Four Years Later, Lesbian Teacher Getting Day In Court

Sexual orientation suit based on student harassment survives second hurdle

A federal magistrate judge has found that a former high school teacher in Comsewogue, Long Island, is entitled to a trial of her sexual orientation discrimination claim against the school district there and her former high school principal.

Magistrate James Orenstein’s June 15 decision, largely reject the pre-trial motion for summary judgment made by the school district, building on prior rulings by federal District Judge Arthur Spatt.

Orenstein’s ruling sets up the possibility that Joan Lovell will finally have her day in court, more than four years after she claims harassment forced her out of the classroom.

The incidents that gave rise to this case occurred early in 2001, at which point Lovell had been a full-time art teacher for the Comsewogue public schools for 27 years. At no point during her tenure did she ever make any statements at school about her sexual orientation. But in February 2001 she had some run-ins with several female students at the high school who claimed that she was looking at them “in a sexual manner.”

Joseph Rella, the school principal, investigated these charges against Lovell and found them unfounded, but the students were merely transferred out of her class, without any penalty being imposed on them. The principal, in fact, awarded one of the students who made the unfounded charges a high grade for that academic quarter even though she previously had received low marks.

Lovell alleges that after the February incident she experienced other forms of harassment, including homophobic graffiti, comments by students and an accusation that she was harder on male students than female students. She maintains that school officials failed to take significant action to back her up, that she experienced significant stress, asked for leave and has not taught in Comsewogue schools since then. She received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the treatment she said she suffered and was advised not to resume classroom teaching.

Lovell’s lawsuit alleges sexual orientation discrimination by the district and by Rella, the principal, both because they handled her situation differently from teachers involved in race-related incidents and they failed to take steps to protect her from homophobic harassment by students.

In a prior ruling, Judge Spatt had rejected the school district’s argument that the case should be dismissed because there is no legal basis for a claim of sexual orientation discrimination. That clearly would not fly in the federal courts in the Eastern District of New York, which had issued several precedent-setting rulings recognizing sexual orientation discrimination claims by gay police officers on Long Island. Ever since the 1996 Supreme Court ruling in Romer v. Evans that overturned Colorado’s Amendment 2 that barred any state or local government from adopting gay rights protections, it is clear that unjustified sexual orientation discrimination can be litigated under the 14th Amendment.

Orenstein was assigned to preside over pre-trial discovery and deal initially with pre-trial motions.

The defendants argued in support of their new motion for summary judgment that there was no need for further fact-finding, and that Rella and other school officials had acted reasonably under the circumstances. But Orenstein found that the facts alleged by Lovell, if believed by a jury, could support a finding of sexual orientation discrimination. What remains to be determined, however, is whether a school district and a principal can be held liable for a hostile environment created by homophobic students.

Orenstein found that such a theory is plausible, and allowed Lovell to move forward with her suit.

Rella, the principal, was successful in demonstrating that he could not have been aware that the school was in fact liable for hostile student behavior.

As a result, only the school district—not Rella as principal—remains as a defendant on the hostile environment portion of the discrimination claim.