Saturday, October 29, 2016

Supreme Court Grants Cert in Title IX Transgender Bathroom Case

Yesterday the Supreme Court partially granted the Gloucester school district's petition for certiorari to review the appellate court's decision that a transgender student had the right to use the bathroom according to his gender identity:

As you can see from the order, the Supreme Court's order limited its review to two questions raised by the school district's petition.  There were three questions on which the school district sought review in its cert petition:

By refusing to grant certiorari on question 1, the Supreme Court has confirmed that it will not use this case to overrule the Auer doctrine. Under Auer, courts must defer to an agency's interpretation of its own ambiguous regulations. In the decision below, the Fourth Circuit relied on heavily on Auer in determining that the transgender student plaintiff could access the boys' bathrooms at his high school. This is because the Department of Education, which enforces Title IX, has a regulation about bathrooms (it permits schools to separate bathrooms and certain other facilities by sex) but that regulation is silent about its application to transgender students. The Department has since interpreted that regulation to resolve that ambiguity to require schools to permit transgender students to access bathrooms consistent with their gender identities. As an interpretation of an ambiguous regulation, the Fourth Circuit determined, the court deferred to the agency's position on the matter.  It did not pass judgment on the agency's position; it simply recognized that the agency is the proper body to make that call.

In denying cert on the question of whether Auer deference is proper, the Court has made it considerably harder for the school district to prevail. It will only examine whether the Fourth Circuit properly applied that doctrine in this case.  Notably, most of the school district's arguments that it did not target the fact that the agency's interpretation was contained in a limited-purpose opinion letter and was arguably not meant to have broad application. Since that time. the agency has promulgated a broadly applicable guidance document on this issue. Even if it was improper for the Fourth Circuit to have deferred to that opinion letter, it is not necessarily improper for other courts in future cases to defer to the guidance document.

Additionally, it is worth noting that the Supreme Court presently has only 8 justices. The vacancy left by the death of Justice Scalia will not be filled before this case is argued sometime this winter or spring. I can think of three Justices who are likely to be sympathetic to the school district's arguments.  But they would have to get two more to the join them for the school district to win, because a 4-4 tie leaves the Fourth Circuit's decision in tact.

Finally, for some historical context, the Supreme Court has decided Title IX cases 8 times in its history. In all but one of those cases, it ruled in favor of the party seeking to challenge discrimination and advance civil rights.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Title IX Used to Challenge Anti-Gay Utah Law

This week LGBT rights activists in Utah filed a lawsuit challenging state law that prohibits schools from including instruction on the advocacy of homosexuality in the curriculum, which the state Board of Education has interpreted to apply broadly to "any course or class." The lawsuit also targets provisions of state law that withhold support and recognition from student clubs whose activities involve or express "human sexuality." The lawsuit's primary arguments are that by singling out homosexuality for exclusion from the curriculum, and LGBT groups for the withholding of school support, Utah's laws violate students' constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, including equal protection, free speech and association, and the right to receive information. In addition to the constitutional claims, the lawsuit argues that the anti-gay state laws force local school districts, some of which are defendants, to violate Title IX by foreclosing LGBT students' rights to equal educational opportunities. The lawsuit charges that the state law violates Title IX because it forces school districts to "foster a hostile and censoring environment of silence and non-acceptance for LGBT students" and by "subjecting them to stigma and harassment based on sex, including actual or perceived gender non-conformity, being in a same-sex relationship, or being transgender." The lawsuit also claims that one of the school district defendants violated Title IX by ignoring severe harassment that students directed at one of the plaintiffs in the case, whom they perceived to be gay, a claim that helps illustrate the potential for discrimination in the curriculum to negatively affect school climate in ways that cause tangible injuries to LGBT students.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

Illinois Parents Fail to Block Transgender Student's Use of Locker Room; Judge in Texas Reaffirms Nationwide Injunction Against OCR's Transgender Guidance

Federal courts all over the country are hearing challenges to the Department of Education's position that Title IX prohibits educational institutions from discriminating against transgender students and excluding them from single-sex facilities and programs that they seek to access in a manner consistent with their gender identity.  This post will cover two key developments in separate cases that occurred this week. 

In one case, a federal magistrate judge in Illinois rejected efforts of parents to prohibit Township High School District from accommodating a transgender student's right to use the girls' locker room, which is consistent with her female gender identity. The school district developed an inclusive policy pursuant to an agreement with the Department of Education that resolved the agency's finding that excluding the transgender student violated her rights under Title IX. The group of parents sought an injunction against the policy by challenging the Department of Education's guidance document that contains its interpretation of Title IX's application to transgender rights. It also alleged that the school's inclusive locker room policy violated their children's constitutional right to privacy, but failed to convince the magistrate to offer relief on either ground. As a result, the school district's policy that permits the transgender student to use the girls' locker room remains in effect.  

As to the Title IX issues in particular, the magistrate -- whose role is to make a recommendation to the federal district court judge -- determined that the parents did not have the requisite "likelihood of success on the merits" necessary for such an injunction to issue.  The magistrate noted that many courts are adopting broader understanding of sex discrimination as defined by Title IX and other civil rights laws to encompass discrimination targeting transgender individuals. Even the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the federal courts in Illinois, may be poised to overrule its very influential 1984 decision that foreclosed Title VII's protection to transgender plaintiffs. (The appellate court very recently vacated a panel decision that declined to overrule that earlier case, signaling the possibility that the full court will do so when it rehears the case en banc.) Thus, the magistrate concluded, it is not apparent that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their argument that the Department of Education contravened Title IX when it promulgated the transgender guidance or when it entered into the resolution agreement with the school district that incorporates the agency's interpretation in the guidance. Similarly, it is unlikely to prevail on its argument that the agency should have used notice and comment procedures to promulgate the transgender guidance, since it appears to be an interpretation of existing requirements under Title IX and its regulations, rather than a new obligation.

The magistrate acknowledged the ongoing litigation in Texas that is also challenging the validity of the Department's guidance about Title IX's application to transgender rights.  Like the decision from Ohio that we blogged about recently, the magistrate in this case determined that the Texas federal court judge's issuance of a nationwide injunction against the guidance has any bearing on this case. 

Coincidentally, however, the second decision of note this week pertains to that same injunction. The federal judge in Texas rejected arguments by the Department of Education to narrow the scope of that injunction to apply only in the 13 states that are plaintiffs in the Texas case, and reasserted that the Department of Education is “enjoined from using the Guidelines or asserting the Guidelines carry weight in any litigation initiated following the date of [its August 21, 2016] Order." 

The two decisions this week are certainly in conflict, as the nationwide injunction is premised on the judge's acceptance of the argument that the transgender guidance is most likely not an appropriate interpretation of Title IX, while the decision in Illinois suggests that it likely is. This fundamental inconsistency could be resolved through the process of initials appeals, in the event that the circuit courts eventually agree to consistent answer to this question.  Alternatively, however, any circuit split that develops would increase the likelihood of the Supreme Court tackling this matter once and for all.  

Meanwhile, however, as recent decisions from other district courts have demonstrated, other courts seem skeptical of the power of one federal judge to affect litigation elsewhere. As the Township High School District demonstrates, that injunction is not interrupting enforcement of the guidance in earlier cases. Nor, as evidenced by the recent decisions in Ohio and Wisconsin decision, does it appear to interrupt efforts of transgender students themselves to assert a right to bathroom usage under Title IX. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

OCR Says Wesley College Violated Rights of Student Accused of Sexual Misconduct

Today the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights announced an agreement with Wesley College in Delaware that resolves certain violations of Title IX that the college has committed in its response to sexual assault cases. The agreement is unique in that it is the first time the agency has resolved a complaint filed by a student who was accused and disciplined for sexual misconduct. The agency agreed with him that the process the school used to adjudicate his case, and ultimately expel him, was not "equitable" as required by Title IX.

In 2015, someone (or someones) planned and broadcast a live stream video of a male student having sex with a female student at a college fraternity house without the female student's knowledge. Witnesses to the live stream named the accused student as one of those who had orchestrated the live stream, along with other members of his fraternity. Based on these reports, the college immediately issued an interim suspension, without undertaking any kind of preliminary investigation, such as interviewing the accused student. This was in direct violation of the college's own policy, which provides accused students with an opportunity to share their side of the story before an interim suspension can issue. This was also one of several aspects of the college's violation of Title IX's requirement of an equitable response, according to OCR.

Next, an investigator prepared a report for the judicial hearing without interviewing the accused student, an additional policy violation.  Relatedly, the college also skipped a preliminary "conference" that was required by college policy, which would have also given the accused student to tell his side of the story.  Meanwhile, the college failed to provide the accused student with accurate information about the hearing process. This misinformation, combined with the fact that the college failed to hold the preliminary conference, caused the student to believe that the judicial hearing that determined his responsibility was actually the preliminary conference. Owing to this confusion, he did not bring witnesses or otherwise prepare a defense to his hearing.  This collection of errors was cited by OCR as an additional examples of inequitable conduct by the college.

The hearing itself was also plagued with errors.  For one, the college had not provided him with an advance copy of the investigator's report and other key evidence, despite being required by its own policy to make such evidence available to both parties. Another error occurred when the accused student was not allowed to hear the testimony of the other students who had been charged.  The testimony of these students, who named him as a participant in the live-stream planning, was the only evidence that supported the board's finding him responsible.  However, the accused student was denied the opportunity to hear or question their testimony. Finally, OCR noted that only six business days had passed between when the accused student received notice of the charge against him and the college's decision to expel him. The college's own policy contemplates a longer time frame that permits respondents with adequate time to prepare to participate in the process.

In addition to finding the process in the accused student's case to be inequitable, OCR examined the records of other adjudications by the college and found evidence that some of these problems are widespread. Specifically, the college appeared to impose interim suspensions without preliminary investigation in other cases as well, and also had a habit of depriving accused students of the opportunity to present witnesses and other evidence.

OCR even found that the college violated the rights of complainants, such as by failing to provide appropriate interim remedies like counseling and academic services, and by failing to provide complainants with written notice of the outcome. The college also failed to provide sufficient notice and dissemination of its policies, information about the Title IX Coordinator, and information about how to report sexual assault.  In this respect, Wesley College hardly looks  a college that is "overcorrecting" the problem of sexual assault. It is not satisfying the Title IX right of the complainant OR the accused.

I am glad to see that OCR is using its enforcement power to ensure that respondents as well as complainants have the right to an equitable process. Such fundamental fairness is of course important to students who are accused.  It's also important to complainants that respondents are treated fairly, since procedural errors introduce the risk that a punishment could be invalidated on appeal. Moreover, I think it's helpful that OCR is clarifying that Title IX is not to blame when institutions deprive accused students of fair investigations and hearing.  Clearly, Title IX does not require such unfair procedures, and in fact, Title IX is violated when they occur.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Disciplined Student Prevails Against Brown on Breach of Contract Claim

Last week a federal judge in Rhode Island concluded a bench trial in a case between a John Doe plaintiff and Brown University who sued the university after he was suspended for sexual misconduct.  The only issue that the trial addressed was whether the university breached its contractual obligation to John Doe in the manner that it conducted the process by which he was found responsible and disciplined. In siding with the plaintiff, the court made clear that it was not concluding anything about the merits of the complaint against Doe.  It also expressed alarm that Brown students had orchestrated an email campaign directed to the judge to criticize his earlier decision that allowed Doe to remain on campus while his case was pending, and hoped that these students would read the decision and be educated about the role of the courts in such matters.

As for the breach of contract claim itself, the court first acknowledged that the Student Handbook, including the Code of Conduct, form the basis of a contract between a student and the university. In this case, the conduct for which Doe was suspended occurred in 2014, so his case should have been governed by the policy and process contained in the 2014-15 version of the Code of Conduct.  Brown has subsequently updated its policy to provide a definition for consent, which was absent from the 2014-15 policy, but it applied the newly-codified definition of consent when it adjudicated Doe's case.  The new definition clarified that that consent could not be obtained through "manipulation," and the charge in Doe's case was that he had manipulated another student to have sex. (In fact, he had admitted to such "manipulation" in an incriminating text message.)

Brown argued that the consent definition merely "codified community standards" of consent, and therefore did not materially change the 2014-15 Code. But the court determined that a reasonable student would not have expected in 2014-15 that sexual activity to which another had been manipulated to consent violated the Code of Conduct. The Court acknowledged that this case was a "close call" and that the problem it acknowledges is limited only to those cases that occurred prior to the change of definition.  As such, it is not an indictment on Brown's sexual assault response or, for that matter, on Title IX.

Though the court invalidated Brown's decision to suspend Doe, it acknowledged the university's right to hold another hearing using the 2014-15 Code. Presumably, this would mean instructing the panel to apply a common sense/ common understanding of consent, as they had done prior to the Code's incorporation of a specific definition.  It is possible that under such a definition, the "manipulation" in question negates consent, but hearing panel could decide otherwise.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Throwback Thursday, aka Updates

UCLA settled a lawsuit last month with two graduate students who alleged that administrators discouraged them from filing a formal complaint against a professor who sexually harassed and assaulted them. The settlement includes a financial settlement, part cash as well as a year-long dissertation fellowship to one of the plaintiffs. The situation for the history professor they accused of unwanted sexual advances has been in flux since the women initiated their complaint in 2013. He was suspended without pay for a quarter and resigned his position as director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies. He resumed teaching, but is not teaching this fall. He is scheduled to teach in the spring. He is not allowed to use his history department office during the week. His office hours are being held in a library on campus and he is being required to keep the door open while meeting with students. He is not allowed to have contact with one of the plaintiffs. (It seems the other has graduated.) He has to pay the UCLA Board of Regents $3,000.

The saga at Baylor continues, probably because they keep doing ALL THE WRONG THINGS. Granted they cannot control the behaviors of the people they have fired who continue to talk to the media. Though I am curious as to why Art Briles sat down with ESPN whose reporters have not been kind to the school if the many, many segments on Outside the Lines are any indication. The way Briles and former President Ken Starr have proceeded since their release is an interesting study in voice and silence. Sexual assault is a very silencing experience and only a few of the women who have joined the lawsuit against Baylor have spoken about their experiences. Some have asked to speak personally with Briles who said he has been prevented from doing so under terms of his release (his very lucrative release). So he cannot speak to them but he can speak publicly--about some things--the things he wants to talk about; the things he thinks will rehab his image and get him another coaching job next year.

Starr seems to be trying to help his friend, Briles, on this quest. He said in a room full of reporters in Texas that Briles was "honorable" and "unfairly criticized." He also said, in reference to the sexual assaults (apparently there is no gag order on him) that it was not a problem with the culture of Baylor or Baylor football. He was called out by a reporter who thought it hypocritical that Starr could address a culture of alcohol abuse on his campus but not sexual assault. And still these men get public platforms. The good(ish) news? Well all the talking is not helping public image. I have seen stories from sports journalists warning schools that might in the market for a new football coach to avoid Briles.

And now the Title IX coordinator has resigned. Patty Crawford, at Baylor since late 2014, said she was being prevented from implementing the changes outlined in the Pepper Hamilton report--the one Baylor itself commissioned when news of the sexual assaults became public. Crawford's resignation, her filing of a Title IX complaint with OCR, and her stories about how Baylor continues to violate the law suggest what many of us suspected: that report was a PR move. Who are they going to get to do that job? How are they going to explain themselves when OCR heads to Waco? Oh never mind. They promoted from within--of course:
               On Monday, Baylor said it had filled Crawford's post by promoting senior deputy                 coordinator Kristan Tucker, whom interim president David Garland called "a capable and experienced Title IX professional." (from ESPN article linked above)

It also appears that a Title IX investigator, one of two employees charged with investigating Title IX violations on campus, is no longer at the school. Whether she resigned or was fired is unknown.

On the same day that Crawford resigned, two more women joined the lawsuit against Baylor. That brings the total to eight. Only one of the eight women was raped by an athlete. The culture of sexual assault--that does not exist, according to Starr--is not confined to athletics.

The watered down California bill about LGBT discrimination at private colleges has passed. Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill which requires private schools to publicly post their gender and sexuality policies and to note any Title IX exemptions they receive from the Department of Education. The bill was originally written to prevent these schools from discriminating against LGBT students, but the outcry from religious schools and groups resulted in the compromise bill signed last week.