New York Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Harassment on Collegiate Swim Team

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in employment throughout the country, including New York City. Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace, and Title VII is not the only federal statute that views sexual harassment as unlawful discrimination. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in education. This includes sexual harassment of students by teachers or other employees, and harassment between students. Members of the women’s college swimming team filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court against their school in September 2019. They allege that the school failed to act on their complaints of sexual harassment by members of the men’s team. If you feel you are suffering from harassment that is sexual in nature, contact a New York City sexual harassment attorney to learn what your rights are under the law.

Title IX prohibits any educational institution that receives federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex in terms of access to educational opportunities and benefits, and participation in educational activities. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). The federal regulations implementing Title IX do not provide the kind of specific guidance that is available for Title VII claims for sexual harassment. See 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11. The swimmers’ lawsuit cites several regulations, however, that demonstrate how sexual harassment can deny equal educational opportunity. This includes “equal athletic opportunity.” 34 C.F.R. § 106.41(c).

The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized a private cause of action for sexual harassment under Title IX in Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274 (1998). That case involved a teacher and a student. The following year the court ruled on a student’s claim of sexual harassment by another student in Davis v. Monroe County Bd. of Ed., 526 U.S. 629 (1999). The elements of a claim for student sexual harassment, outlined in Davis, are similar to the elements of a hostile work environment claim under Title VII. A plaintiff must demonstrate that the school “act[ed] with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment,” and that the harassment was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to prevent “access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Id. at 633.

The plaintiffs in the New York lawsuit are two current seniors on the swimming team and a 2018 graduate who was on the diving team. The defendant is a university in Lewiston, New York, near Buffalo. The plaintiffs received athletic scholarships to attend the university and participate in the women’s swim and dive teams. According to their complaint, the women’s and men’s swimming teams had one coach, whose wife coached the diving team.

The plaintiffs allege that the women’s and men’s teams were treated as “one team,” having co-ed practices and traveling to meets on one bus. This, they claim, “resulted in a hostile environment” with “severe and pervasive sexual harassment and bullying” by male swimmers. They allege that the coach witnessed some of this conduct, and was aware of the rest because of their complaints. They claim that he “alternately ignored them or ridiculed them.” The university administration also allegedly failed to take meaningful action. The lawsuit asserts claims for unequal treatment and gender-based harassment under Title IX.

The New York City sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocate for the rights of employees, former employees, and job applicants, representing them in claims for sexual harassment and other violations of city, state, and federal law. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

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