Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992) is a seminal case with regard to sexual harassment in schools that receive federal financial assistance. In Franklin, the Supreme Court ruled that students who are subjected to sexual harassment in public schools may sue their boards for monetary damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Franklin is important because it was the first case wherein the Supreme Court upheld an award of monetary damages under Title IX. Six years later, the Supreme Court was called upon to delimit the circumstances for such damages to be recovered in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998).
Franklin, a female sophomore in a high school operated by the Gwinnett County Public Schools, alleged that she was subjected to continued sexual harassment and abuse by Hill, a male sports coach and teacher. Among the allegations that Franklin made were that Hill engaged her in sexually explicit conversations, forced kissing, and coercive intercourse on school grounds. Franklin claimed that although teachers and administrators were aware of the harassment, they did nothing to stop it, even discouraging her from bringing charges against Hill.
Franklin thus sued for monetary damages under Title IX. After a federal trial court in Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit rejected Franklin’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in her behalf.
The Court made a crucial distinction in judicial power between finding a course of action and in awarding appropriate relief. Because it was established in Cannon v. University of Chicago (1979) that Title IX was enforceable through an implied right of action, the question over the course of action under Title IX had already been resolved. The issue in Franklin became whether monetary damages were available in a private action brought to enforce Title IX.
When it came to the issue of awarding remedies, the Court followed the traditional presumption that “absent clear direction to the contrary by Congress, the federal courts have the power to award any appropriate relief in a cognizable cause of action brought pursuant to a federal statute” (pp. 70–71). In terms of sexual harassment, the Court found no evidence that Congress intended to abandon the traditional presumption when it passed Title IX. Moreover, in two amendments to Title IX enacted after Cannon, the Court noted that Congress validated Cannon’s holding and showed no attempt to limit the remedies available.
Specifically, in the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986, Congress withdrew the states’ Eleventh Amendment immunity; in the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, Congress expanded the coverage of the antidiscrimination provisions. In addition, the Court was of the opinion that unless it provided damages for plaintiffs such as Franklin, Title IX would be a law that did not afford any remedies.
The Court rejected the argument that the traditional presumption did not apply in Franklin because Title IX was enacted pursuant to the Congress’ Spending Clause power. While recognizing that funding recipients should be given notice before they were held liable for damages for unintentional violations, the Court nevertheless found that the Gwinnett County Public Schools intentionally discriminated against Franklin on the basis of sex. As a result, the Court pointed out that the problem of notice was not involved, and the remedies were not limited by the Spending Clause. The Court therefore determined that it had the authority to grant all necessary and appropriate remedies to private parties in teacher-to-student sexual harassment suits, including monetary damages.
Three justices filed a concurring opinion. They refused to apply the traditional presumption to an implied right of action because it would make “the most questionable of private rights . . . the most expansively remediable” (p. 78). In spite of this, they agreed with the majority’s disposition on the ground that the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1986 not only validated Cannon’s holding but also implicitly acknowledged that damages were available.
See also Sexual Harassment of Students by Teachers; Title IX and Sexual Harassment