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Student Alleges Plausible Violation Of Title IX Against University For Failing To Address Alleged Sexual Harassment By Professor
Jane Doe was a student at Weber State University from 2009-2014 and 2016-2019. Dr. Todd Baird was a professor in the University’s psychology department. In spring 2013, Dr. Baird offered Doe private psychological counseling services, and she accepted his offer. Doe contends that during these counseling sessions, Dr. Baird touched her inappropriately during “therapeutic” and “mindfulness” exercises, disclosed personal information about other patients, invited Doe to swim naked with him, and made other inappropriate comments. Doe further alleged that after Dr. Baird asked Doe whether she orgasmed during a “mindfulness” exercise, Doe confronted him about his inappropriate touching and comments, and Dr. Baird responded by calling her a “slut.” Doe ended her counseling sessions with Dr. Baird in spring 2015.
Doe informed a colleague of Dr. Baird’s, Dr. Jacklyn Knapp, about his inappropriate behavior. Dr. Knapp told Doe that Dr. Baird had been inappropriate with other students and that she and another University employee, Dr. Dianna Abel, were worried about Dr. Baird’s pattern of behavior. Thereafter, Dr. Knapp shared the information she received from Doe with Dr. Abel, who was a member of the University’s Strategic Threat Assessment and Response (STAR) team. The STAR team is responsible for identifying and assessing potential safety threats to members of the University community and making recommendations to reduce or eliminate those threats.
After Doe was diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2015, she resumed counseling sessions with Dr. Baird. Doe ended her counseling sessions in spring 2016 after a series of inappropriate comments and touching by Dr. Baird. In winter 2017, Doe told the University counseling center about Dr. Baird’s inappropriate conduct and they told Doe that she had to file a formal complaint with the Title IX office, which they could not do for her. Doe did not want to work with the Title IX office, so she instead reported Dr. Baird’s conduct to ecclesiastical authorities in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to the Utah Department of Occupational Licensing (DOPL), and to the Ogden police department.
Doe filed a formal Title IX complaint with the University in winter 2018. The Title IX investigation into Doe’s complaint found that Dr. Baird’s conduct toward “Doe was more than likely unwelcome and severe,” Dr. Baird “was responsible for the ensuing hostile environment Doe experienced,” and Dr. Baird’s conduct violated University’s policies on discrimination and harassment. The Title IX report and the police report collectively referenced several allegations against Dr. Baird by other students and patients.
The University’s Provost recommended that Dr. Baird be placed on leave without pay for one year. However, Doe opposed this punishment and filed a formal charge against Dr. Baird with the Faculty Board of Review, which recommended instead that Dr. Baird’s employment be terminated.
Doe brought a lawsuit against the University for a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), alleging that Dr. Baird sexually harassed her during private counseling sessions. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment, by an educational institution receiving federal financial assistance. To properly state a claim under Title IX, Doe must allege that the University (1) had actual knowledge of, and (2) was deliberately indifferent to (3) harassment that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it (4) deprived Doe of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the University.
To properly allege the first element of the Title IX claim, an appropriate person, who at minimum is an official of the university with authority to take corrective action on behalf of the university to end the discrimination, must have actual knowledge about the harassment. The first element is satisfied if other students made earlier complaints about an employee, which put the university on notice that the employee posed “a substantial risk of abuse.” Here, the court inferred that the University had actual knowledge that Dr. Baird harassed Doe and other students in the past. Doe told Dr. Knapp about Dr. Baird’s behavior, and Dr. Knapp shared with Doe the concerns she and Dr. Abel had about Dr. Baird’s pattern of inappropriate behavior with other students. Also, Dr. Abel, who was a member of the STAR team and tasked with addressing potential threats on campus, knew about Dr. Baird’s inappropriate conduct.
To properly allege the second element of the Title IX claim, the university’s response or lack of a response to the harassment must be “clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.” A university’s response is unreasonable when it, “at a minimum, cause[s] students to undergo harassment or make them liable or vulnerable to it,” but a university need not take a particular disciplinary action or provide a particular remedy.
Here, the court determined that it was plausible to infer that the University was deliberately indifferent when it took no action to address Dr. Baird’s conduct when Doe reported the conduct to Dr. Knapp in spring 2015 and Dr. Knapp shared the information with Dr. Abel. No action was taken until 2018. Between 2015 and 2018, Doe experienced further harassment from Dr. Baird and so did a second student who also reported the conduct in 2018.
The University did not argue that Doe failed to plead the third or fourth elements properly. The court held that Doe alleged the third or fourth elements properly without further explanation. Therefore, the court held that Doe properly alleged all four elements of her Title IX claim.
Doe v. Weber State University (D. Utah, Jan. 5, 2021, No. 1:20-CV-00054-TC) 2021 WL 37646.
Title IX applies to schools, universities, and colleges that accept federal financial assistance. Regardless of whether Title IX applies, schools, universities, and colleges that become aware of alleged misconduct or violations of policies by employees should take appropriate steps consistent with internal policies and legal obligations to address the allegations promptly and take suitable remedial measures whether or not Title IX applies.