Federal Appeals Court Dismisses Title IX Lawsuit Against University

December 18, 2019 Updated: December 18, 2019

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently dismissed a Title IX lawsuit against Michigan State University (MSU) over its handling of sexual assault claims, a decision that could clarify the schools’ responsibilities following incidents of sexual misconduct on campus.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 by four former MSU students who argued that the university was slow to investigate their sexual harassment and assault complaints and did not prevent their alleged perpetrators from returning to campus.

The suit claimed the university’s mishandling of the cases violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual misconduct, on college campuses.

Taking a narrow interpretation of the Title IX provisions, however, the panel of judges ruled that the argument has no legal standing and remanded the lawsuit back to the Michigan district court for dismissal.

In a court opinion (pdf) filed on Dec. 12, the judges wrote that the women failed to prove that the school’s decision not to remove the alleged tormentors from campus “resulted in further actionable sexual harassment against the student-victim, which caused the Title IX injuries.”

“A student-victim’s subjective dissatisfaction with the school’s response is immaterial to whether the school’s response caused the claimed Title IX violation,” wrote Circuit Judge Alice M. Batchelder, one of the two Trump-appointees in the panel. She added that because none of the plaintiffs in this case suffered any sexual harassment after the MSU’s response, the school cannot be held liable for their emotional distress.

The judges also noted that the dismissal deals only with the response from the MSU administration, not the women’s complaints of sexual misconduct against the harasser.

The primary complainant in the case, Emily Kollaritsch, said she suffered panic attacks after seeing the harasser, who lived in the same residence hall, and they were in the same class. The MSU’s student newspaper, The State News, reported that the university placed the male student on sanction and issued a no-contact order, which Kollaritsch alleged he broke, but the university was unable to find evidence of that.

The same male student had previously been expelled for the rape of another MSU student, plaintiff Shayna Gross, but the university ended up allowing him to return after an independent investigation could not prove he committed the rape, reported The State News.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in 2017 that it would be rewriting Obama-era guidelines regarding how schools handle on-campus sexual misconducts under Title IX.

On Nov. 16, after more than a year of research, deliberation, and gathering input from students, advocates, school administrators, Title IX coordinators, and other stakeholders, the U.S. Department of Education released its proposal on improving schools’ responses to sexual harassment and assault. The Department’s proposed Title IX rule will be open for public comment for 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.