Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ninth Circuit Reinstates Grad Student's Retaliation Case

Monica Emeldi, a graduate student in the University of Oregon's Department of Education, sued her institution under Title IX after the faculty chair of her dissertation committee resigned in ostensible retaliation for her complaints about gender equity within the department. A federal district court had earlier granted summary judgment in favor of the university, but yesterday, an appellate panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling and reinstated her case.

According the Ninth Circuit's analysis, Emeldi satisfied the basic elements of a retaliation case under Title IX, including that she engaged in "protected conduct" when she presented a memo to department officials summarizing graduate students' complaints about the department's bias towards male graduate students and failure to hire female faculty members. Soon thereafter, Horner, the chair of her dissertation committee resigned, a consequence that the court agreed was a consequence that a jury could find "materially adverse" that "might have dissuaded a reasonable [person] from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."

Last, the court determined that Emeldi presented sufficient evidence on which a jury could conclude that Horner's resignation was related to her complaint, including evidence of the proximity in time between Horner's resignation and Emeldi's complaint, that Horner knew about Emeldi's complaint, Horner's gender bias in other contexts, such as favoritism to male graduate students, that Horner resigned without helping Emeldi secure a replacement chair, that Horner had in the past praised Emeldi's work, which suggests that Horner did not resign for nondiscriminatory reasons that he claimed, and that Emeldi was unable to find a replacement chair even after asking fifteen other members of the department.

One judge, however, dissented from the majority's conclusion that Emeldi's case should have a chance to reach a jury, basing his objection primary on Emeldi's failure to provide corroborating evidence by other witnesses and relying instead on her own affidavits and testimony. The dissent concludes, "Title IX's worthy antidiscrimination objectives notwithstanding, to let Ms. Emeldi's claims go to a jury will serve only as a precedent-setting example of how little it takes to turn a failed supervisory relationship between a professor and his Ph.D. candidate into a federal case of gender discrimination."

Emeldi v. Univ. of Oregon, 2012 WL 933821 (9th Cir. Mar. 21, 2012).