Monday, August 12, 2013
The district court in Fennell v. Marion Independent School Dist., 2013 WL 3994649 (W.D. Texas 2013), held that a lawsuit by three African-American minors, alleging that they were subject to numerous racist remarks and disparate treatment based on their race, can move forward. The facts of the case were extensive, but the court framed the claims around three major incidents. First, plaintiffs alleged that the white athletic director "‘admonished’ [one plaintiff] for her ‘ethnic hairstyles," but did not admonish "'similarly-coiffed white female students who come to school with their multi-toned hair.’” Second, plaintiffs claimed that the white softball coach, “drove away on the softball team bus without Kyra even though Kyra had shown up on time (at 2:55 p.m.) and even though Manley had seen Kyra waving at the stop sign." Third, plaintiffs alleged that the softball coach punished Kyra "for signing out for lunch on a game day by denying her the opportunity to play for two games,’" even though white teammates had done the same without recourse. Fourth, plaintiffs alleged that the softball coach encouraged "two white students to file unsubstantiated criminal charges against Kyana [after] a verbal confrontation [that the coach] did not witness.’" The court held that the first three allegations stated a claim under Title VI, but the fourth did not because plaintiffs failed to plead any facts that would suggest that the coach's alleged actions were racially motivated. Plaintiffs' assertion that “Defendant Manley used these two white girls as ‘cat's paws' to further her racist attitudes towards Kyana’ is an example of the ‘conclusory allegations’ and “unwarranted factual inferences” that the Court need not accept as true.
Racial harassment claims are typically very difficult to sustain. This case seems distinct in that it is also stylized as disparate treatment and includes the specific facts that were hard to ignore. This is in contrast to other cases with more egregious allegations, but which do not have facts regarding similarly situated white students who were treated differently. This instant case also included some other more racially charged allegations, but the court did not frame its analysis around them, rather it focused more squarely on disparate treatment. In short, it may be easier to sustain a claim based on low-level disparate treatment than it is based on racially charged environments. Or, at least, this court would seem to see it that way.