What Does the Future Hold for Doe v. Columbia and the Pleading Standard in Respondent Litigation?

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Courts around the country have started to chip away at what many have presumed will become the new legal standard for respondent claims against institutions.

Summary

In July 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overruled its longstanding precedent Yusuf v. Vassar College, which held that students alleging gender discrimination arising from disciplinary proceedings were held to a strict pleading standard requiring specific allegations of sex-based animus.  Yusuf influenced courts around the country, and became the national standard in so-called “respondent litigation.” In Doe v. Columbia, published this summer, the Second Circuit abandoned Yusuf and its pleading rules in favor of a much more permissive McDonnell Douglas-style pleading standard.  Commentators have questioned whether the Columbia decision signals a national shift toward relaxing the way courts approach complaints filed by disciplined students.  A recent case published in the District of Oregon suggests that courts may not be as quick to follow Columbia  as they were to follow Yusuf.

In John Doe v. Columbia University, a student sued Columbia University for suspending him after it determined he was responsible for raping a female student. In analyzing Doe’s claim, the Second Circuit rejected its earlier analysis in Yusuf and adopted the McDonnell Douglas standard, holding that Doe had raised a minimal plausible inference of discriminatory intent because he alleged both that the Columbia officials and the panel involved in his disciplinary proceeding had declined to explore his witnesses’ testimony and that the school was under heavy fire from students and the media for its handling of sexual allegations during Doe’s hearing. Doe v. Columbia Univ., No. 15-1536, 2016 WL 4056034, at *8-9 (2d Cir. July 29, 2016).  This, the Second Circuit held, was enough to state a claim under Title IX.

Given the national reach of the Yusuf pleading standard, the question of whether courts outside the Second Circuit will replace the Yusuf standard they have relied upon for two decades in favor of the more permissive McDonnell Douglas standard adopted in Columbia remains to be seen, but at least one federal court has already declined to follow Columbia.

In Austin v. University of Oregon, No. 6:15-CV-02257-MC, 2016 WL 4708540 (D. Or. Sept. 8, 2016), published just last week, three male students sued their school after it suspended them for sexual assault.  The students alleged that the university had deprived them of their rights to respond to the charges against them and call relevant witnesses during the administrative conference. While the court distinguished the students’ cases by pointing out that the plaintiffs failed to raise “similar allegations of an atmosphere of scrutiny” as in Columbia, the Court also explicitly declined to follow Columbia, explaining that following the Second Circuit’s opinion “would put universities in a double bind” because “[e]ither they come under public fire for not responding to allegations of sexual assault aggressively enough or they open themselves to Title IX claims simply by enforcing rules against alleged perpetrators.”

While Austin is just one decision, it may herald a growing split in authority governing  respondent litigation, making predicting the sufficiency of a particular set of allegations difficult for plaintiffs and institutions alike.  The authors will continue to closely follow this emerging area of the law.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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