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Students Failed To Plead Viable Claims Against University For Liability For Student-On-Student Sexual Harassment
Four female students (Plaintiffs) collectively brought a claim against Michigan State University alleging that the university’s administration responded inadequately to their reports of sexual assault. Each of the Plaintiffs had reported an incident of sexual assault to the university and the university investigated the report and imposed discipline on the alleged perpetrator, as necessary. The Plaintiffs contended that the university’s response was inadequate because they either (1) saw the alleged perpetrator around campus, (2) could have seen the alleged perpetrator around campus, or (3) were dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation. The Plaintiffs asserted that the university’s purported inadequate response caused them physical and emotional harm and, thus, denied them educational opportunities in violation of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), among other state and federal laws.
Title IX permits a student-victim of student-on-student sexual harassment to bring a lawsuit against a school that receives federal funding. Almost all public and private colleges and universities must abide by Title IX because they receive federal funding through the federal financial aid programs used by their students.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Davis Next Friend LaShonda D. v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ. (1999) 526 U.S. 629, set the standard for when a school may be held liable for student-on-student sexual harassment under Title IX. A school is properly held liable where (1) a student-victim experienced actionable sexual harassment (i.e., severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive) by another student; and (2) the school had actual knowledge of the actionable harassment and the school’s deliberate indifference to it resulted in further actionable harassment to the student-victim. Generally, for actionable harassment, “severe” means more than just juvenile behavior, teasing, or name-calling; “pervasive” means more than a single incident; and “objectively offensive” means behavior that would be offensive to a reasonable person under the circumstances.
To show that a school was deliberately indifferent, the student-victim must prove four elements (1) knowledge, (2) an act, (3) injury, and (4) causation. “Knowledge” means the school had actual knowledge of an incident of actionable sexual harassment that prompted or should have prompted a response. An “Act” means a response by the school that was clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances and demonstrates the school’s deliberate indifference to the foreseeable possibility of further actionable harassment of the student-victim. “Injury” means deprivation of “access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school,” such as an inability to focus on studies, deteriorating grades, or fear of attending school. “Causation” means the student-victim suffered further actionable harassment because of the school’s unreasonable response (i.e., deliberate indifference).
The court determined that the Plaintiffs did not suffer any incidents of actionable sexual harassment after the university’s response to their claims of sexual assault. The Plaintiffs’ concerns about seeing or possibly seeing their alleged perpetrator on campus or their dissatisfaction with the outcome of the investigation were insufficient to support their claims. Accordingly, the court held that the Plaintiffs were unable to meet the causation element needed to show the university was deliberately indifferent. The court dismissed each of the claims.
Kollaritsch v. Michigan State University Board of Trustees (6th Cir. 2019) 944 F.3d 613.
This case highlights the obligation of educational institutions to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment among students once it learns that such conduct is occurring and to take appropriate corrective action where needed. This case may have turned out differently if the university had not undertaken all of those steps.