Title IX of Congress's Education Amendments of 1972 requires high schools to discourage, address, and correct sex discrimination affecting student access to educational programs and activities. Title IX's prohibitions include not only sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence but also so-called hostile environment sexual harassment from sexual advances, comments, innuendo, and similar conduct that is severe and pervasive. One question, though, that Title IX accusers and accused students face is how soon the accuser must file a Title IX complaint.
What Is a Statute of Limitations
The law calls the time within which a party must file a complaint the statute of limitations. If a party does not file a complaint within the time that the statute of limitations requires, then the statute bars the action, and the accused may avoid the consequences of a complaint. If, on the other hand, a party does file a timely complaint satisfying the statute of limitations, then the proceeding may continue as long as the proceeding takes. Statutes of limitations differ in their periods. Some limitations periods are as short as ninety days, while other limitations periods may be one, two, three, five, six, or even ten years.
When the Limitations Period Begins to Run
Statutes of limitations generally begin to run against a claim as soon as the claim accrues. A claim accrues when all of its elements are present. In a Title IX matter, a claim would ordinarily accrue, and the limitations period begin to run on the date that the prohibited sexual conduct occurred. If the unlawful conduct is continuous, then depending on the applicable law, new claims may arise with each occurrence, while the statute of limitations would bar older claims falling outside the limitations period. Some states offer continuous-tort theories that prevent the limitations period from running out on older claims that are part and parcel of newer claims. Applicable law may also offer tolling provisions that keep the limitations period from running if the claimant is a minor, incompetent, or in the military service, or cannot discover the claim until later.
What Is the Limitations Period for Title IX Claims
The federal law Title IX does not have a statute of limitations within it. That omission, though, doesn't mean that Title IX claims have no limitations period. Instead, federal interpretive case law borrows from equivalent state law to supply a Title IX limitations period. Because statutes of limitations vary from state to state, and the interpretive federal case law also varies from federal district to federal district, the limitations period within which a Title IX claimant must file a court complaint varies from state to state. Those periods may be as short as two years, as is the case in Ohio, or as long as three years, as is the case in Michigan and Washington, D.C., or shorter or longer periods in other states.
This discussion so far addresses only court Title IX complaints. Students, though, may first bring a Title IX claim within their school's administrative procedures. Students may also complain to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. A high school student who complains to the Office of Civil Rights must ordinarily do so within 180 days of the last date of Title IX sex discrimination. The enforcement office director may extend that 180-day period if the complainant can show good cause justifying the delay. If the student first uses the school's administrative procedure but doesn't accept the result and instead intends to follow up with an Office of Civil Rights complaint, the student must file the Office of Civil Rights complaint within 60 days of when the school's administrative procedure concludes.
Other civil rights complaints can require an administrative filing before a claimant files a court complaint. Title IX does not impose that administrative-filing requirement.
What a Limitations Period Means to a Title IX Accuser
A statute of limitations forces a Title IX complainant to fish or cut bait. A statute of limitations requires the complainant to decide one way or another whether to file the Title IX claim. Persons who could file Title IX claims can sometimes rest on their claims, holding the potential of a claim over the responding student's head like a dark cloud waiting to burst in a downpour. Persons with Title IX claims also sometimes don't know that they have claims or just don't care at the moment to file them. The statute of limitations means that after the period runs without a filing, the person with the Title IX claim no longer has such a claim to file. At that point, the complainant is without legal remedy.
What a Limitations Period Means to an Accused Student
Law imposes statutes of limitations in large part to protect respondents from stale claims. A student who faces an old Title IX claim may have forgotten important events, discarded or lost important documentary or physical evidence, and lost track of important witnesses. Delay can put a respondent at a significant procedural disadvantage. The statute of limitations also enables a high school student who has engaged in Title IX misconduct, or whom others suspect of having done so, to finally put the old matters behind the student.
A statute of limitations for high school Title IX claims is especially appropriate. High school students move on from freshman to sophomore, junior, and senior years, and finally to graduation. Once high school students with Title IX claims or committing Title IX misconduct graduate, those Title IX claims carry less value, purpose, and meaning. Law can be merciful. For the Title IX respondent, the statute of limitations is a small act of mercy against stale claims. Bygones at some point must be bygones.
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