In November 2017, the College's Administrative Board at Harvard University suspended an unnamed male student for four semesters in response to sexual misconduct claims under Title IX. Eleven months later, the student filed a civil suit against the university, claiming that Harvard had discriminated against him on the basis of both race and gender bias in how they had handled his case.
Last month, as the Harvard Crimson reports, a District Judge in Massachusetts permitted the plaintiff's civil suit to move forward on the basis of racial discrimination while dismissing the claim of gender bias.
The incident sparking the Title IX misconduct claim allegedly occurred in April 2017, when a female student (anonymously known as “Jane Roe”) claimed the now-plaintiff (“John Doe”) had performed sexual acts on her after a party while she was intoxicated and unaware. Harvard University guidelines state that when one participant in a sexual encounter is “so impaired or incapacitated as to be incapable of requesting or inviting the conduct,” the incident is treated as unwelcome sexual contact. It was on these grounds that the University suspended Doe.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiff neither confirms nor denies the allegations, but instead claims the University discriminated unfairly against him on the basis of race (John Doe is African-American) by denying a request made by him and his accuser to resolve the matter informally, as the school has done in the past with white students. He also claimed Title IX discrimination on the basis of gender, saying the school attached less weight to his side of the story than to that of his accuser.
In her opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Indira Talwani affirmed that the racial discrimination case could move forward, saying that the plaintiff had shown a potential bias in the University's response by denying an informal resolution. However, she said there had not been sufficient evidence presented that the disciplinary procedure had been affected by gender bias.
What We Can Learn From this Case
In this case, “the devil is in the details,” as the saying goes. The plaintiff also alleged that the University committed “breach of contract” by not allowing the informal hearing. The judge effectively dismissed this part of the claim on the basis that the school's guidelines that informal resolution could only be permitted if the complainant, respondent, and Title IX Officer all agree on it—in this case affirming the right of the officer to deny the request. However, the judge did see a breach of contract possibility in the fact that the plaintiff was denied the opportunity for a follow-up interview before the conclusion of the investigation—something specifically called for in the guidelines—and affirmed the case could move forward on those grounds.
This case reveals several important takeaways:
- Students aren't necessarily at the mercy of school disciplinary protocols under Title IX. (In this case, the District Court affirmed the student's right to sue the school for denying him his rights while upholding Title IX.)
- Schools can be held to account for not following their own procedures consistently.
- School policies can still be held up against the standard of due process, even though their investigations aren't part of the court system.
If you are a student accused of misconduct, or if you feel your school has enforced a misconduct rule against you unfairly or has failed you in a Title IX case, the Lento Law Firm can help. Call our offices at 888-535-3686 for a case evaluation.