US Supreme Court Extends Title IX Protections to Whistleblowers

March 29, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - US Supreme Court justices on Tuesday expanded the protection of the Title IX anti-discrimination statute to not only cover victims, but those who complain about bias against others and then suffer retaliation.

A sharply divided high court ruled that such whistleblower protection was necessary to make sure that those witnessing discrimination were still able to report it, according to news reports.

“Reporting incidents of discrimination is integral to Title IX enforcement and would be discouraged if retaliation against those who report went unpunished,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for a 5-4 majority. If the law were found not to protect retaliation, its purpose would be undermined because “individuals who witness discrimination would be loathe to report it and all manner of Title IX violations might go unremedied as a result,” the justice wrote.

Tuesday’s ruling came in the case of  Jackson versus Birmingham Board of Education involving Roderick Jackson, a girl’s high school basketball coach in Birmingham, Alabama. According to the news reports, Jackson began complaining in 2000 that the high school gave the boys’ team better conditions for playing and practices but, eventually, he lost his coaching position and the extra pay it carried, even though he retained his tenured position as a gym teacher. Jackson sued under Title IX, accusing the school board of wrongly retaliating against him.

The case was eventually dismissed by a federal judge in Birmingham and by the US 11 th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, with both courts concluding that the statute did not encompass the right to bring such a lawsuit.

Tuesday’s decisionhad been eagerly awaited by many civil rights groups that had sided with Jackson, as well as many school boards, which had expressed fears that a finding in favor of Jackson would bring a wave of new lawsuits.

Since its enactment in 1972, Title IX has been widely credited with expanding opportunities for women and girls in sports and other activities by banning sex discrimination in schools and colleges that receive federal money.

But a crucial question that had been unanswered, until Tuesday, was whether by extension Title IX protected people who complained about sex discrimination against others, then suffered retaliation for their complaints.

Joining O’Connor in the majority were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. Asserting that “retaliatory conduct is not discrimination on the basis of sex,” the dissenters said the majority was going against the court’s own precedents.

Tuesday’s ruling is not an automatic victory for Jackson. His suit now goes back to the lower courts, where he will have to prove that the school board retaliated against him because he had complained of sex discrimination.

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