Monday, January 22, 2018

Title IX Claims Dismissed in Two Discipline Cases

In two separate cases, federal district courts ruled that the plaintiffs who were suing their schools after being expelled for sexual misconduct did not satisfactorily allege or support allegations that the school's disciplinary process was tainted by gender bias in violation of Title IX. One of the plaintiffs, however, succeeded in alleging breach of contract claims and can continue to litigate on those grounds.

In the first case, a male student was dismissed from the nursing program at Del Mar College in Texas after multiple incidents misconduct that included sexual comments and gestures made to his classmates.  The court summarily dismissed his claim that the school treated him unfairly compared to female students because he could not show any example in which the college failed to discipline a female student who had engaged in similar misconduct. Nor could he sustain his claim that the college dismissed him in retaliation for complaining about sex discrimination in the disciplinary process, because he disciplinary process that led to his dismissal commenced before his complaint was filed.  Gudgel v. Del Mar College, 2018 WL 472829 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 17, 2018).

In the second case, a male student was expelled from Rider University in  New Jersey after a female student alleged that they had a sexual encounter while she was too intoxicated to consent. He alleged that that the Dean of Students and others involved in the disciplinary process were biased against   him. However, this did not amount to an allegation that the university discriminated against him because of sex, the court reasoned, since at most he could demonstrate only bias in favor of complainants over respondents. Nor did he successfully allege that the university disciplined men more harshly than women for the same conduct. Though the plaintiff complained that his male friend was more intoxicated than another female student when they had a sexual encounter in the same room, he did not allege that the male student sought to file a complaint about her conduct and was prevented from doing so.

However, the court ruled that even though the university's alleged bias did not violate Title IX, it could, if proven, sustain a claim for breach of contract and the related covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The university's sexual misconduct policy, which operates as a contract between the university and its students, promises an impartial investigation. The plaintiff alleged this promise was breached because the investigator ignored inconsistencies in the complainant's statements. Additionally, he alleged that the university did not adhere to its policy of providing an impartial tribunal to adjudicate his case because its members all reported to the Dean of Students, whom plaintiff had alleged had made up his mind against him. As a result of the ruling, the plaintiff has the opportunity to take discovery and gather evidence in support of these allegations. If at the end of discovery the court finds that evidence insufficient to support the claims, it could potentially dismiss them on a motion for summary rather than allow them to proceed to trial. A settlement, of course, is always a possibility as well. For recent examples of settlements in cases like these, see here (Notre Dame) and here (Yale).  Doe v. Rider University, 2018 WL 466225 (D.N.J. Jan. 17, 2018).