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Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Accused Student’s Title IX Claim

Colleges and universities have experienced pressure from multiple sources to address sexual assault issues. Unfortunately, in some cases, they have responded in ways that deny a fair process to the accused student.  A recent case shows that a university’s actions in response to such pressure may support a Title IX claim by an accused male student. If you face Title IX charges, the Seattle defense attorneys at our firm can help you fight for your rights.

A male student challenged the dismissal of his Title IX suit arising from the university’s handling of a sexual assault complaint against him.  Because the appeal was from a motion to dismiss, the facts considered by the Eighth Circuit were those alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint.

A female student, referred to as “Jane Roe,” accused the plaintiff of sexual assault during his senior year.  Following a Title IX investigation, the university’s Title IX Coordinator concluded the evidence did not show the plaintiff had violated university policy.  He found sexual contact had occurred, but there was insufficient evidence to show Roe was incapacitated due to intoxication.

Roe appealed, challenging the finding she was not incapacitated and the lack of analysis regarding consent.  The male student requested clarification of the charges against him before the hearing, stating he had been told the university was not pursuing an allegation of force.  The Title IX Coordinator told him he would not know the full extent of the charges until the hearing.

The hearing panel found Roe became incapacitated “at some undetermined point in time, while . . . at [the plaintiff’s] residence.”  The panel found it was more likely than not the plaintiff violated the university’s sexual assault policy.  It concluded the record did not support a finding of consent and found the plaintiff responsible for sexual assault.  The panel required the male student to complete Title IX training and an online sexual violence accountability course, as well as ten hours of community service.  The male student was allowed to graduate.

The plaintiff sued the university and certain officials for violating his due process rights and Title IX.  The district court dismissed all counts, finding the complaint failed to state a claim.  The plaintiff appealed.

The Eighth Circuit found the plaintiff’s allegations supported an inference that the panel’s findings were against the substantial weight of the evidence.  The panel found Roe became intoxicated at the plaintiff’s home, but, according to the plaintiff’s complaint, the Title IX Coordinator found Roe’s decision-making capacity was not substantially impacted by her consumption of alcohol.  The Title IX Coordinator found no evidence she drank alcohol at the plaintiff’s residence.  The Eighth Circuit found the panel’s finding Roe was incapacitated was unexplained and against the substantial weight of the evidence as presented in the complaint.

The plaintiff argued the panel accepted Roe’s allegation he had committed sexual assault by force by having sexual contact with her while she was incapacitated. He alleged students found responsible for sexual assault by force have generally been expelled.  The plaintiff alleged the panel claimed they gave him lesser sanctions because of the “extremely close factual determinations,” but argued the lesser sanctions suggested the panel found him responsible to avoid negative media attention and show a stricter response to sexual assault.

The university had been under investigation by both the Office for Civil Rights and the Arkansas legislature regarding whether it failed to properly investigate and adjudicate Title IX complaints against males by females.  It had been sued by a female student athlete for its handling of her Title IX complaint against a male student athlete.  Additionally, the plaintiff alleged Roe had arranged a campus-wide protest after the Title IX Coordinator’s findings.  The plaintiff argued that pressure from investigations related to the university’s handling of past allegations and claims by the media and student organizations that the university had not handled allegations adequately led the university to find against him because he was a male.

The Eighth Circuit found all of these circumstances together were sufficient to support a plausible claim of sex-based discrimination.  Previous cases have held that a decision against the substantial weight of the evidence and inconsistent with the university’s ordinary sanctions practice may give rise to an inference of bias. Additionally, external pressure to show the university acted vigorously to address complaints by female students may support an inference it is biased based on sex.  The Eighth Circuit noted the plaintiff alleged both circumstances here, showing a facially plausible Title IX claim.

The Eighth Circuit reiterated that the record it considered only included the facts as presented by the plaintiff.  Its decision, therefore, was that the case could proceed to discovery and additional factual development on the Title IX claim.

The plaintiff also alleged the university violated his due process rights by failing to give him adequate notice of the charges against him.  The Eighth Circuit found, however, that Roe’s arguments in her appeal of the Title IX Coordinator’s decision constituted reasonable notice that the hearing panel may consider allegations regarding force and consent.

The plaintiff argued the university shifted the burden of proof to him despite its policy that a student would not be presumed responsible for a violation. The Eighth Circuit found, however, that the panel had considered the testimony and credited Roe’s testimony that she did not remember if she consented, but did not know why she would have.  The university overcame the presumption.

The Eighth Circuit also rejected the plaintiff’s arguments the university violated his due process rights by failing to let him or counsel cross-examine witnesses, using a preponderance of the evidence standard, and using de novo review standard at the hearing.  The new Title IX rules will provide additional protections in future cases, but students like the plaintiff who were accused while the old rules were in place do not have those protections.

The Eighth Circuit reversed the district court on the Title IX claim, but otherwise affirmed the dismissal as to the due process claim.

This case shows that findings against the substantial weight of the evidence in a Title IX proceeding and inconsistency with the university’s standard sanctions policy could support a Title IX claim by the accused student.  If you are facing Title IX charges, an experienced Title IX defense attorney can help you fight for your rights through the entire process.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation

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