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  • Federal Court Dismisses Accused Student’s Title IX Lawsuit Against Vassar College

    Last week, a federal judge in New York (Abrams, J.) dismissed an accused student’s lawsuit against Vassar College alleging that the institution discriminated against him by failing to conduct an equitable investigation into a claim of sexual misconduct and employing a “presumption of male guilt” in violation of Title IX.

    By way of brief background, Xiaolu “Peter” Yu, a Chinese citizen who came to the United States in 2008, attended a rowing team party in 2012 where he interacted with the complainant. One year later, the complainant filed a claim with Vassar alleging that Yu sexually assaulted her after they attended the rowing team party. Upon receiving notice of this complaint, Yu offered evidence of Facebook messages that he sent to the complainant immediately after the alleged incident, including a message saying “I was really drunk last night and I feel maybe I was way too forward.” The complainant responded that she also was drunk. She added that she “[didn’t] want this to effect out team dynamic or friendship. I don’t think any less of you at all I had a wonderful time last night I’m just too close to my previous relationship to be in one right now.” During the subsequent investigation and proceedings at Vassar, the complainant contended that those Facebook messages did not reflect her feelings because at that time she was “in denial” and shocked.

    A Vassar College regulation deems a person incapable of consenting to sexual activity if he or she is intoxicated. Specifically, the regulation states “consent cannot be gained by . . . taking advantage of the incapacitation of another, where the accused knows or should have reasonably known of such incapacitation.” After three students testified that the complainant was intoxicated at the rowing team party, a Vassar disciplinary panel found against Yu and dismissed him from the institution in 2013.

    Soon thereafter, Yu filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleging that Vassar discriminated against him under Title IX and failed to equally enforce its policies on sexual violence. Yu argued that the Facebook messages make it impossible that the complainant’s version of events was at all believable and, therefore, the disciplinary panel must be biased against accused students. Yu further alleges that Vassar operates under a “double standard” because the aforementioned regulation does not take into consideration the accused student’s intoxicated state and whether the accused student had reason to believe the complainant was intoxicated at the time of the alleged incident. Moreover, Yu contends that Vassar’s “presumed guilty” mindset has resulted in a serious miscarriage of justice for him, as well as other accused students.

    The Court reviewed the disciplinary proceeding and found the proceeding to be appropriate and legally complete. In doing so, the Court noted that “[t]o the extent that Yu simply disagrees with the [panel’s] decision, the Court cannot now- absent flawed process and gender discrimination- second-guess the panelists’ credibility determination and factual conclusions.” “Yu has not provided, for instance, any statements made by [panelists], nor any statements made by any other Vassar official, that would evidence any sort of discriminatory intent.” Judge Abrams also held that Yu’s contention that there was a “presumption of male guilt” was “unsupported” by the facts of his case. “The record here is devoid of any evidence of gender bias,” she said.

    However, in dismissing Yu’s case, Judge Abrams made note of the “thriving public debate” about how “colleges should support student victims of sexual assault while still assuring fairness to those who are accused of such conduct.” Indeed, when properly implemented, Title IX guides institutions on how to maintain a safe campus environment. However, at an increasing rate, students who have been accused of sexual misconduct are suing their institutions under Title IX for failing to afford due process rights, while complainants use the same statute to sue their institutions for failing to properly investigate claims of sexual misconduct. Especially during this new era of Title IX enforcement and attention by the federal government, institutions must keep a close eye on the course of this federal law, as the ever-changing climate has the ability to have practical as well as legal implications for all colleges and universities.

    If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding employment or education related issues, please contact James G. Ryan at jryan@cullenanddykman.com or at (516) 357 – 3750.

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