Judge Gustavo Gelpi, nominated by President Biden to the First Circuit, wrote a unanimous decision that reversed a lower court and ruled that a parent should be able to pursue her claim that a charter school was liable for the improper harassment of her child “on the basis of sex.” The October 2023 decision was in Grace v Board of Trustees.
What happened in this case?
MG was a student at Brooke Charter School in Boston. His mother Natasha Grace filed suit against Brooke because of an alleged pattern of harassment over a three-year period. From fourth through sixth grade, other students reportedly harassed, bullied, and teased MG because they thought he was gay or transgender. Grace contended that staff members either facilitated the harassment or were deliberately indifferent. The complaint maintained that Brooke was thus liable under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 for harassment and discrimination “on the basis of sex.”
After extensive discovery, a magistrate recommended that the Title IX claim should proceed to trial. The district court, however, granted summary judgment against Grace and in favor of Brooke. According to the judge, it was clear that the school was not “deliberately indifferent” as required by law because the facts, which were supposedly not materially in dispute, showed that the school had taken “reasonable measures to investigate and end the claimed harassment.” Grace appealed to the First Circuit.
How did Judge Gelpi and the First Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
Judge Gelpi wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed the lower court and ruled that Grace should have her day in court to prove the harassment claim at trial. Gelpi carefully reviewed the competing factual contentions and applicable law. He concluded that “a jury could reasonably” decide that school officials had been “deliberately indifferent” or worse with respect to the harassment of MG and could find in favor of Grace.
Specifically, Judge Gelpi explained that for a school like Brooke to be liable for “deliberate indifference” under Title IX, officials “must have had actual knowledge” of the harassment and must have responded in a “clearly unreasonable manner” that caused the student to continue to “undergo harassment” or made the student “vulnerable” to it. This is usually a “fact-based question” in each case.
In this case, Gelpi went on, a “jury could find that the school had actual knowledge” that other students “were discriminating against MG because they thought he was gay.” Contrary to the lower court, moreover, he explained that based on the record, a jury could find that the school’s response was “clearly unreasonable.”
Gelpi noted that the school “took no corrective or remedial action” for “more than a year.” Despite the school’s professed good faith, moreover, Gelpi wrote that a jury could find that the school’s responses “were still not reasonably calculated” to stop the harassment and that some officials may have exacerbated the hostile environment. For example, one official reportedly advised MG in response to one incident, in front of other students, to “watch his flamboyant hands.” Overall, Gelpi concluded, the lower court wrongly granted summary judgement in favor of the school.
Judge Gelpi’s ruling was clearly important to give MG and his mother Natasha Grace their day in court to prove their claims and get justice against the school. The decision is also significant in other harassment cases, particularly in the First Circuit (including Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) to make clear that general good faith or policies are not sufficient to disprove claims of deliberate indifference, and that the courts must carefully review such claims on the facts of each case. In addition, the ruling serves as another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Gelpi to our federal courts.