Student Adequately Alleged Discrimination On The Basis Of Sex In Title IX Disciplinary Proceeding

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education
DATE: Feb 23, 2022

John Doe, a Chinese national, was a teaching assistant pursuing his Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles on a student visa. John Doe and Jane Roe met in class and began a long-term relationship. They planned to get married after Doe was scheduled to graduate in June 2017.

In February 2017, Doe learned that Roe cheated on him and Doe wanted to end the engagement. They agreed to meet on-campus after Doe taught his class on February 13, but Roe showed up unannounced at Doe’s office on-campus before his class. At the time, Roe was not an active student enrolled at UCLA. Roe pounded on the door of the office and Doe, who was meeting with another graduate student at the time, refused to let Roe in. Roe attempted to block the doorway but Doe was eventually able to leave the office and get to his class. Roe followed him and tried to prevent him from entering his classroom.

While Doe taught his class, Roe called the University police and reported that Doe assaulted her. University Police arrested Doe for misdemeanor domestic battery after his class was finished. Two months later, Roe filed a Title IX complaint with the University against Doe alleging multiple instances of misconduct dating back to 2014. Although she was no longer a student, Roe told the University that she still was and UCLA did not verify her status as a student. Roe also alleged she suffered a rib fracture from her encounter with Doe on February 13.

UCLA’s Title IX Office charged Doe with violations of policies pertaining to dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment, sexual assault, terrorizing conduct, and conduct that threatens health or safety. The Dean of Students immediately suspended Doe on an interim basis, banned him from campus, and evicted him from student housing.

The University Title IX Office conducted an investigation and found that Doe was only responsible for the February 13 incident. The investigator found this incident violated policy provisions in the UC Policy for Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment and the UCLA Student Conduct Code. The report found that Roe did not suffer bodily injury, but Doe placed Roe “in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury.”

The Assistant Dean of Students accepted the report’s findings and suspended Doe from UCLA for two years. Doe appealed the Dean’s decision to the University’s internal appeals body, which affirmed the Dean’s decision and sanction of suspension. On February 13, 2018, Doe filed a petition for writ of mandamus against the Regents of the University of California in state court, challenging the disciplinary proceedings and sanction. The court found in favor of Doe, but Doe had already lost his student visa status.

On December 6, 2019, Doe sued the Regents in federal court alleging the University violated Title IX, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and state law. The trial court dismissed his claims but allowed Doe to amend his claims. Doe filed his amended complaint and only alleged violations of Title IX. The trial court dismissed his amended complaint. Doe appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The only issue on appeal was whether there was a plausible inference that Doe was discriminated against on the basis of his sex during the course of the disciplinary proceedings based on the facts he alleged on his amended complaint.

The Ninth Circuit stated that Doe’s amended complaint contained three categories of allegations: (1) allegations of external pressures, (2) allegations of an internal pattern and practice of bias, and (3) allegations of specific instances of bias in his case. The Ninth Circuit held that these allegations, when taken together, raise a plausible inference of discrimination on the basis of sex.

The amended complaint alleged that external pressures influenced how the University handled its sexual misconduct complaints at the time of Roe’s complaint against Doe. The amended complaint pointed to (1) the April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education directing schools to take immediate action to eliminate sexual harassment; (2) a report by NPR about sexual assault victims which prompted the “Dear Colleague” letter; (3) a state audit of UCLA following student testimony about a lack of response to sexual harassment claims; (4) an April 29, 2014 guidance document from the Department of Education that stated that the due process rights of the respondent should not unnecessarily delay Title IX protections of the complainant; (5) and a 2014 White House report and 2014 Senate testimony by the then-Assistant of Secretary of Education warning schools that violating Title IX could result in loss of federal funding. The Ninth Circuit found that these external pressures when taken alongside Doe’s other allegations in his complaint would affect how UCLA treated respondents in disciplinary proceedings on the basis of sex, even though they occurred in 2017.

The Ninth Circuit found that the amended complaint also alleges enough facts that demonstrate an internal pattern of gender-based decision-making against male respondents. The Ninth Circuit pointed to the allegation in the amended complaint that respondents in Title IX cases are overwhelmingly male and the University has never suspended a female for two years under the same types of facts that resulted in Doe’s suspensions.

The Ninth Circuit also held that Doe sufficiently combined the allegations of external pressures and internal bias against males with the facts that are particular in his case. The Ninth Circuit pointed to the allegation that the UCLA Respondent Coordinator told Doe that no woman has ever fabricated allegations against an ex-boyfriend in a Title IX proceeding. The Ninth Circuit reasoned it is plausible to infer that the Coordinator’s statement reflects broader gender assumptions within UCLA’s Title IX office during its investigation against Doe. The amended complaint also alleges multiple procedural irregularities, including the University’s failure to determine Roe’s student status at the time of the February 13 incident and not discrediting Roe because she lied about fracturing a rib on February 13. The amended complaint also pointed to the state court’s ruling in favor of Doe in the writ proceeding, where the court found that the evidence did not support the Regents’ decision to suspend Doe.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit held that Doe sufficiently pled a Title IX claim against the Regents.

Doe v. Regents of Univ. of California (9th Cir. 2022) 23 F.4th 930.

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