Thursday, April 13, 2017

Another Baylor Lawsuit Survives Motion to Dismiss

Last week a federal court in Texas ruled that Jasmin Hernandez's case against Baylor may proceed to the discovery phase of litigation, denying the university's effort to dismiss the case for insufficient pleading. The plaintiff alleged that she was sexually assaulted at a party by football player Tevin Elliott. Even though (she alleged) she reported the assault to various university officials, including the football coach Art Briles the university did not take any efforts to investigate or discipline Elliott. She also alleged that prior to her assault, another student had reported Tevin Elliott to the university's chief judicial officer for similar behavior, and that this student was told she was the sixth such student to do so. As such Hernandez claimed that Baylor was on notice of the risk posed by Elliott and was liable for the deliberate indifference that heightened the risk that she would be assaulted. Additionally, she alleged that Baylor was liable for deliberate indifference after she reported her assault, which contributed to her emotional harm.

Both of these claims were sufficiently alleged in the complaint, the court ruled.  However, the latter claim for post-reporting harm was barred by the statute of limitations because the events occurred more than two years ago.  Though the heightened risk claim was also based on events more than two years old, the plaintiff could not have have discovered the university's alleged concealment of sexual misconduct by football players and other students until 2016 when the report of an external investigation in Baylor's failings to respond to a pattern of sexual violence by football players. Until then, the court reasoned, the plaintiff could not have reasonably known that Baylor's alleged indifference had lead to her sexual assault, and thus the the statute of limitations did not begin to run until that time.

Hernandez v. Baylor Univ., No. 6:16-CV-69-RP, 2017 WL 1322262 (W.D. Tex. Apr. 7, 2017).

Friday, April 07, 2017

Two Key Ed Department Positions Filled This Week

This week we learned that Carlos G. Muñiz will be nominated to the position of general counsel to the Department of Education, and that Candice E. Jackson has been appointed "acting" Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

Muñiz once served as a deputy attorney general to Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Later, he entered private practice with the firm McGuire Woods. Notably, he represented Florida State when it was sued by a student challenging its handling of her report that she'd been raped by football player Jameis Winston. (The case, which we blogged about often, settled for $950,000.)  Because the general counsel will advise OCR on policy related to sexual assault enforcement, I was particularly interested to read the comments of John Clune, who represented the plaintiff, Winston's accuser. Clune told the New York Times that Muñiz is "approachable" and that he listened and cared about the plaintiff's positions. However, he also noted that Muñiz was critical of the investigation the Office for Civil Rights is conducting into Florida State's handling of the case. This is interesting, since the facts alleged to OCR were pretty egregious -- essentially, that FSU officials initially concealed the accusation and failed to conduct any kind of disciplinary proceeding in order to protect their star quarterback. Even a lawyer who must dispute the truth of those facts could still recognize that allegations along those lines are worthy of investigation. So Muñiz's criticism of OCR, as relayed by Clune, could indicate his belief that OCR's role in sexual assault matters (and other civil rights issues?) should be very limited. If that's true, he would likely use his position to press for changes to OCR's current policy of insisting educational institutions engage in prompt and equitable response to charges of sexual assault.

Jackson, an attorney in private practice, also created the "Their Lives" foundation, to "give a voice to victims of those who abuse power, particularly when that abuser is another woman." Despite the general-sounding nature of this description, the foundation's website seems devoted to giving a voice to Kathy Shelton's claims that she was the victim of abuse of power by Hillary Clinton when Clinton was appointed by the court system in Arkansas to represent Shelton's rapist. Does Jackson's public record of support and concern for a rape victim mean she will maintain or strengthen OCR's policies regarding institutional response to campus sexual assault? Or are her politics more anti-Clinton than anti-rape? Given that Jackson is only known as a critic of the Clintons, her appointment by Clinton's opponent could appear to some as one motivated by political patronage rather than merit. However, Jackson's appointment to "acting" Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights avoids scrutiny on this issue, as acting officials do not need to be approved by the Senate. Notably, however, federal law limits her term of service for no more than 300 days (technically, 210 days from 90 days after the President assumes office, i.e., until approximately November 16). It also prohibits the acting official from simultaneously being the nominee for the permanent position.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Full Seventh Circuit Rules Sex Discrimination Includes Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Yesterday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination. The case that gave rise to the ruling involved an openly-lesbian adjunct professor, Kim Hively, who taught at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana.  She alleged that Ivy Tech rejected her applications for various full-time teaching positions and eventually terminated her adjunct status due to bias against her sexual orientation. She filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex and other protected characteristics, but which does not provide express protection from discrimination due to sexual orientation. For this reason, a federal district court in Indiana dismissed her case. When she appealed to the Seventh Circuit, the three-judge panel that first heard her case agreed with the district court. But, the appellate court agreed to re-hear the case "en banc" with all judges participating. The full court's decision, which came out yesterday, reinstated Hivey's case and will allow her now to try to prove to the lower court that sexual orientation discrimination did in fact occur.

Even though Hively's case continues to be litigated, it has cleared a huge hurdle and in so doing, generated a significant appellate court decision on the relationship between sex discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination. Sex discrimination is generally evident in the comparison between how an employer treats an employee of one sex versus how that employer treats another otherwise-identical employee of the other sex. Using this paradigm, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that when an employer treats positively a male employee who has a female partner (or who is attracted to women), but treats adversely a female employee who has a female partner (or who is attracted to women), that is discrimination on the basis of the employee's sex.  Though the discrimination targets the fact that the victim of such discrimination is partnered with or attracted to a person of the same sex, i.e., their homosexual orientation, such discrimination "does not exist without taking the victim's... sex...into account."  We already know that sex discrimination works in this relational way (discriminating on the basis of some characteristic, like the victim's attraction to women, in relation to the victim's sex), because the Supreme Court endorsed that way of thinking about sex discrimination when it confirmed that it encompassed gender stereotyping.  An employer's adverse action towards a female employee who exhibits a certain characteristic or appearance, but not a male employee who does the same is discrimination "that does not exist without taking the victim's sex into account." Additionally, the court considered the Supreme Court's precedent in Loving v. Virginia, which ruled that a state law banning interracial marriage was race discrimination prohibited under the Constitution. If discrimination based on the race one is oriented to is race discrimination, then discrimination based on the sex one is oriented to is sex discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit decision is the first appellate court decision to employ this reasoning (for a lower court example, see Videckis v. Pepperdine, a Title IX case). Other appellate courts in the (sometimes distant) past have ruled against the gay or lesbian plaintiff on the grounds that Congress could have, but did not, include sexual orientation as a Title VII protected characteristic. The Seventh Circuit's departure from this reasoning sets up a circuit split that gives the Supreme Court a reason to weigh in should it so choose.  Although the court's decision interprets the sex discrimination provision in Title VII, it and any Supreme Court decision that affirms it, should there be one, will no doubt be influential in the Title IX context as well, since courts routinely refer to definitions of sex discrimination from Title VII cases when analyzing what it means under Title IX.

I also think this decision, though about sexual orientation, will help support the argument that sex discrimination includes discrimination on the basis of transgender status, since transgender discrimination also targets a characteristic relative to the person's sex. Discrimination against someone because their gender identity is not consonant with their birth-assigned sex is discrimination "that does not exist without taking the victim's sex into account." I would expect the Hively decision to be cited favorably by litigants challenging exclusion of transgender students and employees from gender-consonant restrooms and other manners of discrimination.

UND and USA Hockey

The US Women's National Hockey Team is currently playing in the World Championships in Michigan. (And the team has made it through to the semi-finals.) Prepared to boycott this tournament over gross inequities in pay and treatment between them and the men's team, there was a (nearly) 11th hour resolution to the situation. (The financial terms have not been confirmed by either the team or USA Hockey but they include monthly stipends--year-round--instead of just during the Olympic year; that previous agreement amounted to a total of $6,000 over the course of four years from USA Hockey to national team members.)

It was a moment of triumph for women's sports. It was a highlight of my week--and others I know felt similarly. It was a show of solidarity and steadfastness. USA Hockey, with whom the national team had been in negotiations for over a year, initially poo-pooed the threat of the boycott and sought out other athletes--first from Division I schools, then II, III and then on to high school and rec league teams. And they never found enough players to field a team-- a team that would have been (no offense to my rec league friends) quite substandard.

The men's team also backed the women, suggesting that if USA Hockey did not prevent the boycott, they too would  boycott their upcoming world championships.

In addition, the women effectively utilized social media platforms and the mainstream media took notice. The story was widely covered, including on ESPN!

Sadly, with the ink on the contracts barely dried*, other news came out from the world of women's hockey. The University of North Dakota is cutting its DI women's team. This is a team that feeds the national teams of the US and other countries.A team that produced two of the US national team's current stars--sisters Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux (who transferred from Minnesota).

This does not appear to be a Title IX issue though this very confusing article said Title IX was considered and something about funneling the budget from women's hockey to both men's and women's sports. Running the numbers--last year's reported figures--and taking into account that two teams were cut last year and, along with women's ice hockey, men's and women's swimming will be cut at the end of the year, they appear to be in compliance with participation opportunities.

In other words, there is little to be done. Because, unlike the US women's national team, they do not--like most intercollegiate women's hockey teams--have widespread support. And part of the reason support for the team might be low is because of institutional priorities. The money saved from the five sports cut in two years will be going to the school's football program--no matter what UND says. Yes, state budget cuts are likely coming and the cuts are a response. But cutting these teams to address those budgets are a choice--an institutional choice--that allows the university to maintain the financial support to football-- a program that recently (2012) joined the "big time" Big Sky Conference--a move that requires a lot of capital.

I think USA Hockey was genuinely surprised by the support the national team rallied. They pushed back hard against a team that represents them and represents them well (despite the lack of support these women receive from the organization). In other words, USA Hockey was forced  to bow to the pressure of popular opinion and a culture of community within the world of hockey.

I don't know if UND can garner that support. The Lamoureux twins have made public statements about the cut and sent a letter to the university president asking for the team to be reinstated. They have said will use similar tactics employed by the national team in its campaign. And maybe it will work.

But I had hoped that the "mere" fact that this is a highly successful team that sends its players on to the Olympics would have been enough for the administration to put it in the keep column. That they would see being the only intercollegiate women's hockey program in the state as a responsibility. That these accomplishments and status would be a source of pride and perhaps even marketing for the school.

But maybe I should not be too surprised that a university which put its own athletic teams--including football--in jeopardy by continually defying and fighting the NCAA's ban on Native American mascots, does not know how to act in its own best interests, let alone ethically.

* it seems as good a time as any to trot out this cliche.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Title IX Dress Code Case Survives Motion to Dismiss

We often read about school dress code controversies, like students objecting to traditions that sort students by sex into different color graduation robes, or imposing a gender dress code on prom attire or yearbook photos. I've always thought that issues like these were ripe for Title IX challenge, since this is clearly treating students differently on the basis of sex in the absence of a statutory or regulatory exception. Litigation challenging these gendered dress codes, however, is rare. I think the reason is that is that high profile cases of public school dress codes are limited to special occasions (prom, senior pictures, cap and gown) that target students who are on the verge of graduation, and therefore no longer having standing or motivation to challenge the policy. Private schools are more likely to have gendered dress codes that govern students' day to day attire, but these schools are less likely to be subject to Title IX because many if not most private secondary schools don't receive federal education funding.

Recently, however, three students, via their parents, sued a charter school in North Carolina, challenging its policy that requires girls to wear skirts, jumpers and prohibits them from wearing shorts or pants. They argue that the policy "subjects them to archaic sex stereotypes about what constitutes appropriate behavior and conduct for girls, reinforcing the notion that girls, but not boys, must dress and behave modestly, that they are less physically active than boys and that they should behave and dress in a manner that is otherwise traditionally considered appropriately feminine." 

The plaintiffs claim that because the charter school is a statutory defined public school, its gender-based dress code violates the U.S. Constitution.  The school moved to dismiss this claim, arguing that the students knew about the dress code when they voluntarily enrolled at the charter school. However, the court pointed out, there is no doctrine of waiver when it comes to constitutional rights. The plaintiffs will thus be able to continue to press their argument that the dress code is rooted in generalizations and stereotypes and thus impermissible under the standard of heightened scrutiny articulated in U.S. v. Virginia

Additionally, the plaintiffs' Title IX claim survived the school's motion to dismiss. The plaintiffs properly alleged in their complaint that the school receives federal funding, that the policy discriminates by sex, and that the plaintiffs are harmed by the policy. In support of its motion to dismiss, the school argued that in 1982, the Department of Education repealed a Title IX regulatory provision that prohibited gendered dress codes. The school argued that the repeal constitutes evidence of the Department of Education's position that gendered dress codes are, therefore, permissible. However, while courts generally defer to agencies regulations that fill in gaps and details of broadly-worded statutes, this court understandably hesitated to defer to the school's argued inference that repealing the prohibition constituted permission for gendered dress codes. Title IX, notably, is a blanket ban on sex discrimination except where statutory and regulatory exceptions permit. Given the statute's structure, I don't think that a court is obligated to infer that the agency's repeal of an earlier provision about dress code is tantamount to creating an exception.

The court also noted that the USDA, a federal agency which also distributes federal funds to educational institutions in the form of a school lunch subsidies, also has Title IX regulations, which do in fact prohibit “discriminat[ing] against any person in the application of any rules of appearance.”  The court reasoned in its decision on the motion to dismiss that the case had not yet produced enough of a record for it to determine whether the USDA regulations were applicable and warranting judicial deference. The court appears willing to eventually decide how both the USDA and DoE regulations factor in to judicial interpretation of Title IX on the question of gendered dress codes, but it wasn't ready to do so early in the litigation. When the court eventually does so, however, the case could send a message to schools that this and other manners of gendered dress codes -- including the more commonly encountered policies governing prom, yearbook, and graduation ceremony -- are unlawful.

Decision: Peltier et al. v. Charter Day School, No. 7:16-CV-30-H, 2017 WL 1194460 (E.D.N.C. Mar. 30, 2017).