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The Department of Education Issues Final Title IX Regulations

At long last, the Department of Education has issued final regulations to explain what steps colleges and universities must take to address sexual harassment and assault on campus. The regulations follow years of criticism of the Department’s old guidance, which many thought disadvantaged students accused of sexual misconduct. The final regulations follow a lengthy notice-and-comment period, which saw the public submit over 124,000 comments. The Department’s final rules address many of those comments and represent the first formal rules on Title IX since 1997. Colleges and universities must adapt their policies and implement the regulations by Aug. 14, 2020.

The final regulations largely track the proposed regulations, but the Department issued a 2300-page response to comments it received. This will take some time to digest, but here are some high-level thoughts on the regulations’ major changes from the Obama-era guidance:

  • The definition of “sexual harassment” is now narrower. The Department divided the definition into three categories: (1) quid pro quo harassment, (2) sexual assault, and (3) unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal educational access. The first category covers harassment where there is an exchange for sexual contact. The second now makes clear that stalking, domestic violence and dating violence are now officially considered examples of sexual harassment under Title IX. The third category narrows previous guidance. Prior guidance said that conduct that was severe or pervasive violated Title IX, which was the Supreme Court’s standard under Title VII for workplace harassment. The Department explains that the new standard—severe and pervasive—aligns with the Supreme Court’s Title IX specific guidance that balances Title IX concerns with the First Amendment. Notably, reports of sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking do not need to meet the description of “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.”

  • The new regulations explain how a school must respond to Title IX sexual harassment in a manner that is not deliberately indifferent. Among other things, the school must offer support measures, promptly contact the complainant and explain the support measures and the complaint process, follow a grievance process, and investigate any allegations in a formal complaint. Notably, if a complainant asks the school not to investigate, the school must respect those wishes unless it is “clearly unreasonable” to do so.

  • The “single investigator model” is now dead. Under the old guidance, many colleges had one official investigate, adjudicate, and issue sanctions. Now three officials are needed for the complaint process: The Title IX coordinator, who manages and receives complaints, an investigator who interviews witnesses and gathers facts, and a decision maker who determines sanctions and remedies.

  • The Department changed the process for receiving complaints. The old guidance said a school was on notice of sexual harassment whenever there was a report to any school employee who did not have a separate obligation to maintain confidentiality, like a psychologist or victim advocate. The new rules state that institutions of higher education do not have “actual knowledge” until the Title IX coordinator or an official with authority to institute corrective measures has knowledge.

  • During investigations, the school bears the burden of proof and the burden of production. In other words, the school is obligated to gather evidence and must provide an equal opportunity for the parties to present and review evidence. There cannot be any “gag orders” on the parties’ right to discuss the investigation. There are notice requirements, as well as instructions on the minimum amount of time parties will have to inspect evidence, review reports, and respond to findings.

  • Hearings at colleges and universities must be live, and each party’s advisor must have the chance to cross-examine the other party and any witnesses. The examination must be direct, oral, and in real time. The parties themselves are not allowed to perform the cross-examination, and if they don’t have or opt not to retain their own advisor, the school must supply one. The hearing officers can limit the scope of the cross-examination to questions that are “relevant,” but must explain to the party’s advisor why a certain question is not relevant. Cross-examination cannot include questions about a complainant’s prior sexual behavior unless offered to prove someone other than the respondent committed the alleged misconduct or to prove consent. If a party refuses to submit to cross-examination, the hearing officer cannot rely on any of that party’s statements in reaching the determination of responsibility. However, the hearing officer cannot draw an adverse inference based on absence from the hearing or refusal to submit to cross-examination. Schools must create an audio or video recording or a transcript of any live hearing.

  • The decision after the hearing can be reached using either the preponderance of the evidence standard or the clear and convincing evidence standard. The school must apply the same standard of evidence for all formal complaints of sexual harassment, whether the respondent is a student or an employee (including faculty member).

As noted above, the 2300-page document will take some time to sift through, and we will provide more guidance shortly. Several questions are already popping up about the scope of the regulations, and schools are best advised to review the regulations with counsel to ensure they meet the August 14 deadline.

© 1998-2022 Wiggin and Dana LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 128

About this Author

Aaron Bayer Litigation Attorney Hartford Wiggin and Dana

Aaron is a litigation partner who heads the firm's Education Practice Group and previously chaired the firm's Appellate Practice Group.  Based on his experience in government, he also advises companies and non-profit organizations on government regulatory matters and investigations.

He draws on his experience in positions in higher education and government to advise colleges, universities, private secondary schools, and nonprofit organizations on the complex legal, regulatory, and public relations issues they regularly face. His advice is...

Benjamin Daniels Regulatory and Compliance litigation lawyer Wiggin Dana

As Counsel in Wiggin and Dana’s Litigation Department, Ben is a key member of the firm’s Education and Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group. He works with universities, colleges, independent schools, education associations, corporations, major health care systems, and sovereign nations to solve a range of legal and regulatory challenges.

Ben helps his Education clients navigate rules and regulations relating to compliance with nondiscrimination laws, campus security requirements, financial aid, and privacy and data security statutes. Attuned to the unique demands of the...

Amanda Brahm Employment Attorney Wiggin and Dana

Amanda is an Associate in Wiggin and Dana's New Haven office.

Before joining Wiggin and Dana, Amanda was an intern in the Data Privacy and Security Department at the Office of the Attorney General in Hartford, as well as a summer associate at Wiggin and Dana.

Amanda received her J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law, where she served as the Senior Notes and Comments editor for the Wake Forest Journal of Business and Intellectual Property and received CALI Awards for Excellence in Conflicts of Law,...

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