Friday, July 20, 2018

What Is an Institution's Title IX Responsibility When Assailant's Victim Attends Another School?

Two items on my radar this week both address the question of an institution's legal obligations under Title IX to discipline one of its own students for sexual misconduct directed at a student of another university.

First, a recent decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a former Providence College student's case against Brown University, in which she challenged the sufficiency of Brown's response to her report of having been sexually assaulted by three Brown football players. Title IX requires plaintiffs who assert a claim for money damages on the deliberate indifference theory to prove “substantial interference with her access to educational opportunities or benefits.” The plaintiff argued that she satisfied this requirement because she withdrew from Providence College as a result of the sexual assault and Brown's allegedly insufficient response. But, the appellate court concluded that the fact she was not a student at Brown disqualified her from satisfying this requirement. The court read the Supreme Court's prior Title IX caselaw to require that the plaintiff must suffer sex discrimination "while participating, or at least attempting to participate, in the funding recipient's education program or activity." This nexus is "logical" according to the court because the "'discrimination' that Title IX prohibits is not the acts of sexual assault or sexual harassment in and of themselves, but rather the differential treatment by a funding recipient of persons of a particular sex who are taking part or trying to take part in its educational program or activity but are suffering acts of sexual harassment or assault that undermine their educational experience."  Doe v. Brown Univ., 2018 WL 3454469 (1st Cir. July 18, 2018)

It is not surprising that a court would limit a university's liability to a student seeking to impose liability for money damages. Title IX's status as a Spending Clause statute means that a university's primary compliance obligation is owed to the government, in exchange for federal funding. Students who are harmed as a result of an institution's Title IX violations are considered third-party beneficiaries of this arrangement. According to the Supreme Court, universities aren't necessarily on notice of the fact that taking government money makes them liable for damages to third parties, so it has limited such liability to situations in which the university intended the harm (or its deemed equivalent, deliberate indifference). For this reason, there are tougher liability standards in court cases than in situations where the government is enforcing Title IX.  In this spirit, I can understand why a court would not want to make a university financially liable for any sexual misconduct committed by its student anywhere in the world that happens to affect the victim's education. But, just because a university isn't liable financially to another university's student, doesn't mean that the government can't impose that requirement as part of its enforcement authority. 

And maybe, the government is considering doing just that?  According to this story in Inside Higher Education, OCR is investigating a case about a student from University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, who was sexually assaulted, off campus, by a student from University of Alabama-Birmingham. The victim filed a complaint with the assailant's institution, which found that the assailant had twice had nonconsensual sex with the victim. But when the assailant appealed, his two-year suspension was reduced to one year. When the victim appealed that decision, UAB reversed the original decision in its entirety, on grounds that it lacked jurisdiction to punish a student for off-campus misconduct that did not create adverse affects or a hostile environment for someone on campus.The fact that OCR is investigating this matter suggests that it thinks its at least plausible that the victim's complaint adequately alleges a Title IX violation by UAB. If that is indeed how OCR resolves the matter, universities might have a Title IX responsibility to adequately discipline their own students for sexual harassment and sexual misconduct against other students -- though its failure to do so could only be addressed by government enforcement rather than in the courts (at least in jurisdictions that follow the First Circuit's approach).

Two other points that are worth mentioning about these kinds of cases: there is little doubt that a university *could,* if it wanted to, have a code of conduct that prohibits its students from engaging in misconduct off campus that results in harm to other people who are not students of the university. The cases in this post are addressing whether a university *must* take jurisdiction over the subset of misconduct that falls under Title IX, sexual harassment and sexual assault.  The second point that's clear is that the victim's student's university has a Title IX obligation to respond to the threat of sexual misconduct that is posed to its own student, even if the source of that threat is another university's student. However, a university does not have power to discipline another university's student, so often the best it can do is bar the offending student from campus (which is apparently what UTC did).