Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Columbia University, 831 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 2016)

School type: Private
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Title IX

The appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s Title IX claim.

Plaintiff had sex with a female student, Jane Doe, who was the ex-girlfriend of Plaintiff’s roommate. According to Plaintiff’s complaint, Jane subsequently expressed doubts about how their friends would react to news of their encounter. Six months later, Jane filed a complaint with the university alleging that the sex had been nonconsensual.

According to Plaintiff’s complaint, when he met with the university’s Title IX investigator, she seemed hostile towards him. She did not inform him of his right to have a student advocate. In her investigative report, she inaccurately paraphrased Plaintiff’s account of the events.

During this same time period, Columbia was facing intense criticism, both on-campus and off, for allegedly being too lenient in its handling of sexual assault cases.

Plaintiff’s case proceeded to a hearing. At the hearing, the panel called on Plaintiff to make a statement, but because the investigator had not told him he would be allowed to offer a statement, he had nothing prepared. Plaintiff also alleged that the investigator did not interview the witnesses he identified and that the hearing panel did not ask all of the questions that he submitted.

Ultimately, the panel found that Plaintiff had applied “unreasonable pressure” for sex in the weeks leading up to the encounter, rendering it nonconsensual. He appealed, and his appeal was denied.

Plaintiff brought suit alleging that in adjudicating his case, the university had discriminated against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. The District Court granted the university’s motion to dismiss his complaint.

The correct resolution of the motion to dismiss depended, the Second Circuit held, on the applicable pleading standards.

With respect to the sufficiency of federal complaints generally, the Supreme Court ruled in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), that a complaint must plead specific facts sufficient to support a plausible inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. at 678. While “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

In 2015, the Second Circuit held in Littlejohn v. New York, 795 F.3d 297 (2d Cir. 2015) that in Title VII cases, the temporary presumption of discriminatory motive established by the Supreme Court’s decision McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), “reduces the facts needed to be pleaded under Iqbal”:

In other words, at the 12(b)(6) stage of a Title VII suit, allegation of facts supporting a minimal plausible inference of discriminatory intent suffices as to this element of the claim because this entitles the plaintiff to the temporary presumption of McDonnell Douglas until the defendant furnishes its asserted reasons for its action against the plaintiff.

In this case, the court considered whether to extend its holding in Littlejohn to the Title IX context and decided to do so, holding that “the temporary presumption afforded to plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases under Title VII applies to sex discrimination plaintiffs under Title IX as well.”

Using this framework, the court held that Plaintiff had made a number of allegations of gender bias sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, including the investigator’s alleged failure to seek out Plaintiff’s witnesses; the university’s alleged failure to follow its own policies; and the hearing panel’s alleged drawing of conclusions contrary to the weight of the evidence.

Significantly, the court also rejected the district court’s finding that Plaintiff had merely alleged bias against accused persons, rather than gender bias, holding that

[T]he possible motivations mentioned by the district court as more plausible than sex discrimination, including a fear of negative publicity or of Title IX liability, are not necessarily, as the district court characterized them, lawful motivations distinct from sex bias. A defendant is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.

The case eventually settled.