Eleventh Circuit Remands Middle School Sexual Harassment Sting Operation Case

In Hill v. Cundiff, No. 13-15444, 2015 WL 4747048 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s granting of summary judgment, and remanded for further proceedings.

This case involves alleged rape at Sparkman Middle School in January of 2010. Jane Doe, then an eighth-grade student, was allegedly raped in a bathroom at Sparkman during a sting operation authorized by school officials. The sting operation was designed, to catch another student in the act of sexual harassment. Along with the Madison County School Board, four officials from Sparkman were named as defendants: the principal, Ronnie Blair, assistant principals Teresa Terrell and Jeanne Dunaway and teacher’s aide June Simpson.

At the time of the incident, the school adhered to the Board’s Policy Manual. The manual directed school officials to forward sexual harassment complaints from students to the principal, Blair. Blair crafted a “catch in the act” policy on sexual harassment, which required that a student either be caught performing a sexual act or admit that the act had occurred in order for disciplinary action to be taken.

This policy prompted the Simpson to conduct the sting operation involving Jane Doe. The sting was designed to catch a male student who had allegedly been propositioning Doe and other female students to have sex in the bathroom. The student-suspect had a record of infractions for both sexual misconduct and threatening behavior. Doe consented to the sting operation. A disputed chain of events led to her alleged rape, rather than the student being caught in the act of sexual harassment.

Doe filed a complaint against the Board and the school officials. The complaint alleged a violation of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (2012), against the Board, and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Substantive Due Process Clause under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012), against all defendants. Doe also filed state law claims of negligence/wantonness and the tort of outrage against the school officials. After the district court granted motions for summary judgment, only the negligence/wantonness claims against Dunaway and Simpson remained pending before the court.

The Eleventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment as to the Title IX claim against the Board. As the court stated, the standard for student-on-student sexual harassment claims is higher than a teacher-on-student claim and requires the plaintiff to prove that the funding recipient had actual knowledge of sexual harassment that was severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive. In Williams v. Bd. of Regents, 477 F.3d 1282 (11th Cir. 2007), the Eleventh Circuit established that a plaintiff must prove five elements to succeed in a student-on-student claim. The Eleventh Circuit held that while the district court applied the correct standard to the claim, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Doe satisfied all five elements from Williams.

As to the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the § 1983 claim, the Eleventh Circuit held that the sting operation could not be considered a known or obvious consequence of either the Board’s sexual harassment training policies or the “catch in the act” policy. The Eleventh Circuit did, however, reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the principal, Dunaway, and Simpson on Doe’s § 1983 claim, holding that none of them were entitled to qualified immunity under the circumstances. The court found that a reasonable jury could find Blair’s actions constituted deliberate indifference to Doe’s rape, therefore violating Doe’s constitutional right to equal protection. The court also reasoned that neither Dunaway nor Simpson were entitled to qualified immunity because every objectively reasonable government official in their situation would have known that the sting operation, using Doe as “rape bait,” violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment for Terrell on the same claim because she neither dictated the school’s response to the rape, as Blair did, nor did she ratify the sting operation, as Dunaway and Simpson did.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Simpson on the substantive due process violation. They held that while she may have acted with deliberate indifference, that alone was not a basis for finding substantive due process liability in the school context. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment for Blair on the negligence/wantonness claim because he was entitled to state-agent immunity. The court also affirmed the denial of summary judgment for Dunaway on the same claim because she may have acted beyond her authority by not reporting the sexual harassment claim to Blair and by approving the sting operation. Lastly, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment to Simpson for the tort of outrage. They held that a reasonable jury could find that Simpson should have known that the sting operation was outrageous, would cause Doe severe emotional distress, that the sting did cause Doe’s distress, and that the distress was severe.

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