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Education Law

Employment Law

The myriad federal and state laws and regulations that control public employment in general apply with equal force to public-school employment. In addition, all states have statutes that control the school board–employee relationship. These state laws pertain to contracts, tenure, certification, retirement, and other matters of special interest to teachers. Despite the similarities of the issues covered in state statutes, there is very little reciprocity between and among states, thus making generalizations across state lines almost meaningless.

In contrast, federal statutes pertaining to public employment are enforceable throughout the nation. For example, Title VII makes it "an unlawful employment practice" to discriminate against any individual with respect to "compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment" because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2(a)(1)). In 1986, the Supreme Court decided a case concerning sexual harassment and the interpretation of Title VII. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 106 S. Ct. 2399, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49, the defendant, Meritor Savings Bank, argued that the discrimination prohibited by the statute concerned economic loss and not "purely psychological" aspects of the workplace environment. Because the female employee who filed the lawsuit had suffered no economic loss, her employer argued that there were no grounds for a lawsuit under Title VII. The Court disagreed. After ruling that Title VII protection is not limited to economic discrimination, the Court quoted with approval an appeals court opinion: "One can readily envision environments so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of employees."

The principles enunciated in Meritor were refined by the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Harris v. Forklift Systems, 510 U.S. 17, 114 S. Ct. 367, 126 L. Ed. 2d 295. The Court in Harris was asked to set a standard of review in cases alleging the newly discovered "hostile environment" theory of sexual harassment. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, explained that simply uttering an "epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee" does not sufficiently affect the conditions of employment to implicate Title VII. The Court was equally clear in rejecting the employer's argument that Title VII requires a showing that the harassment "seriously affects the plaintiff's well-being." Rather, O'Connor wrote, the statute is violated when the workplace environment "would reasonably be perceived and is perceived as hostile and abusive." Further, the Court wrote, four circumstances (in addition to psychological harm) should be considered: "[t]he frequency of the conduct; its severity; whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance." Continuing, O'Connor wrote that the appropriate standard was that of a "reasonable victim," thus departing from the traditional "reasonable person" standard that is typically applied in cases involving alleged acts of commission or omission that result in an injury or damage to an individual's body, reputation, or property.

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