Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy

John Doe, a male Columbia University student, was accused of sexually assaulting a classmate. Doe claimed the sex was consensual and not coercive, but Columbia found that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward [the classmate] over a period of weeks” and that “this pressure constituted coercion [so that] the sexual intercourse was without consent.” Columbia then suspended Doe for, in effect, 1½ years.

Doe sued, claiming that Columbia failed to properly investigate the matter, because its process is biased against men. The district judge threw out the claim before trial, but today’s decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Doe v. Columbia University) reinstates the claim. Here’s an excerpt, though the opinion provides many more factual details:

Plaintiff’s Complaint pleads sufficient specific facts giving at least the necessary minimal support to a plausible inference of sex discrimination to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, if Title IX’s other requirements are met. It alleges that Columbia’s hearing panel (which erroneously imposed discipline on the Plaintiff), its Dean (who rejected his appeal), and its Title IX investigator (who influenced the panel and the Dean by her report and recommendation), were all motivated in those actions by pro-female, anti-male bias. Those alleged biased attitudes were, at least in part, adopted to refute criticisms circulating in the student body and in the public press that Columbia was turning a blind eye to female students’ charges of sexual assaults by male students.

Among the Complaint’s allegations that support the inference of sex discrimination are the following. Both the investigator and the panel declined to seek out potential witnesses Plaintiff had identified as sources of information favorable to him. The investigator and the panel failed to act in accordance with University procedures designed to protect accused students. The investigator, the panel, and the reviewing Dean, furthermore, reached conclusions that were incorrect and contrary to the weight of the evidence.

When the evidence substantially favors one party’s version of a disputed matter, but an evaluator forms a conclusion in favor of the other side (without an apparent reason based in the evidence), it is plausible to infer (although by no means necessarily correct) that the evaluator has been influenced by bias. Here, the facts pleaded in the Complaint (which we must accept in the light most favorable to Plaintiff) support John Doe’s version (not surprisingly as they represent his contentions). The Complaint’s narrative depicts Jane Doe as an altogether willing participant. It denies that Plaintiff coerced Jane and asserts that “no evidence was presented” in support of the claim of coercion. The alleged fact that Sessions-Stackhouse, and the panel and the Dean, chose to accept an unsupported accusatory version over Plaintiff’s, and declined even to explore the testimony of Plaintiff’s witnesses, if true, gives plausible support to the proposition that they were motivated by bias in discharging their responsibilities to fairly investigate and adjudicate the dispute.

While those allegations support the inference of bias, they do not necessarily relate to bias on account of sex. Additional allegations of the Complaint, however, give ample plausible support to a bias with respect to sex. As outlined above, the Complaint alleges that during the period preceding the disciplinary hearing, there was substantial criticism of the University, both in the student body and in the public media, accusing the University of not taking seriously complaints of female students alleging sexual assault by male students. It alleges further that the University’s administration was cognizant of, and sensitive to, these criticisms, to the point that the President called a University-wide open meeting with the Dean to discuss the issue. Against this factual background, it is entirely plausible that the University’s decision-makers and its investigator were motivated to favor the accusing female over the accused male, so as to protect themselves and the University from accusations that they had failed to protect female students from sexual assault.

Columbia argues that the pleaded facts do not support an inference of intentional sex discrimination. It argues that the criticism of the University was for not taking student complaints of sexual assault seriously, and that any motivation on the part of the panel to demonstrate that it takes such complaints seriously is not the same thing as a motivation to discriminate against an accused male student. The district court stated that any bias in favor of Jane Doe “could equally have been — and more plausibly was — prompted by lawful, independent goals, such as a desire (enhanced, perhaps, by the fear of negative publicity or Title IX liability to the victims of sexual assault) to take allegations of rape on campus seriously and to treat complainants with a high degree of sensitivity.”

This reasoning fails to recognize the court’s obligation to draw reasonable inferences in favor of the sufficiency of the complaint. [Federal pleading rules do] not require that the inference of discriminatory intent supported by the pleaded facts be the most plausible explanation of the defendant’s conduct. It is sufficient if the inference of discriminatory intent is plausible.

The Complaint alleges that, having been severely criticized in the student body and in the public press for toleration of sexual assault of female students, Columbia was motivated in this instance to accept the female’s accusation of sexual assault and reject the male’s claim of consent, so as to show the student body and the public that the University is serious about protecting female students from sexual assault by male students — especially varsity athletes. There is nothing implausible or unreasonable about the Complaint’s suggested inference that the panel adopted a biased stance in favor of the accusing female and against the defending male varsity athlete in order to avoid further fanning the criticisms that Columbia turned a blind eye to such assaults.

[Footnote: It is worth noting furthermore that the possible motivations mentioned by the district court as more plausible than sex discrimination, including a fear of negative publicity or of Title IX liability, are not necessarily, as the district court characterized them, lawful motivations distinct from sex bias. 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 Complaint sufficiently alleges circumstances plausibly supporting a similar motivation on the part of Sessions-Stackhouse. It alleges that she had suffered personal criticism in the student body for her role in prior cases in which the University was seen as not taking seriously the complaints of female students. At the time Sessions-Stackhouse investigated Jane Doe’s accusation of Plaintiff, she knew that the University had been criticized for its conduct of investigations of sexual abuse, and specifically accused of conducting the investigations in a manner that favored male athletes and that was insufficiently protective of sexually assaulted females. It is plausible that she was motivated to refute those criticisms by siding with the accusing female and against the accused male….

We conclude that the Complaint adequately pleads facts that plausibly support at least the needed minimal inference of sex bias. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, and remand for further consideration. Our decision to reinstate the Complaint in no way suggests that our court has any view, one way or the other, on the likely accuracy of what Plaintiff has alleged. We recognize that the facts may appear in a very different light once Defendant Columbia has had the opportunity to contest the Plaintiff’s allegations and present its own version. The role of the court at this stage of the proceedings is not in any way to evaluate the truth as to what really happened, but merely to determine whether the plaintiff’s factual allegations are sufficient to allow the case to proceed. At this stage, the court is compelled to assume the truth of the plaintiff’s factual allegations and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Following those rules, we conclude that the Complaint sufficiently alleges that Columbia was motivated by sex bias….

Thanks to Keith Kaplan for the pointer.