limited
  • Disability Definition Restricted
  • State Duty to Integrate Disabled
  • Right to Travel Protected



    During its 1998-1999 term, the Supreme Court's decisions delivered a consistent message: when women face discrimination by state institutions, their rights will be protected, but when the interests of private businesses are at stake, the Court is less inclined to interfere.

    Schools Liable for Harassment

    In a surprise ruling limiting state immunity, the Supreme Court held in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded education, includes a right to sue for student-on-student sexual harassment.

    The 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ruled that school districts can be liable for damages under Title IX for failing to stop a student from subjecting another student to sexual harassment, but only if the school was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. O'Connor emphasized that "damages are not available for simple acts of teasing and name-calling among school children," but rather for behavior "so severe and pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim's equal access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school."

    The case was brought by Aurelia Davis, the mother of a fifth-grade girl who complained she was subjected to five months of sexual advances, taunting and unwanted touching by a boy who was eventually convicted in juvenile court of sexual battery against the girl. The girl's previously high grades fell, as she became unable to concentrate on her studies. Teachers and administrators refused to respond to repeated complaints by Davis and her daughter.

    Although pleased with the general outcome of the ruling, NOW and the four liberal justices who formed O'Connor's majority agree that the "deliberately indifferent" test for school liability is too high a hurdle for girls seeking legal remedies for sexual harassment in school.

    Employers' Liability Limited

    Victory on sexual harassment is by no means absolute, as evidenced by the ruling in Kolstad v. American Dental Association, a sex discrimination case concerning punitive damages for intentional discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

    In a 7-2 decision written by Justice O'Connor, the court found that victims of job discrimination can collect punitive damages under Title VII without establishing "egregious"  employer misconduct.  An employee must only show "malice" or "reckless indifference" by theemployer, which ultimately focuses on the employer's state of mind. Egregious behavior may be offered as evidence of that state of mind, but is not the only evidence permitted.

    However, in a separate 5-4 vote, in which Justices O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy joined dissenters Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist to form a majority, the Court said "an employer may not be vicariously liable for the discriminatory employment decisions of managerial agents where [their] decisions are contrary to the employers' good faith efforts to comply with Title VII."  The majority ruling, which does not define "good-faith effort," sets an ambiguous standard and an additional obstacle to punishing employers for sexual harassment.

    Carole Kolstad brought this suit when she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a man with less experience. The Court's ruling makes it unlikely that Kolstad, and other women who bring successful discrimination suits against employers, will be able to collect punitive damages, a remedy Congress made available for the first time when it amended the Civil Rights Act in 1991.

    Disability Definition Restricted

    Proponents of employee rights were further disappointed by the Court's ruling in three federal disability law cases handed down the same day as Kolstad. The Court held that petitioners in all three cases were not disabled under the intended definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

    Citing Congressional findings that "some 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities," the Court concluded that individuals whose impairments are largely corrected by medication or other devices are not disabled within the meaning of the ADA.

    In a 7-2 decision, the Court in Sutton v. United Air Lines ruled that physical criteria for a job may not violate the ADA. Justice O'Connor explained, "the ADA allows employers to prefer some physical attributes over others, so long as those attributes do not rise to the level of substantially limiting impairments."

    According to the Court, whether or not a person's impairment "substantially limits" one or more major life activities is determined with regard to the corrective measures she/he utilizes.

    In Sutton, the plaintiffs were severely myopic twin sisters, who with corrective measures function identically to individuals without similar impairments. Nevertheless, the sisters were denied employment as commercial airline pilots because they did not meet a minimum requirement of uncorrected visual acuity. The Supreme Court's rulings were also a defeat for a mechanic with high blood pressure in Murphy v. United Parcel Service and a truck driver with poor vision in Albertsons v. Kirkingburg.

    State Duty to Integrate Disabled

    Disability rights advocates found a silver lining in a fourth ADA-related opinion, Olmstead v. L.C., delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While the Court narrowly interpreted the ADA's Title I prohibition against discrimination in employment, in Olmstead it bolstered Title II's prohibition against discrimination in public services. In enacting the ADA, Congress not only required public entities to refrain from discrimination, but also explicitly identified the unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities as a form of discrimination.

    In a plurality decision the Court found that continued institutionalization of individuals with mental disabilities, despite treatment professionals' recommendations for placement in community-based programs, constitutes unjustified isolation and therefore illegal discrimination.

    "[C]onfinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment," Justice Ginsburg explained for the Court.

    Plaintiffs L.C. and E.W. were two women diagnosed with mild retardation and mental illness.  Both challenged their confinement in the psychiatric unit of Georgia Regional Hospital despite their psychiatrists' conclusions that they could receive appropriate treatment in community-care residential programs.  The Court concluded that states are required to provide community-based treatment for individuals with mental disabilities who request it; however, placement is subject to the state's ability to allocate resources to such programs. "The majority of people with diagnosed mental disabilities are women," explained Joanne Tosti-Vasey, a member of NOW's Disability Rights Committee. "Olmstead supports the integration mandate of the ADA and gives more women the chance to choose where and how they live."

    Right to Travel Protected

    Feminists and other welfare rights advocates finally had something to cheer about following the Court's sweeping 7-2 ruling in Saenz v. Roe.  The majority held that the 14th Amendment's Privileges and Immunities Clause guarantees new residents the same level of state welfare benefits as longtime residents. Laws disadvantaging new residents must therefore be subjected to strict scrutiny.

    The Court declared unconstitutional a provision of the 1996 federal welfare law that authorized states to restrict the benefits of new residents. The ruling strikes down California's one-year welfare residency requirement and, by implication, the residency requirements of 15 other states, which reduced new residents' welfare cash assistance benefits to no more than what they would have received in their last state of residence.

    California argued that its policy would save approximately $10.9 million a year. Justice Stevens wrote for the majority, "the state's legitimate interest in saving money provides no justification for its decision to discriminate among equally eligible citizens." Stevens noted the state could achieve the same objectives by an "across-the-board reduction of about 72 cents per month for every beneficiary."

    The case was brought by three California residents who were eligible for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Each plaintiff alleged she had recently moved to California to live with relatives in order to escape abusive family situations. Since a large proportion of adult welfare recipients are domestic violence survivors, some of whom have fled great distances to escape life-threatening violence, California's law threatened to condemn survivors and their children to a life of desperate poverty or alternatively, to drive them back to their abusers. The Court's decision invalidating these residency requirements will have far-reaching benefits for domestic violence survivors, as well as women and children in general.

    Return to Fall 1999 National NOW Times
     Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW