Appeals court ruling clarifies Title IX obligations of universities

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An appellate court ruling in a lawsuit involving alleged incidents of sexual misconduct at Michigan State University, or MSU, clarifies the Title IX responsibilities of colleges and universities following incidents of sexual misconduct.

The case was brought forth by four victims of alleged sexual assault at MSU against the school’s administration for its alleged “inadequate” response to the sexual assaults, according to the opinion written by Circuit Judge Alice M. Batchelder. The appellate court opted to dismiss the plaintiffs’ allegations, stating that they would have to prove that following an incident of sexual misconduct, the school’s “deliberate indifference” to acknowledge sexual harassment resulted in further sexual assault.

The precedent in this ruling can be applied to future cases under the jurisdiction of the court, according to ASUC External Affairs Vice President Varsha Sarveshwar.

“That’s a deeply unfortunate ruling,” Sarveshwar said in an email. “While this case wouldn’t be binding on Californian universities, it allows universities in Michigan and wherever else this precedent may be applied to flout their Title IX obligations since it would be so much harder for plaintiffs to pursue claims against them.”

The plaintiffs alleged the university did not “conduct prompt investigations” or provide safety accommodations so that the plaintiffs could attend classes and activities, according to the original lawsuit.

This ruling follows a recurring “pattern” of courts limiting the protections guaranteed to survivors under Title IX, Sarveshwar said in the email.

ASUC Senator Rocky Gerosa said the ruling served less to influence policy change and more to clarify Title IX language.

“It’s overall like kind of ridiculous that this is a recurring situation on college campuses where Title IX offices either mishandle or really slowly address cases brought forward to them,” Gerosa added. “Where the four plaintiffs are coming from is … a valid place because they really are subject to … emotional turmoil.”

Gerosa said he “hopes” the UC Berkeley Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination will address future cases more quickly.

Following an announcement by the Department of Education in 2017 that it would be rescinding guidance regarding how schools handle sexual assaults under Title IX — established during the Obama administration — UC President Janet Napolitano announced that UC policies regarding sexual violence and sexual harassment would remain the same despite federal law changes.

“While I’m glad that UC has pledged to abide by the Obama era Title IX guidelines to the extent that’s legally allowable, even at UC, investigations take far too long to complete,” Sarveshwar said in the email. “More resources need to be invested in preventative efforts and CARE centers.”

Contact Emma Rooholfada at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.