A student who was disciplined for sexual assault may continue to litigate his claim that Columbia University discriminated against him on the basis of sex, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday. The appellate court overturned a lower court decision that had granted Columbia’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim on the grounds that it failed to sufficiently allege that sex discrimination motivated the alleged procedural and substantive errors that lead to his suspension.
The appellate court, however, determined that the plaintiff’s complaint met the legal standard for alleging a violation of Title IX and should not have been dismissed so early in the litigation. The ruling reinstates the plaintiff’s case and allows it to proceed to the discovery stage, during which both sides will acquire evidence that they intend to use at trial. At the end of discovery, Columbia may again try to get the case dismissed in advance of trial (summary judgment). Then the questions will turn to the sufficiency of plaintiff’s evidence, but here, early in the litigation timeline, the only thing in question is the sufficiency of the allegations in his complaint.
The Second Circuit was influenced in its decision by the 1973 Supreme Court decision McDonnell Douglas v. Green, which allows discrimination plaintiffs with minimal, circumstantial evidence to benefit from a temporary presumption of the defendant’s discriminatory motive. Additionally, the court referenced the Court’s more recent, 2009 decision, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, which held that a complaint must plead specific facts sufficient to support a plausible inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Read together, according to the Second Circuit, the two cases permit a plaintiff to survive a motion to dismiss where the complaint specifically alleged facts that support a “minimal plausible inference” of discriminatory intent. Here, the court determined, the plaintiff’s complaint met that burden. Even if it is not probable, it is plausible to infer, as plaintiff alleged, that Columbia was biased against men in the wake of negative publicity over its mishandling of female student’s earlier complaints of sexual assault. Moreover, the complaint’s allegations of procedural errors that occurred during the disciplinary process and the absence of evidence to support the finding against are allegations of the type of minimal, circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs should benefit from under McDonnell Douglas.
This pro-plaintiff decision is binding in the Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. In these states, it’s likely to interrupt the trend in favor of universities’ winning their motions to dismiss, as disciplined students should now have an easier time advancing to the discovery phase of litigation. Though such victories are only preliminary in nature (since the university can again to dismiss the case after discovery, and still could win at trial), they may affect universities’ incentives to settle rather than go through the cost and hassle of continued litigation. Outside the Second Circuit, the trend in favor of universities winning motions to dismiss may continue unaffected, as courts there court continue to take a stricter view of Iqbal. However, it is also possible that other courts will find the Second Circuit’s reasoning persuasive and adopt it as their own. After all, that is what happened with Yusuf v. Vassar — the 1994 Second Circuit decision that laid out the framework for “erroneous outcome” and “selective enforcement” disciplined student cases, and which has been cited in every Title IX disciplined student case of late.