13 July 2020

Sixth Circuit Allows Expelled Student’s Title IX Case to Continue

Late last month, the Sixth Circuit issued a split 2‑1 decision in Doe v Oberlin College.  The case involved a student (Doe) who was expelled for allegedly sexually assaulting a female student (Roe).  After Doe was expelled, he claimed that the college had discriminated against him on the basis of sex.  In a nutshell, Doe asserted that Oberlin ignored evidence that Roe had falsely accused him of sexual assault and had violated its own Title IX procedures as it moved toward expulsion.  The “he said, she said” details of the case, while important, have less of an impact on other Title IX cases than the court’s analysis of Title IX.

Doe’s case asserted a “erroneous outcome” claim.  In an “erroneous outcome” claim under Title IX, the plaintiff must sufficiently (1) cast doubt on the accuracy of a disciplinary proceeding’s outcome and (2) show a particularized causal connection between the flawed outcome and sex discrimination.  In other words, Doe needed to sufficiently show Oberlin was incorrect to find him responsible for sexual assault, and he needed to show at least some of the reason Oberlin reached that incorrect result was based on Doe’s sex.  The parties agreed that Doe made a sufficient argument to call into question the result of the disciplinary procedures; however, the parties disagreed as to whether Doe had established enough of a link between the result and sex discrimination.

In a contentious move, the majority of the court panel concluded that “the strongest evidence” to demonstrate a relationship between the flawed outcome and sex discrimination was “perhaps the merits of the decision itself.”  In other words, casting doubt on a disciplinary procedure’s outcome was a required element of Doe’s case and could be used to support the other element.  The court reasoned, “[W]hen the degree of doubt passes from ‘articulable’ to grave, the merits of the decision itself, as a matter of common sense, can support an inference of sex bias.”  Thus, concluded the court’s majority, Doe’s case against Oberlin could continue.

The dissent characterized the majority’s decision as “conflat[ing] the two prongs” of the “erroneous outcome” claim.  Arguing that case law firmly established that a flawed proceeding itself is not enough to support a claim of gender discrimination, the dissent would have dismissed the case.

The decision may be subject to review before the entire Sixth Circuit.  Failing that, the United States Supreme Court may eventually rule on the issue if it determines the federal circuits have split on the matter and an ultimate decision is warranted.

The decision may be accessed here.