Title IX / College Discipline Practice - Warshaw Burstein LLP | <em >Doe No. 3 v. Montana State University,</em > Docket No. CV-20-23-BU-BMM-JTJ, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 239799 (D. Mont. Dec. 21, 2020)
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  • Doe No. 3 v. Montana State University, Docket No. CV-20-23-BU-BMM-JTJ, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 239799 (D. Mont. Dec. 21, 2020)
    Plaintiff Jane Doe No. 3 (“Doe”) alleged that after attending a party at a Montana State University (“MSU”) fraternity house, she fell asleep in the fraternity’s attic, a space often used for guests. Upon waking up, Doe noticed that she was naked and had been moved to a different part of the attic sleeping space. Doe was later informed that two male students (“Student B” and “Student C”) were with Doe that night. Student B and Student C told other students that they had sexual intercourse with Doe the night of the party. Doe alleges she was aware Student B and Student C have a history of engaging in this sort of activity, and that Student B was, at that time, under investigation by law enforcement for a different sexual assault. Doe reported the assault to campus police, who advised her there was little they could do. Doe then reported the assault to MSU’s Office of Institutional Equity (“OIE”). OIE told Doe that the investigation would be completed within three months. However, the investigation could not begin until OIE finished training the person who would handle her case. OIE also informed DOE that two other students had reported being raped by Student B. Additionally, OIE discouraged Doe from moving forward with her complaint. Ultimately, Doe’s case was never resolved. Doe subsequently filed this action alleging Title IX deliberate indifference, and the existence of an official policy or custom of discrimination at MSU. MSU moved to dismiss the case. The Court denied MSU’s motion to dismiss.

    The Court held that the general pleading standard of FRCP Rule 9(b) applies to allegations of intent in cases such as Doe’s. MSU had argued that Doe’s allegations of official policy or custom of discrimination were “replete with conclusions that MSU acted with discriminatory intent.” MSU wanted the plausibility pleading standard of FRCP Rule 8(a)(2) to apply, which would have required Doe to plead additional facts to support an intent allegation to plausibly state a Title IX official policy claim. The Court rejected this heightened pleading standard, pointing out that before discovery is conducted, it is exceptionally rare for a plaintiff to unearth smoking-gun evidence about the defendant’s subjective state of mind. “The dismissal of valid claims of sex discrimination, before the plaintiff can engage in discovery, results in more harm than the possibility of some plaintiffs whose claims lack merit surviving past the pleading stage of proceedings.”

    Doe’s allegations showed that MSU waited months to investigate her claim because OIE needed to complete its training of a new investigator. OIE also tried to dissuade Doe from filing a formal complaint by telling her that insufficient evidence of sexual assault existed. OIE also threatened that Doe’s pursuit of a formal complaint could result in Doe’s punishment. MSU is also alleged to impose extraordinarily high burdens of proof on victims of sexual violence and harassment, with correspondingly modest sanctions on respondents found responsible. Finally, OIE admitted that it had inadequate resources and staffing to handle its caseload.

    The Court held that it is “reasonable to infer that MSU knew that underfunding, understaffing, and poorly training the OIE would have a disproportionate adverse impact on women, as it is a simple fact that the majority of accusers of sexual assault are female and the majority of the accused are male, therefore enforcement is likely to have a disparate impact on the sexes.” The Court’s reasoning in upholding Doe’s allegations is interesting because the disparate impact argument is one that male respondents often see rejected by the courts. Courts often point out that schools do not control the gender makeup of sexual harassment complaints, and evidence of bias in favor of complainants/respondents is not the same as evidence of gender bias.