A federal appeals court has ruled that Jefferson State Community College officials in Alabama were immune from a lawsuit claiming they should have prevented same-sex sexual harassment by a security supervisor. A three-judge panel of the 11th circuit U.S. court of appeals, agreeing with a lower court decision, said the officials were immune because at the time of the alleged harassment the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet made clear that same-sex sexual harassment was a violation of the workers' rights. The suit claimed a male security supervisor at the college, William Shelnutt, made inappropriate sexual comments to male workers and touched them inappropriately from 1983 to 1998, said plaintiffs' attorney James M. Wooten. The workers--Thomas Snider, John Ponder, Tommy Diltz, and Benny Gilcrest--sued Shelnutt, college president Judy Merritt, and Dean of Business Operations R.L. Drennen. The workers claimed Merritt and Drennen knew about the harassment, should have stopped it, and failed to do so.
A U.S. district judge ruled that Merritt and Drennen were immune from the suit because courts had not yet "clearly established that same-sex sexual harassment violated the Equal Protection clause" of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, according to the appeals court ruling released Tuesday. "Although officials...can be put on notice that their conduct violates established law even in novel factual circumstances, we stress that officials cannot be 'expected to predict the future course of constitutional law,"' Judge J.L. Edmondson wrote for the court. Wooten said Tuesday he had not discussed the ruling with his clients and was unsure whether there would be an appeal.