Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Court Will Not Dismiss Disciplined Students' Title IX Claim Against Salisbury University

Two male students who were suspended from Salisbury University in Maryland can continue to litigate their claim that the university's flawed disciplinary process was the product of gender bias.  A federal court denied the university's motion to dismiss this claim, which means the plaintiffs' allegations would be sufficient to constitution a violation of Title IX in the event they are eventually proven true.  In "erroneous outcome" cases like this one, that means the plaintiff must first allege procedural flaws that call the disciplinary outcome into question.  Second, the plaintiff must allege  specific examples of gender bias that could plausibly have provided the motivation for the flawed proceeding.

The plaintiffs' complaint in this case alleged a number of procedural flaws including:
  • that they were denied the opportunity to ask "critical questions" of the witnesses
  • that the university withheld from them the witness statements, witness lists, and other evidence that they had the right to review before the hearing
  • that they were denied the right to have their attorney present even though university policy affords them this right
  • and that the investigators improperly influenced the disciplinary board in the way their presented their findings and conclusions
The court found these allegations sufficient of the first requirement.  The court also found that the plaintiffs' complaint contained the requisite allegations of gender bias, though it was a "close call."   Some of the plaintiffs' bias allegation was based on the university's effort to raise awareness about the problem of sexual assault on campus.  The court dismissed the idea that such bias could be inferred from program announcements presented in a "gender-neutral tone, addressed to all students, and published to improve campus safety for both men and women."  Similarly, funding a sexual assault prevention program with a grant from the Avon Fund for Women did not evidence bias, because the program was advertised "for all students."  However, the plaintiffs also alleged that "on information and belief" the university possesses communication evidencing its intent to impress the Department of Education by railroading male students accused of sexual assault. I was surprised that the court accepted this vague of allegation of bias as sufficient, but it did.  The court admitted that a general allegation of bias would not have been sufficient.  Allowing plaintiffs to proceed on an allegation like "we believe you have evidence of bias in writing" seems like a pleading tactic that would work any time a plaintiff does not have anything on which to base a specific allegation of bias, and thus operate as an end run around the requirement that allegations be specific in the first place.

In sum, the court rejected the claim that the university's sexual assault awareness programs supported the inference sex discrimination (which is probably reassuring for universities running similar programs). But it did permit plaintiffs to seek to "uncover discoverable and admissible evidence that Plaintiffs' gender was a motivating factor behind SU's allegedly flawed disciplinary procedures and wrongful conclusions." As a practical matter, Salisbury University will have to respond to the plaintiffs' requests for information, records, and depositions. If no evidence to support bias turns up, the university can later move for summary judgment.

Doe v. Salisbury Univ., 2015 WL 5005811 (D. Md. Aug. 21, 2015).

Monday, August 24, 2015

Back to school, back to reality

The new school year often brings some Title IX news. Stories that address what a girl versus a boy is allowed to wear for yearbook photos or whether the women's cross-country roster is being padded with runners from winter/spring track have made the back-to-school news in the past. This summer has not exactly been slow in the Title IX world. Court cases against various schools being brought by those who feel schools did not do enough and those who felt schools went too far continue to move through legal proceedings. (See Erin's post from last week.)

This is one the first back-to-school smh-es I have seen. And it is very bad. This morning it was local news; this afternoon national media picked it up.

An off-campus house at Old Dominion University where some members of the Sigma Nu fraternity live, had banners hanging from the windows this weekend "welcoming" female first years--and their parents--with threats of sexual assault. Rivaling a Yale fraternity's chants of "no means yes, yes means anal" from several years back, the banners, only slightly more subtle, read: "Rowdy and fun. Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time"; "Freshman daughter drop off (with an arrow pointing to the front door)"; and "Go ahead and drop off mom too..."

The outrage and condemnation was swift with the president and other university officials speaking out over the weekend against the now-removed banners. But it was not until today that Sigma Nu was suspended the university, a move that was supported by the fraternity's national organization, who said that it does indeed appear that members of the fraternity participated in the banner making and that those men will be dealt with by the organization.

This incident certainly adds to recent discussions about the role and current manifestations of sororities and fraternities on campuses. More narrowly, and more to what we think about here, it speaks to the culture that exists on campus. ODU is NOT on the list of schools being investigated by OCR and there is no Title IX lawsuit against them. This does not mean that is all is well at the university.

Last spring, a local news station spent considerable effort investigating the case of an ODU student who was raped on campus (not by an enrolled student). She contends, and evidence confirms, that the university was slow to respond to her requests--like to change housing, which they did after a month though they charged her more for her new housing--and offered very little support. Her scholarship was yanked when her grades fell in the aftermath of the rape, when she was suffering from PTSD. She did not file a complaint, as I noted, but if she had...well, things like fraternity members making public assertions about the role they think female students should play might make it into the report. In other words, though ODU may have dealt with that rape and this current situation, they need to treat these not as isolated incidents but as part of a culture marked by misogyny. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Campus Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault Litigation Roundup

In two recent judicial decisions, courts refused to grant university's motions to dismiss Title IX cases in which the plaintiff alleged that the university did not adequately respond to his or her report of sexual harassment or assault.
  • In the first case, a federal court in Illinois allowed a male medical student to continue to litigate his case against Northwestern University, in which he alleges that the university did not adequately respond to his report of sexual harassment by a male professor.  The professor, the plaintiff alleges, made suggestive comments and retaliated against the plaintiff in various ways for refusing his sexual advances. The court agreed that the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint satisfy the legal standard for liability under Title IX, and thus cannot be dismissed without continued litigation.  The plaintiff alleges a sexist double standard in Northwestern's policy of not investigating reports of incidents that were two years old, the time frame that lapsed between the professor's misconduct and the plaintiff's report to the university's sexual harassment office. Because the plaintiff's complaint included an example of a female complainant's case that was investigated even though the harassment was similarly out of date,  it could, if proven, subject Northwestern to liability under Title IX. The court also denied the university's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's retaliation claim, in which he alleged that the university continued to take adverse action against him after and because of his reporting of the professor's harassment.  Yap v. Northwestern Univ., 2015 WL 4692492 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 6, 2015).
  • Similarly, a federal court in Florida denied Florida State's motion to dismiss the Title IX case filed by  Erica Kinsman, who alleges that the university did not adequately respond to knowledge of her report that quarterback Jameis Winston raped her in 2012.  Though FSU disputes the allegations in the complaint, the judge ruled that it is possible that a jury could find truth in Kinsman's claims that appropriate university officials had actual notice of Kinsman's report by January of 2013, and that they did not initiate an investigation for eleven months, which would satisfy the standard of institutional liability under Title IX.  The judge set a trial date for July of 2016, though it is possible of course that the case could settle before then, or that FSU could file and prevail on a motion for summary judgment after the discovery phase which allows the parties to gather evidence. 
Also, there were developments in three disciplined-student cases worth noting.
  • A federal court in Virginia denied Washington and Lee University's motion to dismiss a male student's claim that the university violated Title IX when it expelled him for sexual assault.  The court agreed that the plaintiff's complaint contained sufficient allegations that would, if proven, constitute a violation of Title IX under the "erroneous outcome" framework.  At this early stage of litigation, a plaintiff in an erroneous outcome case must (1) cast doubt on the accuracy of the university's finding against him; and (2) allege specific facts that can establish gender bias as a motive. Here, the plaintiff alleged numerous procedural violations that resulted in evidence favorable to him being excluded from the disciplinary panel's consideration. He also alleged that gender bias could be attributed to the Title IX officer who presented the case against him, as evidenced by her public endorsement of the idea that "sexual assault occurs whenever a woman has consensual sex with a man and regrets it because she had internal reservations that she did not outwardly express."  Because the plaintiff's case "parallels of the situation it describes and the circumstances under which Plaintiff was found responsible for sexual misconduct" and because the Title IX officer wielded "considerable influence" in the proceedings, it is possible, the judge reasoned, for a jury to find evidence of gender bias.  This is a rare outcome in that disciplined-students' Title IX claims do not usually survive the university's motion to dismiss -- usually because of insufficient allegations of gender bias. Doe v. Washington and Lee Univ., 2015 WL 4647996 (W.D. Va. Aug. 5, 2015).
  • And, a state court judge in Tennessee reversed a decision by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to expel a male student and wrestler Corey Mock for sexual assault.  In that case, a female student reported to the university that Mock had had sex with her while she was unconscious.  A disciplinary panel initially determined that there was not enough evidence to find Mock responsible, but this decision was overturned on an appeal within the university.  The court took issue with the university's ultimate decision, which it interpreted as requiring Mock to prove he had obtained consent rather than requiring the complainant to prove he hadn't. Though the court's decision was based on state administrative law, not Title IX, the outcome is consistent with what is required of universities under Title IX.  Even though a complainant does not have to have overwhelming evidence (only a preponderance) that consent did not occur, it is still the complainant's burden to prove that consent did not occur.  
  • A superior court judge in Los Angeles reinstated plaintiff Bryce Dixon to the University of Southern California while his case against the university is pending.  Dixon, a football player, is challenging the university's decision to expel him for sexual assault stemming from a sexual encounter with a female trainer that he claims was preceded by implied consent, though a university disciplinary panel found otherwise.

Monday, August 17, 2015

11th Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in "Rape Bait" Case

In 2013, we blogged about a district court decision that a school district in Alabama could not be liable under Title IX for its participation in a teacher's aid's plan to use an eighth grade girl as, essentially, bait to catch a habitually-offending male student "in the act" of soliciting female classmates for sex. The plan called for the female student to agree to the male student's proposal to meet in the bathroom, where officials would intervene before any sexual assault occurred. However, no timely intervention occurred and the female student was raped.  We noted with alarm the district court's exceedingly narrow application of the deliberate indifference standard, since there was a genuine factual dispute that the assistant principle was aware that a female student was under a serious threat of sexual assault and did nothing to stop it.

Thankfully, this decision has been reversed on appeal.  Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there was enough evidence to warrant a trial on the crucial elements for institutional liability, i.e., actual notice and deliberate indifference.  There were enough facts in evidence that a jury could potentially find that shool district officials had actual notice of the threat posed by male student.  Namely, the school board admitted that officials knew of reports that the male student had harassed and assaulted other female students in past, and while it was disputed whether the Assistant Principle knew about the sting operation in progress, a jury could potentially find that this was so.

The court also thought there was enough evidence that a reasonable jury could find that school officials were deliberately indifferent -- both to the threat of rape and in their response to the rape after it occurred.  Not only was deliberate indifference suggested by officials' failure to intervene in the sting operation, but also, the court noted, its inadequate teacher training on sexual harassment, its ineffective disciplinary policies and record keeping practices, and the fact that the rapist himself was sometimes unsupervised during his in-school suspension, and the principal's failure to revise any policies after the rape had occurred. 

The plaintiff's Title IX claim will be allowed to proceed to trial.

The court also reinstated the plaintiff's constitutional claims against the principal, assistant principal, and teacher's aid as individuals.

For some other commentary about the case see here
For a copy of the decision, see here, or:

Hill v. Cundiff, 2015 WL 4747047 (11th Cir. Aug. 12, 2015)

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Settlement in Oregon case

The woman who filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Oregon, including basketball coach Dana Altman, has dropped the lawsuit as part of an $800,000 settlement. The student, who will also receive a waiver of her tuition and fees to finish her education at the university, believed that the coach knew that at least one of the players who allegedly assaulted her had been kicked off the basketball team at Providence College for participation in a gang rape.

We have written about the Oregon case, especially in light of the larger issue of a school's responsibility for and awareness of past incidents when accepting transfer student athletes. Brandon Austin--the player from Providence--is now playing for a junior college in Florida. We were very interested to see what would happen in this case, whether some kind of precedent would be sent or warning issued about accepting student athletes with records of violent and criminal behavior. The settlement has less ability to do so because all parties are expected to appear with pseudo smiles on their faces and some words about respect for the system, or--at worst--say nothing at all. There is a similar case in Oklahoma where a University of Tulsa student has filed a Title IX lawsuit against the school after alleging she was raped by a basketball player who should have never been allowed on campus, she states, due to his charges of sexual assault at a previous institution; so perhaps we will see something different happen there.

What to take from this settlement? My initial thoughts center around the following: that's a lot of money, but it is unlikely that significant change will be effected.

As I said in a previous post (linked above) whether the woman's legal team would have been able to prove that Oregon and/or Altman knew of Austin's past allegations is something only a trial would have shown. I know that trials can be difficult in these cases, but a trial may have increased the discourse about the transfer process for student athletes that focuses not on when they can play (i.e., eligibility) but on whether they should play or be granted admission to the school. A trial had the potential to raise awareness of this issue. The question, of course, is at what cost to the alleged victim. Maybe it would have put pressure on the Pac-12 to pass a policy similar to the SEC's which bans the acceptance of transfer athletes with past incidents of domestic violence and assault. (Yes, I have noted that these policies will only work when there is greater transparency in the transfer process itself. Still, it signals an acknowledgement of the issue.)

Good news to take from this case: according to the woman's own statement (which admittedly is influenced by the settlement and the fact that this is over and the agreement that the parties not "disparage" each other), she received support from the university community--in addition to outside groups and individuals. This is very different from the situation at Florida State where Jameis Winston's alleged victim was targeted and driven off campus when her allegations against the now NFL quarterback became known. It is arguably a low bar we have set when praise goes out to a university community for not further harming a victim by ostracizing and doubting her. Still, she clearly feels comfortable remaining at UO and that is a good thing.

The not-so-good: The feeling that the $800,000 settlement is pay off. Insurance, according to one source, will pay for the settlement, which again is quite large which again suggests that someone knew something but what that is, we will never know. The settlement is not technically confidential, but details of the case do not appear to be forthcoming.

Also, the reforms the university have agreed to are quite frankly weak. They have made a very concerted effort to demonstrate Title IX compliance by hiring many new staff members with more hires on the way. The proposed reforms to the student-athlete transfer process, though, are a little concerning. The university plans to ask students if they have a "disciplinary record" at their former schools. Anyone who says yes must agree to sign a waiver giving UO access to those records if the student wants to be considered for admission. It is unclear what would prevent a student from lying given that student records are subject to pretty strict privacy laws. Also, given that most coaches do not want to know these things, I do not see this as being at all effective. (Happy to be proven wrong, though.) Will there be some kind of I-have-to-ask-but-please-don't-tell-me culture established? Would this provide coaches and the school some kind of immunity? "Well I asked and he told me there was nothing, so what was I supposed to do?" I do not see this kind of standard holding up in court. The school has a much greater responsibility to vet student athletes. They do it when it comes to stats and successes and skills, so it's time to extend that research and really prove, as the current president said in relation to this case that "the important thing is we’re not a school of athletes and students. We’re a school of students. Everybody needs to be part of this effort."

Going back to student privacy, another unresolved issue from this case is the gathering of the victim's counseling center records by university-hired lawyers. It is possible that that privacy violation was part of the reason for the large settlement. This is something else the university will need to address as it continues to revise its policies and procedures in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

Eyes will probably be off Oregon now that this case has settled, unless additional details that explain the settlement are revealed. The case in Tulsa, as I mentioned, has the same potential to contribute to a larger discussion of student-athlete behavior and the terms and conditions of the transfer process.