Thursday, March 03, 2016

Disciplined Student's Title IX Claim Survives Cornell's Motion to Dismiss

Last week, a federal district court in New York denied part of Cornell's motion to dismiss a lawsuit against the university filed by a student whom it had conditionally expelled for sexual assault.  Like the decision against Brown that we blogged about last week, the ruling allows the plaintiff to continue to litigate his "erroneous outcome" claim against the university.

To proceed on a Title IX/erroneous outcome claim, the plaintiff must plead: (1) "facts sufficient to cast some doubt on the accuracy of the result of the disciplinary proceeding"; and (2) "particular circumstances suggesting that gender bias was a motivating factor behind the erroneous finding." The plaintiff's complaint against Cornell contained several allegations that satisfy the first requirement, including that investigators ignored exculpatory statements of several eyewitnesses and ultimately produced a biased report. Apparently, Cornell's disciplinary hearing process provides little opportunity for a respondent to challenge the findings in the investigators report, so the claim that the report was deficient calls the proceeding's outcome into question.

As for the required allegations of gender bias, the court found the plaintiff's complaint sufficient based on the "totality of the circumstances" described in the plaintiff's complaint, including that:
Jane Doe was treated more favorably than Plaintiff, that the investigators seemingly slanted the Investigative Report against Plaintiff, a drastic change in position of one investigator in the closing weeks of the investigation, and the possibility that male respondents in sexual assault cases are invariably found guilty at Cornell.  
Cornell pointed out that the "men are invariably found guilty" allegation has been rejected by other courts as a "conclusory" allegation that lacks the requisite specificity to satisfy the pleading standard. But the court rejected that argument, pointing out that reading it together with the other allegations of bias turns it into an allegation that is sufficiently specific:
Further, unlike in Doe v. Columbia where a similar “invariable treatment” allegation was rejected as “wholly conclusory,” see Doe v. Columbia, 101 F. Supp. 3d at 369, Plaintiff alleges that anti-male bias was exhibited by the differential treatment he and Doe received during the administrative process, by the on[e]-sided manner that the investigation was conducted, and by the outcome determinative style that the Investigative Report was drafted.
Notably, then, this court appears to view the "differential treatment" and problems with the report as allegations of gender bias, in contrast to the position taken by others courts that allegations of bias against respondents is not the same as bias against men.

Besides the erroneous outcome claim, the plaintiff's selective enforcement claim was dismissed for lack of allegation that women are treated more favorably when they are in the position of respondent. The court also permitted the plaintiff the opportunity to clarify his breach of contract claim and possibly continue to litigate that as well.