School District Found Liable For Money Damages For Its Response To Peer Sexual Orientation Harassment Suffered By Students

In Donovan v. Poway Unified School Dist., (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, Cal.App. 4 Dist., Oct. 10, 2008), a California Court of Appeal was asked to determine what an individual must prove to succeed on a claim of discrimination based on sexual orientation and whether money damages were available against a school district under the California Education Code. The Court of Appeal outlined what an individual must prove under the California Education Code and concluded that money damages were available against the school district.


Joseph Ramelli started attending Poway High School (“PHS”) in the fall of 2000. In Ramelli’s freshman and sophomore years, students often directed anti-gay epithets at him. Toward the end of his freshman year, Ramelli was threatened with physical violence while changing clothes for physical education class because he was homosexual, or perceived to be homosexual. In Ramelli’s junior year, the harassment by his peers increased and started to occur almost every day, both inside and outside the classroom. In addition to verbal abuse, Ramelli was also shoved into lockers, tripped in hall, had food thrown on him in the cafeteria, and his car was vandalized. Ramelli also received death threats. Ramelli recorded all of these incidents in a log. As a result of the continued harassment, Ramelli told several teachers and administrators. Despite his escalated troubles during his junior year, Ramelli planned on attending PHS his senior year, but fell ill and missed the first few weeks of school. Ramelli enrolled in a home-study program called New Directions offered by the school district and later graduated from PHS in 2004.

Megan Donovan also started attending PHS in the fall of 2000. The harassment of Donovan did not really start until her sophomore year when she had an open relationship with another female student. Donovan also found that anti-gay language was openly and pervasively used around PHS, whether or not directed at her, from the beginning of her time at PHS. Like Ramelli, Donovan also kept a log of the harassment she suffered during her junior year. Donovan enrolled in New Directions for her senior year as well because PHS administrators allegedly did little to curtail the peer anti-gay harassment she experienced while at school.

Donovan and Ramelli decided to sue the school under Education Code Section 220 (“Section 220”) which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Donovan and Ramelli also argued that Education Code Section 262.3 (“Section 262.3”) allowed for the recovery of monetary damages in connection with PHS’s violation of Section 220. At trial, a jury found that PHS did violate Section 220 and awarded Donovan with $125,000 and Ramelli with $175,000. PHS appealed the judgment entered by the trial court.


The Court of Appeal began with an analysis of Section 220. Section 220 provides that “[n]o person shall be subjected to discrimination on the basis of . . . sexual orientation . . . in any program or activity conducted by an educational institution that receives, or benefits from state financial assistance . . ..” An educational institution can be liable for such discrimination even if the institution did not perform the discrimination itself if its response to such discrimination was “clearly unreasonable in light of all the known circumstances.” Section 220 authorizes individuals to bring claims against an educational institution that discriminates against him or her, and it also provides for administrative enforcement by administrators.

The Court of Appeal noted that an interpretation of Section 220 requires the consideration of various other provisions of the Education Code, including Section 262.3 which provides for the enforcement of the antidiscrimination law. Section 262.3 does not explicitly state that money damages are available in private enforcement actions. Instead, Section 262.3 provides for “civil law remedies.” The court reasoned that the plain meaning of the phrase “civil law remedies” included money damages. The court also consulted a legal dictionary which supported its assertion. Moreover, the court pointed out that the operation of the antidiscrimination law in this area would not work, and the related statutes would not make sense if money damages were not an available remedy under Section 262.3. Finally, the court explained that interpreting the words “civil law remedies” to include money damages ensured that state law was consistent with the remedies available under federal law, upon which Section 220 was based.

Next, the court considered the elements for a claim under Section 220. The statute itself does not state what a complaining individual must prove in order to succeed on his/her claim. PHS appealed in part on the basis that the trial court instructed the jury incorrectly as to the necessary elements of a claim under Section 220, and therefore the judgment by the trial court was reached in error. The Court of Appeal explicated that it would look to federal law, specifically Title IX, to determine the elements of a claim under Section 220 because legislative history indicated that Section 220 was based upon Title IX. The court concluded that an individual bringing a claim for money damages under Section 220 must show: (1) he or she suffered “severe, pervasive and offensive” harassment; (2) the school district had “actual knowledge” of the harassment; and (3) the school district acted with “deliberate indifference” despite its knowledge.

The Court of Appeal agreed with PHS that the trial court had applied the wrong standard to Section 220 claims, and therefore erred when it instructed the jury on the elements Donovan and Ramelli needed to prove in order to prevail. The trial court applied a stricter standard, based on the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal found that the error was harmless. The court reviewed the evidence presented at trial to determine if the elements it outlined were met by the evidence presented by Donovan and Ramelli.

First, the court was firmly convinced there was evidence that Donovan and Ramelli suffered “severe, pervasive and offensive” harassment. Second, the court was certain that PHS had “actual knowledge” of the harassment specifically endured by Donovan and Ramelli because of Donovan and Ramelli’s frequent complaints to school administrators. Finally, the court concluded that PHS acted with “deliberate indifference” because the harassment occurred for the three years that Donovan and Ramelli attended PHS. Donovan and Ramelli both tried continuously to elicit help from school administrators regarding the harassment from which they suffered. Nevertheless, school officials never actually took any remedial steps of consequence.

In conclusion, the Court of Appeal found that Donovan and Ramelli suffered “severe, pervasive and offensive” harassment, and that PHS had “actual knowledge” of the harassment and acted with “deliberate indifference,” and therefore PHS was liable for money damages under Sections 220 and 262.3.


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Bruce Scheidt, Labor & Employment Practice Group Manager or Diana Halpenny, Education Practice Group Manager | KMTG Sacramento Office 916.321.4500