A federal appeals court dismissed claims by four women that Michigan State University (MSU) failed to respond “adequately” to emotional distress caused by the return of students accused of sexual harassment.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a U.S. district court decision and dismissed a lawsuit against MSU’s Board of Trustees by Emily Kollaritsch, Shayna Gross, and two anonymous “Jane Roes.”
The plaintiffs claimed the university did not care about their problems, says Samantha Harris, an attorney and vice president for procedural advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and was not involved in the case,
“There were four plaintiffs in this lawsuit, each [of whom] alleged they’d been sexually assaulted on campus and in their view the response from the university was deliberately indifferent,” Harris said. “They had to once again see those students once the accused’s suspension was up.”
The process for handling these complaints is far from transparent, Harris says.
“We don’t know anything about the process,” Harris said. “We don’t know that much about the underlying hearing or investigation that led to the decision.”
Case ‘Not Atypical’
Title IX of the Higher Education Act requires colleges to investigate incidents of sexual misconduct as matters of discrimination. In the MSU cases, the alleged perpetrators were not expelled.
“This is a deliberate-indifference case alleging the university’s response to sexual misconduct on campus was deliberately indifferent, making them liable under Title IX,” Harris said. “The school did not reach a specific conclusion, [but] that does not necessarily make them indifferent.”
Title IX has often led to litigation by victims and alleged perpetrators, Harris says.
“This case is not atypical, because there have been a large number of students on both sides criticizing the way colleges handle sexual misconduct cases,” Harris said.
‘Did Not Provide Any Details’
The allegations of additional distress were unsubstantiated, federal appeals court Judge Alice M. Batchelder stated in an opinion accompanying the dismissal order issued on December 12, with which the other two judges concurred.
“Kollaritsch has not pleaded further actionable sexual harassment,” Batchelder wrote. “She did not provide any details or assert any facts about these encounters to show—or even suggest—that they were sexual, or that they were severe, pervasive, or objectively unreasonable. In describing her encounters in the Complaint, she suggested that these were merely their mutual presence at the same location.”
The plaintiffs’ claims did not establish a pervasive failure on the part of the university, Batchelder says.
“[A] student-victim’s subjective dissatisfaction with the school’s response is immaterial to whether the school’s response caused the claimed Title IX violation,” Batchelder wrote. “[N]one of the plaintiffs in this case suffered any actionable sexual harassment after the school’s response, they did not suffer ‘pervasive’ sexual harassment as set out in Davis.”
The 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education set a precedent for the evidence needed for a plaintiff to prove sexual harassment infringed on an individual’s rights and that officials’ lack of action led to further injury. Batchelder’s opinion highlights the powerful precedent of the Davis case, Harris says.
“It illustrates what the court pointed out regarding Davis v. Monroe County,” Harris said. “The defense expressed that it would open the floodgates from litigation on each side. We are seeing a ton of litigation on both sides.”
Title IX Rules Changing
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed changes to Title IX regulations to ensure a more equitable process for both sides, Harris says. Under the proposed rules, universities would continue to investigate sexual harassment and misconduct cases.
“The fact that schools are required to adjudicate under Title IX is not going to change under the new administration,” Harris said. “Whether you feel as though universities are ill-equipped—regardless of your view on that—they currently have to and will continue to adjudicate these cases. We believe the new regulations, if they’re not terribly different than the draft—right to all of the evidence, right to a fair trial, right to examination—should improve the process.”
The MSU Board of Trustees will not talk about the decision at present, says Dan Olsen, a deputy spokesperson for Michigan State University.
“Because this is still active litigation, it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time,” Olsen said.
Although a decision was reached, the plaintiffs could appeal to the full panel of appeals judges. Kollaritsch’s legal team could not be reached for comment.
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.