Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sexual Harassment Roundup

Here are summaries of several recent judicial decisions applying Title IX to sexual assault and sexual harassment:

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's decision (which we blogged about here) to dismiss Title IX claims against St. Louis University on summary judgment. The plaintiff, a female student-athlete, alleged that the university responded with deliberate indifference after she reported to campus officials that she had been sexually assaulted at an off-campus party.  But the court determined that the university's response was adequate.  An athletics administrator set up a meeting with the student as soon as she learned about the assault.  The administrator offered her support and instructed her on how to file a complaint, though the student declined to do so.  Later, the student's father reported the assault to the campus police, who immediately commenced an investigation as well as cooperated in separate investigation by St. Louis police.  The court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the administrator should have involved the Title IX Coordinator, as OCR requires, by affirming that the "deliberate indifference" standard that applies to civil lawsuits for money damages is not the same as the regulatory standard of compliance that applies to administrative actions. The court also agreed with the district court that Title IX did not apply to this off-campus party because that situation was outside of the university's control. Yet given that the rapist turned out the be a student, and the ramifications of the rape followed the victim back to campus, I think the university's jurisdiction was clear. Roe v. St. Louis University, 2014 WL 1181097 (Mar. 25, 2014).

A federal district court in Pennsylvania dismissed Title IX claims against East Stroudsburg University alleging that officials there could have protected male students who worked in the university's development office from sexual harassment by their supervisor, Issac Sanders.  The student plaintiffs alleged that university officials were on notice of sexual improprieties committed by Sanders prior to the first student's filing of an official complaint against him in 2007. However, despite the plaintiffs' allegation that Sanders had a reputation for inappropriate sexual relationships with the male student-workers, the plaintiffs could not point to anything specific and credible known by university officials that should have triggered an earlier response.  Moreover, the court agreed with the university that officials responded appropriately after they received the first official complaint against Sanders.  Though the court dismissed the plaintiffs' Title IX claims against the university, it did allow separate claims against Sanders on other grounds to move forward.  Bernard v. East Stroudsburg University, 2014 WL 1454913 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2014).   

A federal district court in Pennsylvania denied a school district's motion to dismiss the Title IX claim of a female high school student arising from her sexual assault by a male Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) instructor.  The court agreed that she sufficiently alleged the school district to have had actual knowledge that the instructor posed a substantial danger to students because the school district had received five complaints in the past from students alleging that he had subjected them to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.  Additionally the plaintiff adequately alleged that officials' failure to discipline, train, or monitor the instructor amounted to deliberate indifference.   Doe v. Boyertown Area Sch. Dist., 2014 WL 1281125 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 28, 2014).

A female middle school student's claim that the Breathitt County Board of Education is liable under Title IX for the sexual advances of her male teacher survived the board's motion for summary judgment.  The federal district court in Kentucky determined the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence that school officials had actual knowledge that the teacher posed a substantial risk of sexual harassment to female students, including that they knew he had exchanged many text messages of a personal nature with other female students.  The court also believed a jury could find that the school board's decision to rehire him amounted to deliberate indifference.  Thorpe v. Breathitt County Bd. of Educ., 2014 WL 1101035 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 21, 2014).