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By Olabisi L. Okubadejo, Marjorie J. Peerce, and Carolyn A. Pellegrini
A judge in the Southern District of New York recently granted summary judgment to Vassar College in a case brought by a former student accused of sexual assault, [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers]. The plaintiff alleged that Vassar violated Title IX and various state law provisions when adjudicating the complaint against him. In rendering its opinion on March 31, 2015, the court focused on the lack of evidence that Vassar's actions were based on the plaintiff's gender and extensively cited the Office of Civil Rights' Dear Colleague Letter about Title IX and sexual violence and Vassar's written procedures. This decision serves to emphasize the importance of having clearly written policies and adhering to them.
The plaintiff and the complainant were students at Vassar in 2012 and engaged in sexual conduct one evening. The two corresponded about the event afterwards, with the plaintiff acknowledging the complainant's level of intoxication and the complainant apologizing for the incident. A year later, the complainant reported to Vassar counselors that the plaintiff had sexually assaulted her, initiating Vassar's Title IX process. Ultimately, the hearing panel determined that the plaintiff had violated Vassar's College Regulations and he was expelled.
The court emphasized that for an individual to state a claim under Title IX, the individual must show that he or she was discriminated against based on gender. Rather than evidence of gender bias, the court found that the record reflected that Vassar adhered closely to its written policies for adjudicating Title IX complaints. The court found that Vassar took the proper precautions to ensure that the hearing panel was impartial, it invited witnesses the plaintiff identified to attend and testify at the hearing, and it provided the plaintiff with an explanation of his rights, including his right to consult with legal counsel.
Although the plaintiff questioned nearly every step of the Title IX process, Vassar prevailed because its policies were comprehensive and its personnel followed them. This case serves as a strong reminder to higher education institutions that the laborious task of crafting careful policies, and then reviewing and updating the policies, and training personnel on the institution's Title IX policies, is critical.
Attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s Higher Education Group have experience conducting investigations, providing compliance advice and training, and auditing policies and procedures when Title IX issues arise on campus. The Group also regularly advises educational institutions on compliance with Title IX, the Clery Act, Title VI, Section 504, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination Act. Please contact Olabisi “Bisi” Okubadejo at 410.528.5532 or email@example.com, Marjorie J. Peerce at 646.346.8039 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Carolyn A. Pellegrini at 215.864.8314 or email@example.com with any questions.
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