WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court, in a sweeping advancement of civil rights law, has ruled that victims of sexual discrimination in schools and colleges can sue and collect unlimited monetary damages.
All nine justices agreed that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 did not bar a Georgia woman from seeking damages from her former school system because of alleged sexual harassment by a high school teacher.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently battled allegations of sexually harassing a female former aide, joined in yesterday's concurring opinion.
Women's rights groups insisted that the ultimate impact of the court's decision would be far broader, however. One advocate predicted "a sea change" in the educational system's attitude toward ensuring gender equality.
"I think we will see schools all across the country scrambling to reassess their policies and to stop discriminating," said Ellen Vargyas of the National Women's Law Center. "For the first time, they are vulnerable."
Besides sex harassment, she said, any school that receives federal funds may be held financially liable for discrimination in how it allocates resources for athletics, distributes scholarships or promotes female employees.
Albert Pearson, the University of Georgia law professor who represented the Gwinnett County, Ga., school system, said, "any institution that receives federal funding better sit down and carefully examine their policies and really have to do some preventive work" to avoid costly lawsuits.
Both sides also agreed that the court's ruling placed no limits on the amount of damages that could be recovered.
The court's ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Christine Franklin, a former student at North Gwinnett High School in suburban Atlanta.
Ms. Franklin claimed that during her sophomore year in 1986, her economics teacher, Andrew Hill, began making sexually suggestive comments to her. He later forced her to engage in sexual intercourse, Ms. Franklin said.
After Ms. Franklin made her allegations to the school's principal, Mr. Hill resigned. He was never charged with a crime.
In October 1989, Ms. Franklin filed a federal lawsuit against the Gwinnett County district, alleging that under the Title IX prohibition against sex discrimination she was entitled to damages for her teacher's misconduct.