Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Two Recent Summary Judgment Decisions in Disciplined-Student Cases

When a university is sued by a student who has been disciplined for sexual misconduct, it will typically file a motion to dismiss, arguing that the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint -- even if true -- are not legally sufficient to sustain a claim under Title IX or whatever source of law the plaintiff is alleging to have been violated. If the university wins on this early-stage motion, the case goes away before it ever really gets off the ground. But if the university's motion does not succeed, the plaintiff has the opportunity to take discovery: to gather evidence that it will use to support the allegations in the complaint when the case gets to trial. This includes taking depositions of university officials and requesting documents from them as well. At the close of discovery, the university can again seek to have the case thrown out -- this time, on a motion for summary judgment -- but the discovery process itself can be enough of a hassle that universities will chose to settle before the case gets this far.  That is why the volume of decisions on motions to dismiss is so much higher than decisions on motions for summary judgment.  When summary judgment decisions come out, this blogger takes notice!  Here are two recent ones: one where the university loses, and one where the uni
university wins.

Rossley v. Drake University (university loses). Drake University in Iowa moved for summary judgment to end litigation over a former student's claim that the university violated Title IX when it expelled him for sexual misconduct. The district court granted summary judgment on the plaintiff's erroneous outcome claim, rejecting all of plaintiff's arguments that university officers were biased against him because of his sex. The mere fact that the university found against him, a male, is not evidence of gender bias. Though some courts have said that a disciplinary decision that goes against the weight of the evidence can be a plausible basis for an allegation of gender bias, summary judgment is where the plaintiff must stop alleging and start proving. The court also rejected the notion that a university's use of "victim-centered" or "trauma-informed" process is per se gender biased, when such university uses gender neutral language in its policies. Additionally, the court rejected the idea that the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter served as evidence of gender bias, since there is no evidence that the letter motivated university officials to react in ways that were biased against male students.

However, the court denied Drake's motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff's Title IX claim based on selective enforcement.  In this case, the plaintiff alleged that the university deployed its investigatory and disciplinary process in response to the complainant's allegations against him, they failed to the same in response to his allegations against her. The court affirmed that if the plaintiff and his accuser were similarly situated in their respective allegations, than the different treatment they received would violate Title IX. However, there are disputed facts about whether the plaintiff and the accuser were similarly situated, thus precluding a summary judgment decision and necessitating fact-finding by the jury. He did not file a formal complaint against her, which could explain why they didn't take his allegations seriously, except that he alleges university officials dissuaded him from filing a complaint. To get to the bottom of these disputed facts, the jury needs to hear the relevant testimony and decide for itself whether the university treated his allegations less seriously than hers despite their material similarity.

Ayala v. Butler University.  Butler University, on the other hand, won summary judgment of Title IX (and other) claims filed by a student challenging his expulsion for sexual misconduct. Though the male plaintiff argued that the university's process was tainted by gender bias, the court found nothing in evidence that could convince a juror of that. The investigator's "persistent questions... about verbal consent" at most suggest bias towards victims, not bias towards women or against men. And evidence that Butler treated a male respondent in another case with a lesser sanction doesn't suggest any kind of pattern of treating male respondents differently because of their sex. The court easily dismissed this plaintiff's case against Butler.