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Maryland Federal Court Rejects Catholic Archdiocese Efforts to Dismiss Title IX Retaliation Case for Reporting Sex Abuse at Archbishop Curley High School

Correia & Puth Continues Former Librarian’s Title IX Retaliation Claim Alleging She Was Fired For Reporting Sex Between Teacher and Student

Baltimore, Maryland (March 4, 2016) – A federal court in Maryland rejected efforts by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and Archbishop Curley High School to dismiss a Title IX retaliation lawsuit filed by former librarian Annette Goodman whom they fired after she reported sexual activity between a Curley teacher and student. In her complaint, Ms. Goodman charged that the Archdiocese and Curley violated Title IX when they suspended and fired her for reporting the sexual activity to Curley’s administration and the Archdiocese’s lawyer. Ms. Goodman is represented by Correia & Puth, PLLC, a national employment law firm in Washington, D.C.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett in Baltimore rejected the Archdiocese and Curley’s argument that they were exempt from Title IX. According to her complaint, Ms. Goodman learned in February 2014 that Curley disciplined teacher Lynette Trotta because of Trotta’s inappropriate physical behavior with students. In March of 2014, a student told Ms. Goodman that he had sex with Trotta. On April 1, 2014, Ms. Goodman reported the sexual contact to school authorities. According to Ms. Goodman’s complaint, Vice-Principal Brian Kohler and Principal Phil Piercy directed her not to speak with anyone about what she had reported. Specifically, Kohler replied, “If I don’t look surprised, it’s because, well, I’m a professional and I’ve heard all of this before.” Once police became involved in investigating the allegations, Father Joe Benicewicz, another school official, yelled at Goodman, “I am VERY, VERY upset with you! Were you or were you not told not to speak to anybody?” A day after making her report, Curley suspended Ms. Goodman. Three days later, the Archdiocese issued a press statement stating that it suspended Ms. Goodman for having reported the allegations, along with the teacher, as though Goodman was a wrongdoer. Curley terminated her on April 10, 2014. Ms. Goodman claims that Curley fired her in retaliation for making a report of sexual abuse, a report protected by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and that the Archdiocese and Curley used her as a scapegoat to deflect responsibility for their own failure to act months earlier after learning of Trotta’s behavior.

Judge Bennett has now twice rejected efforts by the Archdiocese and Curley to dismiss the lawsuit. On January 5, 2016, the Court found that the timing of Ms. Goodman’s report did not withdraw the protections afforded to it under Title IX. The Archdiocese and Curley attempted to claim that they were justified in terminating Ms. Goodman because Maryland law requires educators to notify authorities of sexual abuse of a minor within 48 hours. The Court rejected the Defendants’ argument, finding that Title IX protected Ms. Goodman’s report of sexual abuse irrespective of its timing and that her complaint sufficiently pled a claim for retaliation under Title IX. The Court considered the ramifications of Defendants’ position, noting:

[T]he fatal flaw and the lack of legal merit in the position of Archbishop Curley High School and the Archdiocese of Baltimore is . . . that a person who doesn’t immediately notify within 24 to 48 hours should never notify . . . should just sit on it and never notify, because you’re saying that they have been violating the law, they can be prosecuted by a prosecutor, and, based on the arguments you’re presenting from the Archdiocese, you either pick up the phone within 24 or 48 hours, or you don’t do anything. . . . [T]hat concept . . . should cause pause to all of us.

On February 26, 2016, the Court rejected a second attempt to dismiss the complaint based on claims that the Defendants’ asserted religious tenets – requiring immediate reporting of sexual abuse – exempted them from Title IX’s anti-retaliation protections. The Court stated:

The United States Supreme Court has recognized the importance of retaliation claims in Title IX enforcement [in 2005 in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education], and no court has since held that Title IX’s religious organizations exemption precludes a Plaintiff from raising a Title IX retaliation claim simply because the employer has proposed a religious reason for her termination.

Noting the lack of case authority supporting Defendants’ broad application of Title IX religious exemption, the Court stated:

[S]everal courts have considered the broader question of how far an employment discrimination claim may proceed in challenging an employer’s religiously-based explanation for an adverse employment action without interfering with that employer’s religious freedoms. Those cases suggest that Title IX’s “narrow” religious organizations exemption should not be read as supporting dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim as a matter of law.

In arguments before the Court, Ms. Goodman’s lead attorney, Linda M. Correia of Correia & Puth, noted the flaws in Defendants’ arguments:

Their concern here was the potential civil liability that they faced because of what had happened to the student. They were concerned about the student in trying to deflect their responsibility for that, and that’s why they retaliated against Ms. Goodman. Ms. Goodman clearly was reporting that a student’s rights under Title IX to be free of sexual abuse in his educational environment were being abused. . . . The only way students are going to be protected is if this reporting mechanism is enforced and that someone like Ms. Goodman, who stood up to do the right thing, to make sure that she is protected and that she is remedied for an unlawful violation and termination of her employment.

The Court’s decisions allow Ms. Goodman’s lawsuit to go forward. In response to the Court’s February 26, 2016 decision, Ms. Correia stated, “Title IX clearly protects Annette Goodman from retaliation for her report of sexual abuse. Educators should be encouraged – not silenced – to report when a student’s right to education free of sexual abuse or sex discrimination by a teacher is at risk. We are grateful for the Court’s decisions and look forward to a trial on Ms. Goodman’s claims.”

For more information, contact Correia & Puth at (202) 602-6500 or firm@correiaputh.com. 

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Correia & Puth, PLLC, is a Washington, DC law firm dedicated solely to representing employees confronting workplace discrimination, retaliation, and unfair treatment. The firm is a recognized, national leader on using Title IX as an effective mechanism for maintaining educational environments free from discrimination and retaliation.

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