On Monday, the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North and South Carolina) reversed an earlier panel decision dismissing sexual harassment claims against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its women’s soccer coach. The claim was brought under Title IX, which provides a cause of action for students subjected to sexual harassment at federally-funded education institutions. The decision is important for employers, because the Fourth Circuit uses the same standard for determining harassment under Title IX as is used for employment cases under Title VII.
The earlier Fourth Circuit decision dismissed the claim because the court concluded that the harassment complained of was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to constitute a hostile and offensive educational environment. Much of the behavior complained of was not directed at the plaintiff, and in fact, she was only exposed to a few incidents allegedly directed toward her. In its reversal, the full Fourth Circuit stated that these allegations constituted sexual harassment under Title VII due to the overall atmosphere of sexually charged discussions and inquiries that made players dread even infrequent sexually-related comments or questions from the coach. The court also noted the age disparity between the coach and players, and position of power held by the head coach as factors in reaching its conclusion.
Unless heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, this decision means that the case will go to a jury for trial. For employers, this decision may constitute a relaxation of the often difficult standard faced by plaintiffs in the Fourth Circuit seeking to prevail on sexual harassment claims. The court recognized that harassing activity directed toward other persons can still create a hostile and offensive environment for students (or employees) indirectly affected by this behavior. The court was willing to look beyond the specific behavior directed toward the plaintiff, and take a more global view of the effect of the harasser’s alleged activities.