Fitzgerald v. Barnstable Sch. Comm.

Decision Date21 January 2009
Docket NumberNo. 07–1125.,07–1125.
Citation172 L.Ed.2d 582,555 U.S. 246,129 S.Ct. 788
PartiesLisa FITZGERALD, et vir, Petitioners, v. BARNSTABLE SCHOOL COMMITTEE et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Charles A. Rothfeld, for petitioners.

Kay H. Hodge, for respondents.

Dan M. Kahan, Scott L. Shuchart, Yale Law School, New Haven, CT, Charles A. Rothfeld, Counsel of Record, Andrew J. Pincus, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, D.C., Wendy A. Kaplan, Anne Glennon, Law Offices of Wendy A. Kaplan, Boston, MA, for Petitioners.

Kay H. Hodge, Joan L. Stein, John M. Simon, Counsel of Record, Stoneman, Chandler & Miller LLP, Boston, MA, for Respondents Barnstable School Committee and Dr. Russell Dever.


Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case of peer-on-peer sexual harassment is whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 86 Stat. 373, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), precludes an action under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging unconstitutional gender discrimination in schools. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that it does. 504 F.3d 165 (2007). We reverse.


Because this case comes to us on a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we assume the truth of the facts as alleged in petitioners' complaint. During the 20002001 school year, the daughter of petitioners Lisa and Robert Fitzgerald was a kindergarten student in the Barnstable, Massachusetts, school system, and rode the bus to school each morning. One day she told her parents that, whenever she wore a dress, a third-grade boy on the school bus would bully her into lifting her skirt. Lisa Fitzgerald immediately called the school principal, Frederick Scully, who arranged a meeting later that day with the Fitzgeralds, their daughter, and another school official, Lynda Day. Scully and Day then questioned the alleged bully, who denied the allegations. Day also interviewed the bus driver and several students who rode the bus. She concluded that she could not corroborate the girl's version of the events.

The Fitzgeralds' daughter then provided new details of the alleged abuse to her parents, who relayed them to Scully. Specifically, she told her parents that in addition to bullying her into raising her skirt, the boy coerced her into pulling down her underpants and spreading her legs. Scully scheduled a second meeting with the Fitzgeralds to discuss the additional details and again questioned the boy and other students.

Meanwhile, the local police department conducted an independent investigation and concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the boy. Based partly on the police investigation and partly on the school's own investigation, Scully similarly concluded there was insufficient evidence to warrant discipline. Scully did propose remedial measures to the Fitzgeralds. He suggested transferring their daughter to a different bus or leaving rows of empty seats between the kindergarteners and older students on the original bus. The Fitzgeralds felt that these proposals punished their daughter instead of the boy and countered with alternative proposals. They suggested transferring the boy to a different bus or placing a monitor on the original bus. The Barnstable school system's superintendent, Russell Dever, did not act on these proposals.

The Fitzgeralds began driving their daughter to school to avoid further bullying on the bus, but she continued to report unsettling incidents at school. The Fitzgeralds reported each incident to Scully. The Fitzgeralds' daughter had an unusual number of absences during the remainder of the school year.

In April 2002, the Fitzgeralds filed suit in District Court, alleging that the school system's response to their allegations of sexual harassment had been inadequate, resulting in further harassment to their daughter. Their complaint included: (1) a claim for violation of Title IX against the Barnstable School Committee (the school system's governing body), (2) claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against the school committee and Dever, and (3) Massachusetts state-law claims against the school committee and Dever. The school committee and Dever (respondents here), filed a motion to dismiss, which the District Court granted as to the § 1983 claims and the state-law claims. On the Title IX claim, the school committee filed a motion for summary judgment, which the District Court also granted. Hunter v. Barnstable School Committee, 456 F.Supp.2d 255, 266 (Mass.2006).

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed. 504 F.3d 165. Turning first to the Title IX claim against the school committee, the court noted three points that were not in dispute: (1) The school committee was the recipient of federal funds and was therefore subject to Title IX, (2) the school committee had actual knowledge of the harassment the Fitzgeralds' daughter suffered, and (3) if the allegations of the complaint were true, the harassment was “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” Id ., at 172. The court concluded that the Fitzgeralds' Title IX claim lacked merit, however, because the response of the school committee and Dever to the reported harassment had been objectively reasonable. Id ., at 175.

The Court of Appeals turned next to the Fitzgeralds' § 1983 claims. Relying on this Court's precedents in Middlesex County Sewerage Authority v. National Sea Clammers Assn., 453 U.S. 1, 101 S.Ct. 2615, 69 L.Ed.2d 435 (1981), Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 104 S.Ct. 3457, 82 L.Ed.2d 746 (1984), and Rancho Palos Verdes v. Abrams, 544 U.S. 113, 125 S.Ct. 1453, 161 L.Ed.2d 316 (2005), the court characterized Title IX's implied private remedy as “sufficiently comprehensive” to preclude use of § 1983 to advance statutory claims based on Title IX itself. 504 F.3d, at 179. This reasoning, the court held, “appl[ied] with equal force” to the constitutional claims. Ibid . The court concluded that Congress saw Title IX as the sole means of vindicating the constitutional right to be free from gender discrimination perpetrated by educational institutions.” Ibid .

The Court of Appeals' decision deepened a conflict among the Circuits regarding whether Title IX precludes use of § 1983 to redress unconstitutional gender discrimination in schools. Compare Bruneau ex rel. Schofield v . South Kortright Central School Dist ., 163 F.3d 749, 758–759 (C.A.2 1998) ; Waid v. Merrill Area Public Schools 91 F.3d 857, 862–863 (C.A.7 1996) ; Pfeiffer v. Marion Center Area School Dist ., 917 F.2d 779, 789 (C.A.3 1990), with Communities for Equity v. Michigan High School Athletic Assn., 459 F.3d 676, 691 (C.A.6 2006) ; Crawford v. Davis, 109 F.3d 1281, 1284 (C.A.8 1997) ; Seamons v. Snow, 84 F.3d 1226, 1234 (C.A.10 1996). We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict, 553 U.S. 1093, 128 S.Ct. 2903, 171 L.Ed.2d 840 (2008), and we now reverse.


In relevant part, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.”

In three cases, this Court has found that statutory enactments precluded claims under this statute. Sea Clammers,supra; Smith,supra ;Rancho Palos Verdes , supra. These cases establish that [t]he crucial consideration is what Congress intended.” Smith, 468 U.S., at 1012, 104 S.Ct. 3457. If Congress intended a statute's remedial scheme to “be the exclusive avenue through which a plaintiff may assert [the] claims,” id ., at 1009, 104 S.Ct. 3457, the § 1983 claims are precluded. See Rancho Palos Verdes, 544 U.S., at 120–121, 125 S.Ct. 1453 (“The critical question, then, is whether Congress meant the judicial remedy expressly authorized by [the statute] to coexist with an alternative remedy available in a § 1983 action).

In those cases in which the § 1983 claim is based on a statutory right, “evidence of such congressional intent may be found directly in the statute creating the right, or inferred from the statute's creation of a comprehensive enforcement scheme that is incompatible with individual enforcement under § 1983.” Id., at120, 125 S.Ct. 1453 (internal quotation marks omitted). In cases in which the § 1983 claim alleges a constitutional violation, lack of congressional intent may be inferred from a comparison of the rights and protections of the statute and those existing under the Constitution. Where the contours of such rights and protections diverge in significant ways, it is not likely that Congress intended to displace § 1983 suits enforcing constitutional rights. Our conclusions regarding congressional intent can be confirmed by a statute's context. Id., at127, 125 S.Ct. 1453 (BREYER, J., concurring) ([C]ontext, not just literal text, will often lead a court to Congress' intent in respect to a particular statute).

In determining whether a subsequent statute precludes the enforcement of a federal right under § 1983, we have placed primary emphasis on the nature and extent of that statute's remedial scheme. See Sea Clammers, supra, at20, 101 S.Ct. 2615 (“When the remedial devices provided in a particular Act are sufficiently comprehensive, they may suffice to demonstrate congressional intent to preclude the remedy of suits under § 1983).

Sea Clammers illustrates this approach. The plaintiffs brought suit under § 1983 for violations of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972. This Court's analysis focused on these two statutes' “unusually elaborate enforcement provisions,” which...

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