Monday, August 8, 2016

Unlawfully Stereotyping Men as Sexual Predators

In Doe v. Columbia University, No. 15-1536 (2d Cir. July 29, 2016), the court vacated the dismissal of a male student's Title IX claim that he was subjected to sex discrimination when the university suspended him for an alleged sexual assault of a female student. The male student alleged that the university accepted his accuser's unsupported version of the facts over his, declined to contact his witnesses, and failed to follow its own procedures designed to protect accused students. The court concluded that the male student had plausibly alleged that the university was motivated by sex bias, because the university had been subjected to criticism for not taking seriously female students' complaints of sexual assault by male students and, therefore, the university was motivated to favor the accusing female student over the accused male student.

As explained by the court, although the university may have feared negative publicity or liability for failing to protect female students from sexual assault, those concerns did not grant the university license to discriminate against male students based on their sex:
A defendant is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.
The decision in Doe v. Columbia University is similar to the Second Circuit's decision in Sassaman v. Gamache, 566 F.3d 307 (2d Cir. 2009). In that case, the plaintiff alleged that, after a female coworker accused him of sexual harassment, his employer failed to investigate the accusations and pressured him to resign, explaining, "You probably did what she said you did because you're male and nobody would believe you anyway." Reversing summary judgment for the employer, the court held that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination in violation of Title VII, because the evidence reflected an "invidious sex stereotype" about men.

As illustrated by Doe v. Columbia University and by Sassaman, although federal law requires educational institutions and employers to protect students and employees, respectively, against sexual harassment, they may not do so in a manner that itself constitutes unlawful sex discrimination.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.