In a sweeping victory for students who were unjustly punished by campus Kangaroo courts, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has reversed the decision of a California trial court to dismiss an accused student’s Title IX claim against the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).  

In December 2019, a Chinese national graduate student, known only as John Doe, brought suit against UCLA, claiming that the university violated his civil rights by suspending him upon a mere allegation of sexual misconduct by his former fiance, another student. According to Doe, UCLA suspended him on an interim basis before  opening a Title IX investigation. More than five months later, the university suspended Doe for a full two years. As a result, Doe, who was months away from completing his doctoral degree in chemistry/biochemistry, lost his housing, his job as a teaching assistant, his student visa, and the ability to complete his degree. 

Doe’s complaint alleged that UCLA violated Title IX, the federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination by schools that receive federal funds. 

Title IX states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

While neither the statute nor its original implementing regulations mention sexual violence or harassment, the Supreme Court has interpreted Title IX as creating affirmative obligations for schools to address claims of sexual harassment (including sexual assault) in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Colleges and universities have long interpreted such rulings to mean that they need to increase the amount of disciplinary actions taken to punish alleged sexual misconduct.  

But a growing number of lawsuits by male students who believe they were punished wrongfully charge colleges and universities with unlawful sex discrimination under Title IX (and not just with breach of contract or violations of due process).

In this case, Doe argues that UCLA’s sexual misconduct investigators are biased against accused males and alleges that a university official told him that “no female has ever fabricated allegations against an ex-boyfriend in a Title IX setting.”

Although a court is supposed to give a plaintiff the benefit of the doubt on a Motion to Dismiss, the District Court here dismissed Doe’s complaint on its face, on the ground  that Doe’s allegations, even if true, do not prove that sex-bias was a motivating factor in UCLA’s actions.

In reinstating Doe’s claim on January 11, the 9th Circuit ruled in John Doe v. Regents of the University of California, that “[s]ex discrimination need not be the only plausible explanation or even the most plausible explanation for a Title IX claim to proceed[.]” 

The court reasoned:

Doe’s allegations of external pressures [through the Dear Colleague Letter] and an internal pattern and practice of bias [among UCLA Title IX Investigators], along with allegations concerning his particular disciplinary case, give rise to a plausible inference that the University discriminated against Doe on the basis of sex.

According to SAVE, an organization that tracks Title IX cases, this case is the the 45th judicial decision upholding the right of accused male students to pursue Title IX sex discriminations cases on the basis of biased disciplinary systems. 

Having long used Title IX as a shield, colleges and universities are now finding themselves at the end of its sword.