We recently reported that five former and current students filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Connecticut (“UConn”) alleging discrimination and that the university failed to properly investigate claims of rape and sexual misconduct in violation of Title IX, a federal law that protects students from sexual discrimination in any education program that receives federal financial assistance. The case, which was filed on November 1, 2013, came just days after four of the plaintiffs (along with three other students) filed formal Title IX complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) alleging that UConn displayed “deliberate indifference” and mishandled complaints of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
Now, in an unusual development, UConn has agreed to settle the federal lawsuit for $1.3 million. The majority of the settlement ($900,000) will be provided to Silvana Moccia, who was allegedly removed from the UConn hockey team after she reported being raped by a male hockey player in August 2011. Erica Daniels, who alleged the University failed to investigate claims that she was drugged and raped by a former classmate, will receive $125,000. Kylie Angell, who after reporting that she had been raped, was told by a police officer that “women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home” will receive $115,000 in the settlement. Angell’s alleged assailant was originally expelled but the University subsequently reinstated the alleged assailant without first notifying Angell. Rosemary Richi, who will receive $60,000, accused the University of mishandling her claim that she was raped by a UConn football player. Carolyn Luby, who alleged the University failed to take action after she reported being a victim of intense sexual harassment and cyber-bulling, will receive $25,000. According to the terms of the settlement, all five plaintiffs are not permitted to make any negative statements about UConn.
As part of the settlement agreement, both the federal lawsuit and the OCR complaints will be dropped on behalf of the five women. However, the remainder of the OCR investigation, which is based on the complaints of three remaining students, will continue. “The Office for Civil Rights will continue to investigate whether the university responded promptly and effectively to complaints and other information related to sexual violence and sexual harassment that may have subjected students to a sexually hostile environment” said Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt. If OCR finds that there is a legitimate basis for the students’ allegations, UConn is still at risk of losing federal funding and incurring substantial sanctions.
While UConn remained firm in denying the lawsuit’s allegations and “categorically denied” the students’ allegations in the settlement agreement, both parties acknowledged that “a trial would have burdened both UConn and the plaintiffs for years, fighting over the past rather than working on the future.” We “want to work toward the future rather than fighting over the past and have agreed to put to rest their factual disputes, settle the litigation and move forward” the joint statement reads. Larry McHugh, chairman of UConn’s Board of Trustees, further stated “it was clear to all parties that no good would have come from dragging this out for years as it consumed the time, attention and resources – both financial and emotional – of everyone involved.”
Although not required to do so under the terms of the settlement, UConn is planning to implement a number of additional measures to address sexual assault on campus. For example, since the lawsuit, UConn has enhanced sexual misconduct training on campus, established a new assistant dean of students for victim support services, added two staff positions charged with investigating claims of sexual misconduct, and created a Special Victims Unit in the UConn Police Department which is open 24/7. “The lawsuit may have been settled, but the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has not been. The University has taken many positive, important steps in the battle against sexual assault in recent years, which are described in the joint statement, but there is still more to be done” said UConn President Susan Herbst.
Following the commencement of the lawsuit, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation that imposes additional sexual misconduct reporting requirements on both public and private colleges. In a post-settlement statement, Rep. Roberta B. Willis, who spearheaded the legislation, said that she is “pleased with the action UConn has taken to improve its policies on sexual assault and she is also pleased that the suit has been settled.”
UConn is just one of nearly seventy institutions throughout the nation that have made it onto the U.S. Department of Education’s public list of colleges and universities that are currently under investigation for allegedly mishandling complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment in violation of Title IX. The settlement in this high-profile UConn case is nearly unprecedented and it is undeniable that a new era of Title IX enforcement and attention by the federal government has begun. Colleges and universities across the nation need to rethink how they effectively address, prevent and respond to allegations of sexual misconduct in light of the new White House guidance and Department of Education’s heightened expectations in order to avoid unforeseen, substantial and budget-busting expenses.