A key preliminary ruling came this week in one of the several lawsuits against Baylor University that argue its mishandling of reported sexual assaults violates Title IX. This lawsuit was filed by ten anonymous plaintiffs who allege having been sexual assaulted by fellow students (including, in one case, a member of the football team) between 2004 and 2016, while each was a student at the time. Each of the plaintiffs allege that they reported her sexual assault to various appropriate campus officials, but that the university responded inadequately by failing to investigate and discipline the alleged offender and failing to address the effects of assault through with academic, counseling, and other accommodations. In addition to arguing that the university's indifferent response to the their own report caused them psychological and economic damages that are subject to remedy under Title IX (so-called "post-reporting claims"), they also allege that the university's systematic failure to address sexual assault more generally increased their risks of being assaulted in the first place (so-called "heightened risk claims").
The judge first decided that the plaintiffs' post-reporting claims adequately alleged the required elements of claim for money damages under Title IX, mainly, notice to an appropriate person and the institution's deliberately indifferent response. Baylor argued that the plaintiffs' allegations about the institution's response cited violations of the Department of Education's Dear Colleague Letter and argued, correctly, that such violations do not automatically constitute deliberate indifference. However, the court decided that the plaintiffs had still adequately alleged deliberate indifference, pointing out that violations of the DCL should at least be a factor in the analysis of whether the responses were, overall, indifferent. The court also agreed with the plaintiffs that they were not required to allege that the university's indifferent respond lead to further sexual harassment or assault, only that it heightened the risk thereof. However, four of the ten plaintiffs' claims for harm arising from the university's failure to respond to their reports are outside the two-year statute of limitations period that applies to this case. So only the post-reporting claims of the other six will move forward.
Next, the judge reasoned that the heightened risk claims were also adequately alleged. The plaintiffs alleged that the university's conduct in the face of widespread sexual assault constituted an intentionally discriminatory policy of exposing students to a heightened risk of sexual assault. Such conduct included systematically misinforming students of their rights, failing to investigate, discouraging reporting, and falsely reporting to the government that no sexual assaults occurred. The court reasoned that because they were alleging an intentional policy, the requirement to allege deliberate indifference did not apply. The judge also determined that all ten of the heightened risk claims can proceed, even those based on alleged sexual assaults that took place more than two years ago, because only recently did the plaintiffs have access to all the information they needed to allege the kind of pattern of repeated misconduct that could amount to an intentionally discriminatory policy. In fact, as some legal experts have already pointed out, the judge has effectively set a 2018 deadline for other potential lawsuits by victims of other past sexual assaults. It will be interesting to see if this increases further still the number of lawsuits against Baylor. It also makes it less likely that Baylor will succeed in getting the other, similar lawsuits dismissed.