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Sixth Circuit Urges Broader Understanding of “Education” Under Title IX

The American humorist and writer Mark Twain once counseled: “Never let schooling interfere with your education.”

The implications of this witticism recently confronted the Sixth Circuit in a case about whether an “education” could be had outside of formal schooling.

That case, Doe v. University of Kentucky, is the latest discharge from a steady stream of Title IX cases in the Sixth Circuit. In an opinion issued last Wednesday, the appellate court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgement and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The plaintiff in the case sued the University of Kentucky for a Title IX violation after alleging that she was raped by a university student there. The question for the court was whether the plaintiff could have been, per Title IX, “denied the benefits of … an education program or activity” at the University of Kentucky. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).

The plaintiff herself was not a student at the University of Kentucky. (At the time, she was enrolled at the affiliated Bluegrass Community and Technical College.) But the plaintiff lived in university housing, ate from the university’s meal plan, participated in university extracurriculars, and intended to transfer to the university with credits from the community college.

The district court (E.D. Ky.) granted summary judgment to the university in 2019, reasoning that the plaintiff could not make a Davis-style claim against it since she had not enrolled in courses there. (A Davis claim, as outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court, may be made when a university has been “deliberately indifferent to known acts of student-on-student sexual harassment and the harasser is under the school’s disciplinary authority.”)

The Sixth Circuit, however, countered that Title IX calls for a less “rigid” approach than that of the district court. The appellate court described Doe’s multifaceted relationship with the university. Although not a student, she interfaced with the university in financial, health, and technology matters. Perhaps most importantly, she resided in a university dorm, which the university itself touts as providing residents with opportunities “to learn.”

Based on “the sum of all these relationships to the University of Kentucky,” according to the Sixth Circuit, the plaintiff may have been “denied the benefit of an education program or activity,” albeit one based outside the classroom.

Whether or not the specific facts of this case are likely to reappear, the court’s ruling may reflect a turn toward a more holistic approach in interpreting Title IX requirements. In this respect, the court rooted its decision in the precedent of an earlier Sixth Circuit case, Horner v. Kentucky High School Athletic Association (1994). “Congress has made clear its intent to extend the scope of Title IX’s equal opportunity obligations to the furthest reaches of an institution’s programs,” the Horner court declared.

This post arrives (along with many more) thanks to Zach Young, a Cincinnati native and rising 2L at Stanford Law School, where he studies as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. He will be contributing to the Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog regularly this summer

© Copyright 2021 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 238
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