Rights of the Accused vs. Rights of the Victim: Colleges and Universities Must Walk a Fine Line When Handling Title IX Sexual Assault Claims
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama recently issued a decision criticizing the University of Alabama at Huntsville’s (“UAH”) handling of a 2013 sexual assault. The case is a good warning that schools that become too focused on the due process rights of the accused may fail to adequately protect the victim.
In January 2013, Jane Doe became intoxicated and fell asleep on a sofa in a dorm room occupied by the UAH hockey team. Later that evening, L.U., a member of the hockey team, woke her, told her that she could not sleep there, and brought her to another dorm room where he undressed her and began having sex. In a handwritten statement completed hours after the encounter, L.U. claimed that he realized during intercourse that Jane Doe was intoxicated and could not consent, re-dressed her, and brought her back to the room where she had been sleeping.
The Investigation and Title IX Process
Doe pursued charges under UAH’s Student Conduct Code. Following a hearing, the Student Conduct Board found by a preponderance of the evidence that L.U. had raped Jane Doe and therefore violated the UAH Student Conduct Code. The Board recommended that L.U., who was already on probation for alcohol abuse and hazing, be expelled “for the safety of all students at UAH.”
L.U. appealed. During that process, Doe says that the University’s Title IX Appeal Officer questioned and sought to undermine the propriety of the Student Conduct Board’s recommended sanctions. For example, he repeatedly cautioned that UAH had not expelled other students found guilty of sexual assault, lamented that the expulsion would “forever change” L.U’s future, and questioned whether the “case should have been brought or not.” Other UAH officials, including the President, questioned why Doe had not been charged with alcohol abuse. The Appeal Officer ultimately modified the sanctions, imposing a two-semester suspension, which did not go into effect until the summer semester. This allowed L.U. to remain on campus for the rest of the academic year with only a no contact order in place.
Jane Doe sued UAH, alleging that it acted with deliberate indifference in its handling of her complaint. UAH moved for summary judgment, which a Magistrate Judge recommended granting. The district court disagreed.
The district court recognized that a plaintiff must meet a high standard to bring a Title IX claim: The college or university must have acted with “deliberate indifference” toward the plaintiff by responding to sexual harassment in a manner “clearly unreasonable ‘in light of the known circumstances.’” What’s more, the level of harassment must have been so severe or pervasive that it “effectively bar[red] the victim’s access to an education opportunity or benefit.”
The court nonetheless found that for purposes of summary judgment, the plaintiff had met that high standard. The court identified and examined five instances of harassment or discrimination experienced by Jane Doe at UAH:
1. UAH’s failure to address known instances of student-on-student sexual assault: In a series of communications between UAH officials, they reflected on other sexual assault cases where UAH did not charge the accused with violations of the Code of Conduct, and noted that the school had never expelled a student for sexual assault. The court doubted the motives of the Appeal Officer who had recommended changing the sanctions to reduce the school’s exposure to liability. The court held that reasonable jurors could conclude that the Appeal Officer was in fact motivated by his personal relationship with the UAH hockey team, not by concerns about potential litigation.
2. UAH’s efforts to discourage criminal proceedings: Jane Doe alleged that the UAH police officer who investigated the incident discouraged her from pursuing criminal charges. In a footnote the court suggested that if this were the only instance of discrimination, it would likely be insufficient to overcome UAH’s motion for summary judgment because the record showed that multiple university officials, including the police officer, reviewed Jane Doe’s options with her.
3. The 2013 assault: The court explained that consistent with the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion in Williams v. Board of Regents of University Sys. of Georgia, the sexual assault itself constituted severe and pervasive harassment under Title IX.
4. UAH’s decision to allow L.U. to remain enrolled at the university: After Jane Doe reported the sexual assault, UAH did not remove L.U. from campus but instead issued a no contact order. Even after the Student Conduct Board recommended expulsion, UAH still allowed L.U. to remain on campus.
5. UAH’s support and protection of L.U: The court noted that the “evidence of UAH’s overriding concern for L.U. is abundant.” The court chastised UAH for its criticism of Jane Doe’s drinking and comparative lack of concern for how the assault impacted her.
The court found that the above instances, when viewed in the light most favorable to Jane Doe, created a question of fact about whether UAH was deliberately indifferent in handling her complaint. The evidence was sufficient to show that the conduct was so severe and pervasive that it barred Jane Doe from accessing an educational opportunity or benefit. Although Jane Doe remained in school and could maintain her grades and job, she required counseling, considered suicide, and was afraid to leave her dorm room. The court denied summary judgment.
The district court’s denial of summary judgment sends a cautionary message to colleges and universities. To begin with, colleges and universities should carefully vet any employee involved in the Title IX process and screen for conflicts of interest. This is particularly important when a student is a member of a group such as an athletic team that has several connections across campus. It is also a stern reminder that even though recent cases have focused on the rights of the accused, these concerns do not override the school’s duty to address sexual assault and protect victims. Colleges and universities must continue to walk a fine line so that efforts to protect the rights of the accused do not trample the rights of the victim.