Appeals court rules women may sue UC Berkeley over sexual misconduct policy

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, or 9th Circuit, ruled Thursday that three women who were allegedly sexually assaulted while undergraduate students at UC Berkeley may sue the school for a policy of indifference to reports of sexual misconduct.

Plaintiffs Sofie Karasek, Nicoletta Commins and Aryle Butler alleged that UC Berkeley violated Title IX policies while handling their cases when they reported them in 2012, according to court documents.

The three women filed a complaint against the UC Board of Regents in 2015. The District Court found that the women failed to plausibly allege UC Berkeley’s “deliberate indifference” while handling their cases — criteria needed to sue a school based on a Title IX claim.

“(The) Ninth Circuit upheld the district court judge’s conclusion that the university was not deliberately indifferent in response to the Plaintiffs’ reports to the University of their assaults,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email.

Part of the lawsuit alleges that UC Berkeley maintained a policy of deliberate indifference to claims of sexual misconduct, which then created a “hostile environment” and “heightened” the risk of sexual harassment for the women.

While the District Court initially dismissed this claim, Thursday’s ruling recommends further proceedings. According to Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer on the case, the lawsuit will be amended once again and returned to the District Court.

“Under that theory, the plaintiffs contend that the university had an official policy of deliberate indifference to reports of sexual misconduct that was in place before the assaults in this case occurred and that resulted in their assaults,” Gilmore said in an email. “The University intends to continue to defend against this claim.”

The court cites a 2014 California State Auditor report that describes deficiencies in how certain California universities handle sexual misconduct cases. According to the court opinion, the report also found that campus failed to regularly update students on the status of its investigations and did not regularly complete investigations in a timely manner.

“We recognize that the responses in these cases could have been better and that we could have done more to keep survivors informed about the status of their investigations,” Gilmore said in an email.

The UC system has taken several systemwide initiatives to improve its detection and response to sexual violence and harassment, according to UC Office of the President spokesperson Stett Holbrook.

Among these initiatives are increasing resources for complainants and respondents and issuing a systemwide sexual violence and sexual harassment policy, Holbrook added.

“Title IX professionals on the Berkeley campus care deeply about students, and are working hard to ensure that our response to sexual violence is fair, compassionate, and results in just outcomes,” Holbrook said in an email.

Maya Akkaraju is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.