A recent decision against Harvard University in favor of a student accused of sexual assault demonstrates a viable path to challenging student discipline decisions. As we have discussed previously, courts are wary of interfering with academic decisions of universities, but have been willing to hold schools accountable for failing to follow their own established policies in student disciplinary processes. Where a student handbook or other policy promises certain protections, courts will defend the reasonable expectations of students who encounter a process significantly less fair than what the university agreed to provide. These principles came into play in the “Dr. Doe” case, recently decided by the Massachusetts Superior Court.
We have repeatedly discussed on this blog how schools handle sexual misconduct allegations through internal grievance procedures. However, students involved in these processes must remember that the conduct that gives rise to Title IX allegations may also give rise to civil and criminal legal proceedings. Students involved in school misconduct cases need to understand how these different proceedings may intersect and impact one another before deciding how to approach their cases.
University Title IX and sexual misconduct policies prohibit sexual harassment, which includes sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. All these behaviors are also criminal—though the definitions used in the criminal law and in school policies may differ. For example, in Massachusetts criminal law, indecent assault and battery is defined as an intentional, unjustified touching of a person’s private areas (a term that has been defined through case law to include various body parts). In many college and university policies sexual assault means sexual acts without consent, which is often defined as “affirmative, voluntary, knowing, and continuous agreement to engage in a specific form of sexual activity” (to quote the Wellesley College policy). All criminal sexual activity is generally also prohibited by school sexual misconduct policies, but there are categories of sexual misconduct that are prohibited by schools but may not be criminal.
We frequently represent graduate students who have experienced discrimination or harassment in their programs, something that studies have indicated is unfortunately common. The unique status of graduate students within universities affects what legal protections for discrimination apply to them. Graduate students often hold multiple roles simultaneously – student, research assistant or teaching assistant, advisee, and mentee. Their success as early-career researchers is uniquely tied to their relationships with faculty mentors and others in their discipline, meaning they may be less likely to report discrimination. But when it comes to asserting legal claims, the key issue is how their mixed status as student and employee affects what claims they can pursue.
Relevant anti-discrimination statutes
For graduate students who also carry out paid work, there are overlapping protections from discrimination under federal and state law. Various provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit discrimination in educational programs and institutions, including Title IX (sex) and Title VI (race, color, and national origin). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 151B, bar discrimination in employment. And the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability-based discrimination in both employment and education. Outside Massachusetts, the anti-discrimination laws of other states protect students and employees as well, often providing stronger protections than federal law.
When can a person accused of sexual misconduct sue the accuser for defamation? Since the #MeToo movement began, more and more people accused of sexual assault have turned to defamation lawsuits as a weapon to combat those allegations. In 2022 Johnny Depp won his defamation claim against his ex, Amber Heard, who had written an op-ed describing herself as a survivor of domestic violence, without naming Depp. (Depp was also found liable for defaming Heard when his lawyer called Heard’s claims a “hoax”). In 2020 a judge found singer Kesha had defamed her former music producer by telling a friend he had raped her; New York’s highest court recently overturned that decision, and the parties settled. A crowdsourced Google spreadsheet of allegations of sexual misconduct against men in media resulted in a lawsuit against the woman who started the spreadsheet, and a six-figure settlement for the plaintiff. Defamation claims in sexual assault cases have gone the other way too; A jury recently found that Donald Trump defamed E. Jean Carroll by calling her sexual assault allegations against him a hoax. In these high-profile instances, defamation suits have become a vehicle to set up a jury to decide whether allegations of sexual misconduct are true. CONTINUE READING ›
Last week saw a wave of legal developments—legislative, jurisprudential, and administrative—on issues related to trans rights. While state legislatures passed laws restricting medical care for transgender minors, and barring trans women and girls from participating in school sports, federal appellate courts upheld the rights of transgender students and the Biden administration weighed in on the trans athlete issue. On April 6 the Supreme Court refused to lift a ban imposed by the Fourth Circuit on the enforcement of a West Virginia law that would prevent transgender students from competing on sports teams that corresponded to their gender while litigation about the constitutionality of the law is pending. West Virginia was attempting to enforce that law against a 12-year-old girl who wanted to run track at her middle school. That same day the U.S. Department of Education released a proposed rule that would address transgender students’ athletic participation. That rule, however, far from protecting trans students’ right to be treated equally to other members of their gender, would only prohibit a school from imposing a blanket ban on students’ participation in sports that corresponded to their genders. Schools would retain the authority to restrict trans athletes’ participation in sports if they could show that the restriction is “substantially related to the achievement of an important educational objective and (ii) minimize[s] harms to students whose opportunity to participate on a male or female team consistent with their gender identity would be limited or denied.”
We often get calls from people wondering whether their school or their child’s school has violated their privacy rights with respect to education records, and if so, what can be done about it. While federal law provides significant privacy rights for students those rights are not absolute, and there are limited mechanisms to enforce violations.
What is FERPA
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that was passed in 1974 to protect the privacy of student education records. The law applies to educational agencies and institutions that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents or students 18 and older (“eligible students”) the right to inspect and review students’ education records. It also gives parents and eligible students the right to request amendment of the student’s records, and the right to a hearing if the school denies the request to amend.
For the second time this year, the First Circuit has reversed a district court’s ruling dismissing a student’s breach of contract claim against his school, reaffirming that courts are willing to second guess school’s interpretations and applications of their own policies.
Background of the Case
In Doe v. Stonehill College the plaintiff alleged that Stonehill had violated his contract with the school, and discriminated against him in violation of Title IX, when it found him responsible for sexual misconduct in 2018 and expelled him. According to his complaint, he and student Jane Roe had had three previous consensual sexual encounters before the incident that gave rise to her Title IX complaint against him. On the night in question, he claimed that the two engaged in sexual conduct that was the same as on other nights, and to which she consented in the same way (through physical manifestations of consent) that she had on previous occasions.
Federal legislators have introduced a bill to correct absurdities in anti-discrimination law that ensure institutions are rarely held liable for egregious acts of discrimination on their campuses. As things currently stand, a school district cannot be held liable for an on-campus rape of a student even if the student had previously been harassed by the assailant and told her teacher about the harassment, but the teacher failed to report it to the right administrator at the school. Even where students can bring legal claims against their schools for the school’s failure to properly address sexual harassment, they may well walk away from such a lawsuit empty handed because plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages and may not be able to recover emotional distress damages in civil rights lawsuits in the education context. Imagine this: a college knows that it employs a professor who has assaulted countless students over many years. The professor sexually assaults another student on campus. Despite suffering extreme mental health consequences from the assault, the student manages to stay in school and graduate on time. If the student sues the school, a court could decide that even though the school has violated the student’s rights under Title IX, the student is not entitled to any damages for the harm the school has caused. CONTINUE READING ›
On October 24, 2022, An Act Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Natural Hair and Protective Hairstyles, also known as the Massachusetts CROWN Act, went into effect, but is significantly changed from the proposed legislation we have previously discussed on this blog. The CROWN Act expands the statutory definition of “race” that applies to all laws addressing racial discrimination to include “traits historically associated with race, including but not limited to, hair texture, hair type, hair length and protective hairstyles.” In addition, the Act defines “protective hairstyle” to include “braids, locks, twists, Bantu knots, hair coverings and other formations.” The CROWN Act also prohibits schools (except for sectarian schools) from adopting any policy or code that “impairs or prohibits” hairstyles historically associated with race. CONTINUE READING ›
Proposed Title IX Regulations Would Expand Protection for Pregnant Students
Title IX is a federal civil rights statute that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program that receives federal funding. This prohibition extends to discrimination based on pregnancy and related conditions, including termination of a pregnancy. As I have previously noted, there have been relatively few cases litigated by students alleging they have been discriminated against because of pregnancy, leaving the scope of Title IX’s protection of pregnant students somewhat undefined.
The current regulations implementing Title IX state: “A recipient shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, on the basis of such student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery therefrom . . .” The regulations further require schools to treat pregnancy, childbirth, termination of pregnancy, and recovery therefrom as a temporary disability, and to provide students protected leave for as long as is deemed medically necessary to address those conditions. CONTINUE READING ›