Thursday, July 11, 2013

Student Accused of Rape Sues University Under Title IX

Last winter, Brian Harris, a student at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, was accused of raping a female student.  He was suspended after a disciplinary proceeding found him responsible.  Now Harris is suing the university under Title IX, alleging that the investigation and proceeding that lead to his suspension was biased against him because of his sex.  This is not the first case we've noted in which a student accused of rape later sues under Title IX.  In an earlier case against the University of South, a court dismissed the male student's claims that the university was biased against him because of sex.  But that student did prevail on other grounds, including negligence and violation of its own procedures.

According to press about Harris's case, his complaint alleges violations of the university's policies for investigating accusations of sexual assault.  He claims that the investigation was biased and one-sided in that it ignored exculpatory evidence.  Yet, as one expert interviewed in the article points out, the complaint is vague about how exactly this amounts to bias because of sex.  It is possible that Harris could convince a court, like the University of the South student did, that mistakes were made, without necessarily being able to attribute them to intentional gender bias.  Discriminatory intent is hard to prove, even though courts do not require plaintiffs to have direct evidence of such intent, such as if a university official made a statement that they was suspending Harris due to animus towards the male gender (an unlikely scenario).  In the analogous context of employment discrimination, when a plaintiff undermines the employer's stated reason for termination, it is sometimes inferred that discrimination was the reason instead.   Here, Harris can attempt to discredit the university's stated reason for his suspension -- i.e., that they believed it was more than likely that he committed rape -- by arguing that the investigation and hearing were so flawed that it could not have led the university to genuinely believe that that Harris was likely to have committed rape.  It might be reasonable, then, to infer that the suspension was motivated by bias instead.  But it's hard to see what Harris would argue supports the inference that bias was due to sex, when there are so many theoretically possible grounds for bias (personality based, for example, or motivated by campus politics) that are not prohibited by Title IX.