Reversing the dismissal of the plaintiff’s Title IX complaint against Purdue University by a magistrate judge, the Seventh Circuit breathed new life into a claim against the university by a former student. The student, referred to only as John Doe in the opinion as is common in Title IX suits, alleged that Purdue University’s improper handling of a Title IX investigation ruined his ability to pursue a career in the Navy.
John Doe was a student at Purdue University on an ROTC scholarship when he was accused of sexual assault by a former girlfriend, who also was a member of Purdue’s ROTC program. After the university’s investigation, it held a hearing where, according to John’s complaint, the university prohibited him from presenting evidence and witnesses. Further, the university did not require John’s accuser to testify but instead chose to consider a letter written by one of the university’s Title IX coordinators containing a summary of the accusations against John. The university ultimately found John guilty of sexual assault and suspended him for one academic year. In addition, John lost his scholarship, was involuntarily discharged from the ROTC program, and banned from re-enlistment in the program. Purdue also shared the findings of its investigation with the Navy.
The university moved to dismiss John Doe’s complaint. A magistrate granted the motion to dismiss finding that John had failed to state a claim under Title IX. The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by reiterating that the protections of Title IX are enforceable through an implied cause of action. The court then proceeded to review the doctrinal tests developed by other circuits for establishing bias based on one’s sex. The Seventh Circuit declined to adopt any particular test opting instead to simply review the totality of the allegations to determine if it creates an inference that sex was a motivating factor in the university’s decision.
The court then proceeded to examine the allegations of the complaint to determine if John had plausibly alleged that Purdue’s decision was motivated by John’s sex. The first evidence of discrimination that the court discussed was the “Dear Colleague” letter sent to universities by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011. The letter urged universities to crack down on sexual assaults and demonstrate that they were vigorously investigating and punishing sexual misconduct. The plaintiff alleged that the letter supports the inference that the university had a financial motive for discriminating against males in sexual assault investigations. The university, according to the court’s summary of the plaintiff’s allegations, skewed its process against men accused of sexual assault so that it could elevate the number of punishments imposed and protect its federal funding. This alone, the court explained, could not sustain a claim but it provided a backdrop against which to examine additional allegations of discrimination.
Those additional allegations of discrimination the court explained came from John’s claims concerning how the university handled the Title IX investigation and particularly the hearing. The strongest allegation that supported John’s claim, the court explained, was Purdue’s Dean of Students and a Title IX coordinator’s cursory statement that she found John’s accuser credible and John not credible. The court found this finding “perplexing” given that the Dean of Students had never talked to John’s accuser, John’s accuser never testified, and the letter summarizing the accusations that the Dean relied on was not even written by John’s accuser but instead contained a summary of the allegations prepared by another Title IX coordinator. Support for the inference that the university discriminated against John based on his sex also came from a Facebook post by a university center dedicated to supporting victims of sexual violence during the same month that John was disciplined containing a link to an article titled “Alcohol isn’t the cause of campus sexual assault. Men are.”
A copy of the Seventh Circuit’s opinion can be found here.
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