Title IX allegations can have consequences even if the student is not found responsible of sexual misconduct. In a recent case, a student sued his college after being excluded from a sports team following an allegation of sexual assault that did not result in a formal Title IX complaint or investigation.
The plaintiff was a senior student and team captain of a sports team at a Pennsylvania college. According to the court’s opinion, co-captains of the team reported a rumor the plaintiff sexually assaulted a female student to the coach. The coach reported the allegations to the college’s Title IX office. He also recommended the plaintiff step away from the team during the investigation, and the plaintiff sent an email to the team that day.
The alleged victim informed the Title IX office she did not intend to make a formal complaint. The Title IX Office decided not move forward with a formal investigation and notified the plaintiff.
When the plaintiff asked about coming back to the team, the coach told him the co-captains did not want him to return. The coach allegedly told him this was because they believed in the allegations’ veracity. At a subsequent meeting, the co-captains stated they did not want the plaintiff to return because of the allegation and other misogynist behavior.
The plaintiff, his family, and his attorney continued to pursue his reinstatement. The dean indicated that athletics participation was not a right but a privilege and expressed concerns the plaintiff’s reinstatement would lead the coach and members of the team to quit.
The coach acknowledged the allegation was not a proper reason to keep the plaintiff off the team, but said team members raised unrelated concerns and told him to address the issue with them. One of them expressed general concerns with how the plaintiff treated women but did not provide details.
The athletic director informed the plaintiff his reinstatement would not be in the team’s best interest and that he respected the coach’s discretion in managing the team. The Dean of the College also refused to change the decision.
The plaintiff sued the college, alleging multiple claims, including breach of contract based on the college’s alleged failure to follow its Sexual Misconduct Policy. The plaintiff also moved for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction reinstating him to the team.
To obtain a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order, a party must show a likelihood of success on the merits, likelihood of irreparable harm if preliminary relief is not granted, the balance of the equities favors them, and the injunction is in the interest of the public.
Likelihood of Success on the Merits
The plaintiff moved for injunctive relief based on his breach of contract claim, which required him to show the existence of a contract, a breach of a contractual duty, and damages. To show a likelihood of success on the merits, the plaintiff had to establish he had a reasonable chance of succeeding on that claim.
The court concluded the college’s Sexual Misconduct Policy likely constituted a contract between the plaintiff and the college based on Pennsylvania state law. The policy provides that the college will not issue a disciplinary sanction arising from a sexual misconduct allegation without first holding a hearing and allowing an appeal, unless the matter is resolved through an Alternative Resolution Process. The list of potential sanctions includes removal from an “organization, team, and/or committee.”
The plaintiff argued he was sanctioned for alleged sexual misconduct without a hearing or appeal. The court determined that the record supported a conclusion that the plaintiff’s initial absence from the team was temporary pending a potential Title IX investigation.
The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the coach’s actions constituted a breach of the policy. Even if the coach’s initial action constituted a sanction under the policy, he did not base the plaintiff’s continued exclusion from the team on the sexual assault allegation. The coach’s affidavit stated his decision not to reinstate the plaintiff was to prevent negative impact on the team. He stated that “many” team members told him they would quit if the plaintiff rejoined the team. He averred his intent was not “punitive” and he did not base the decision on any determination of whether the plaintiff had violated the Sexual Misconduct Policy.
The court also accepted the college’s argument the coach’s action were a reasonable exercise of his discretion to manage the team.
The plaintiff also argued the co-captains’ allegations of misogynist behaviors was within the scope of the policy under “Other Gender-Based Misconduct,” which includes “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and “sexual exploitation.”
The court noted that general sexist behavior did not appear to fall within this definition. The Title IX Coordinator testified she may conduct an inquiry into such conduct if it was of a serious nature, but stated it would not necessarily result in a Title IX complaint or investigation. The court noted the policy focused on pervasive conduct. The court also pointed out that the teammates had not alleged any specific actions by the plaintiff that would support a Title IX investigation. Although the plaintiff implied a Title IX process would exonerate him, the teammate’s opinions did not seem to be related to the Title IX process. The Title IX coordinator’s determination not to pursue an investigation based on the allegation of sexual assault did not affect the co-captains’ position they did not want the plaintiff back on the team. The court also found credible the coach’s statements he based his decision on potential disruption and negative impact on the team.
The court determined the plaintiff had not established a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of his claim for breach of contract.
The court then considered whether the plaintiff had shown he would suffer irreparable harm. The court acknowledged “a finding of irreparable procedural harm would readily follow” if it had determined the plaintiff’s exclusion from the team was a direct result of the college’s failure to follow its Title IX procedures, but it had not made such a finding. The plaintiff was near the end of his senior year and had not identified any future consequences of exclusion from the team. The court determined the potential harm to the plaintiff was reputational and it was not clear that an injunction would prevent it.
Balance of Harms and Public Interest
The court noted that the remaining factors were less relevant after it determined the plaintiff failed to establish the first two. The court also concluded, however, that the balance of harms did not weigh in the plaintiff’s favor. Injunctive relief would provide limited benefit for the plaintiff, and there was evidence in the record that ordering the college to reinstate him on the team would result in “substantial disruption.”
The court determined the public interest factor did not weigh in favor of either party. The plaintiff argued it was in the public interest for students to be treated fairly and to receive adequate process prior to receiving disciplinary sanctions. The college argued the public interest was served by letting educational institutions govern their own internal affairs. The court found both arguments compelling and concluded they offset each other.
The court denied the plaintiff’s motion.
Contact Blair & Kim, PLLC Today
A determination on whether to grant injunctive relief is highly fact specific. If you are accused of sexual misconduct at your school, you should contact an experienced Washington Title IX defense attorney can advise you and be prepared to take action if necessary. Schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.