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  • Former UVA Student’s Title IX Lawsuit Against Federal Agencies Dismissed

    Over the past year, colleges and universities, state and federal governments, and lawmakers alike have continued a discussion about sexual misconduct and how to properly address complaints of campus sexual violence and sexual harassment. This discussion was indeed heightened by the publication (and the later retraction) of a Rolling Stone article, titled “A Rape on Campus”, which offered a brutal account of an alleged sexual assault of a freshman student by seven men inside a fraternity house at the University of Virginia.

    However, it’s not only institutions that are being criticized in the public spotlight for allegedly mishandling claims of campus sexual assault. In an interesting twist, a former University of Virginia student recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Jane Doe v. United States Department of Health and Human Services) and the U.S. Department of Education (Jane Doe v. United States Department of Education), two federal agencies charged with the obligation of ensuring that colleges and universities promptly and equitably investigate claims of campus sexual misconduct.

    By way of brief background, in June 2012, the former student filed claims with the Department of Health and the Department of Education against the University of Virginia for allegedly failing to conduct a “prompt and equitable” investigation into her complaint of sexual assault in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., (“Title IX”), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding. It is well settled that discrimination on the basis of sex includes sexual harassment and sexual violence. Pursuant to Title IX, upon notice of a claim, colleges and universities are responsible for taking corrective action to stop and investigate the sexual misconduct, prevent its recurrence, and remedy the effects.

    In March 2014, the former student filed suit against the Department of Education and the Department of Health, alleging that the respective agencies failed to properly respond to her claims against the University of Virginia in violation of Title IX, among other federal laws. In other words, the former student brought the lawsuit against the Department of Health and the Department of Education in an effort to force those two agencies to more aggressively investigate the University of Virginia and provide redress for Jane Doe’s alleged injuries.

    However, on March 24, 2015, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell dismissed the former student’s case against the federal agencies. “Congress determined that the most appropriate defendant for Title IX actions is the institution of higher learning accused of discriminatory practices, not the government agencies charged with enforcing Title IX,” Howell wrote. Addressing the former student’s criticism that the Department of Health and the Department of Education failed to “promptly” process her complaints, Judge Howell noted that “the plaintiff does not appear to claim that the defendants failed to initiate an investigation promptly, but instead that the agencies have not completed their investigations and provided her with a resolution.” Finding no “clear right” to relief, the judge dismissed the claim, noting that the plaintiff’s efforts were better used against the university, rather than the federal agencies changed with investigating the incident.

    Although this case involves a lawsuit against two federal agencies, it serves as a telling reminder that a new era of Title IX enforcement and attention has begun. The manner in which an investigation is conducted has a significant effect on an institution’s potential exposure and ability to defend itself in a future lawsuit or OCR investigation. Institutions need to know how to recognize and prevent claims of sexual assault; they must also know what to do if a claim occurs and what investigative steps to take if claims are made. Prompt, comprehensive and impartial investigations of sexual violence will help to ensure your institution satisfies the federal government’s recently heightened expectations under Title IX.

    If you or your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email Hayley B. Dryer at hdryer@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3745.

    Thank you to Nathan Boone, an intern at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for his assistance with this blog post.