Friday, January 23, 2015

Court Clarifies Pleading Standard for Title IX Cases Challenging Campus Disciplinary Outcomes

Earlier this month, a federal district court in Ohio considered Miami University's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a male student whom the university had expelled after a disciplinary board found that he had committed sexual assault on another student.  The court found that the student had not sufficiently alleged a Title IX violation in his complaint, though it granted him the opportunity to amend his complaint and try again.  In evaluating the student's first attempt, the court provided an analysis that is useful to understanding the scope of institutional liability under Title IX in cases challenging universities' decisions to discipline students for sexual assault or other misconduct.

The student's argument in this case is that he did not commit sexual assault, but rather, had consensual sex with the female student who later accused him.  He thus charges the university disciplinary board with having reached the wrong conclusion in his case.  Accordingly, the court refers to this claim as an "erroneous outcome" claim, as earlier court decisions have done.  Citing twenty-year-old precedent* the court explained that a complaint alleging an erroneous outcome in violation of Title IX must include allegations of (1) facts sufficient to cast doubt as to the accuracy of the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding and (2) causation, i.e., that the errors were the result of gender bias.  The second requirement is important because it separates conduct that could possibly give rise to liability on other grounds, like negligence or breach of contract, from conduct that constitutes sex discrimination in violation of Title IX.

At the pleading stage, it is not difficult for plaintiffs to satisfy the first requirement, as the student in this case easily did by alleging his version of the facts as they relate to the matter of consent. The second requirement is typically met if the complaint alleges "statements by members of the disciplinary tribunal, statements by pertinent university officials" or "patterns of decision-making that also tend to show the influence of gender." In this case, the complaint included neither type of allegation.  It is not a sufficient "pattern" allegation to point out, as the student in this case did, that “[i]n virtually all cases of campus sexual misconduct,” the accused student is male and the accuser is female.

The court addressed another recent case, also from Ohio, in which a plaintiff like the one here sufficiently pleaded erroneous outcome in violation of Title IX, and thus survived the university's motion to dismiss. In that case, Wells v. Xavier University, the plaintiff alleged that bias stemmed from the fact that Xavier was being investigated by the Office for Civil Rights for failure to adequately protect sexual assault victims, and as a result, was motivated to use him as a scapegoat to improve their image. The court  was satisfied that such an allegation could, if proven serve as evidence of gender bias on Xavier's part.**

In the present case against Miami University case, the plaintiff's complaint did not contain allegations of the "scapegoat" theory that had been present in Wells v. Xavier University, though the court indicated that if the plaintiff amends his complaint along these lines, he may be able to withstand dismissal as well and continue to litigate his Title IX claim.

The court gave the plaintiff a month to re-file an amended complaint. We shall see what happens.
Sahm v. Miami Univ., 2015 WL 93631 (S.D. Ohio Jan. 7, 2015).

*the age is worth noting, in light of common misconception that Title IX's application to sexual assault is something brand new.  The decision the court relied on is Yusuf v. Vassar College, 35 F.3d 709 (2d Cir. 1994).  That case also set forth selective enforcement model as an alternative to the erroneous outcome model for framing Title IX challenges to university disciplinary decisions. In selective enforcement cases, the plaintiff does not need to allege his innocence, only that the university engages in a pattern of disciplining only members of one sex and ignoring complaints of similar violations by the other sex.

 ** The parties in Wells v. Xavier University decided to settle rather than go to trial, so it does not serve as an example for how to prove bias, only how to plead it.