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Court Revives Suit Over Anti-Male Bias in Campus Sex Assault Investigations

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

A male Columbia University student can go forward with his lawsuit accusing the college of gender bias in its sexual assault investigations, the Second Circuit ruled last Friday. "John Doe" alleges that the university demonstrated "sex bias in disciplining him for an alleged sexual assault," in violation of Title IX.

Doe had been disciplined and suspended for a year and a half, for coercing a female student to sleep with him, according to the court. He sued, claiming that Columbia's investigation was biased against him because he was a man. A federal district court initially rejected those claims, but the Second Circuit breathed new life into them last week, finding that Doe had alleged sufficient bias to survive a rule 12(b)(6) motion, even if his allegations are not the most plausible explanation for the university's behavior.

Allegations of "Pro-Female, Anti-Male Bias"

Columbia has faced a barrage of criticism over its handling of campus sexual assault complaints over the past years. The more than year-long "Mattress Performance" by Emma Sulkowicz, for example, gained national attention, as Sulkowicz drug her mattress with her throughout campus to protest the school's failure to discipline a male student she accused of rape.

Doe alleges that, following negative publicity over its treatment of female sexual assault victims, Columbia responded by embracing anti-male bias in its investigations, dismissing male students' claims of consent. In particular, he alleges that the college's investigator and disciplinary panel refused to seek out potential witnesses in his favor, and refused to follow proper procedures, reaching conclusions unsupported by evidence.

Such allegations, the Second determined, were enough to support an allegation of bias. When coupled with Doe's allegations that the bias was part of the university's reaction to criticism, motivated by "pro-female, anti-male bias," that was sufficient to support a plausible inference of discriminatory intent.

Footnote Predicts Litigation to Come?

In a footnote, the Second Circuit expanded on the university's fear of negative publicity. "It is worth noting," the court wrote, that "fear of negative publicity or of Title IX liability are not necessarily, as the district court characterized them, lawful motivations distinct from sex bias." Biased action taken to avoid "practical disadvantages" can still be discriminatory, even when that "discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart."

That footnote "will be cited often," Gary Pavela, former president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, told Inside Higher Ed. Pavela predicts that the Second Circuit's opinion will lead to an increase of similar litigation. While litigation over campus sexual assault discipline is not new, much of it has relied on due process and procedural rights. This ruling could "encourage many more courts not to dismiss comparable Title IX complaints at early stages," Pavela says.

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