A little over a year ago, we reported the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit allowing former doctoral candidate Monica Emeldi to proceed to trial in her sex discrimination lawsuit against the University of Oregon (UO). The trial finally began last Monday, and less than 48 hours later, the federal district court entered judgment for UO, finding that Emeldi had not sufficiently proven her claims of retaliation against the school.
Emeldi filed her Title IX lawsuit against UO in 2008, after Dr. Robert Horner resigned as the chair of her dissertation committee and she was unable to find a replacement, rendering her unable to complete further work on her degree. Her lawsuit claimed that Dr. Horner’s resignation and her subsequent inability to procure a replacement committee chair constituted unlawful retaliation for her previous complaints about perceived unequal treatment of women in her department.
UO disputed Emeldi’s theory and asserted that separate, unrelated academic issues were the source of her troubles. The university pointed to, among other things, documented irreconcilable academic differences between Emeldi and Dr. Horner with respect to her research goals, as well as Emeldi’s failure to reach out to all faculty members who might serve as a replacement, including her original adviser and committee chair who had since returned from sabbatical.
After the parties completed discovery, UO asked the court to grant summary judgment in its favor, arguing that Emeldi’s only evidence of retaliation was her own “fanciful” opinion, and that substantial evidence supported the conclusion that independent academic judgments were the cause of her inability to make further progress on her degree. The district court agreed and granted judgment for UO, but the Ninth Circuit later reversed and held that Emeldi was entitled to present her case to a jury. In reaching this conclusion, the federal appellate court found that Emeldi had shown sufficient evidence that her discrimination complaints and Dr. Horner’s resignation as her committee chair were “not completely unrelated.” The Ninth Circuit did not require her to show that the resignation occurred because of her discrimination complaints even after UO presented a non-discriminatory reason for Emeldi’s difficulties.
Seizing on the negative implications for academic freedom, Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski issued a scathing dissent to the Ninth Circuit’s refusal to rehear the case en banc:
[The decision] jeopardizes academic freedom by making it far too easy for students to bring retaliation claims against their professors. … Defendants will go straight to trial or their checkbooks—because summary judgment will be out of reach in the Ninth Circuit.
If this ill-considered precedent stands, professors will have to think twice before giving honest evaluations of their students for fear that disgruntled students may haul them into court. This is a loss for professors and students and for society, which depends on their creative ferment.
After the Supreme Court denied review of the Ninth Circuit decision, Emeldi’s case finally went to trial last Monday. After Emeldi finished presenting her case, UO moved for a directed verdict in its favor, arguing that Emeldi had failed to produce legally sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that the university retaliated against her for complaining of sex discrimination. The district court agreed and entered judgment for UO.
Assuming Emeldi does not appeal the district court’s judgment, this case is over. But the dangers warned of by Judge Kozinski have not abated. If a disgruntled student can force a trial (and a prolonged legal process) by showing only that negative academic results occurred close in time to some protected activity without any evidence of causation beyond speculation, students will have significant incentives to attempt to extract favorable results by threatening litigation.
And as Judge Kozinski correctly noted, faculty members might think twice before providing honest evaluations of students’ work, and universities might be forced either to capitulate or face protracted and costly litigation. If this came to pass, students would suffer from professors’ reticence to provide legitimate critiques of their work—as would the academy and society at large, from the diminished quality of scholarship produced as a result.
Image: Autzen Stadium, University of Oregon – Wikimedia Commons