On December 12, 2019 Circuit Judge Alice M. Batchelder issued the opinion of the court in Kollaritsch v. Michigan State University. This opinion helped to clarify how “student – on – student” sexual harassment incidents are to be handled as it pertains to the causes of action a victim can pursue under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX is a civil rights provision that was passed to supplement the Higher Education Act of 1965. It reads “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.” In the early 2000’s, this law evolved and was now primarily being used to adjudicate alleged sexual misconduct between co – eds on college campuses.
In January 2012 Emily Kollaritsch filed a report to Michigan State campus authorities alleging a sexual assault. An investigation was initiated and the perpetrator was placed on probation and prohibited from contacting Ms. Kollaritsch. However, Ms. Kollaritsch continued to see the perpetrator around campus which prompted her to file a “retaliation complaint.” Another investigation was undertaken but this time it was determined that no retaliation occurred and was merely the result of Ms. Kollaritsch seeing the perpetrator around campus. Afterwards, Ms. Kollaritsch brought a lawsuit against the school alleging a Title IX violation claiming the school’s actions deprived her of educational opportunities. The district court ended up dismissing all of the plaintiff’s claims except four claims that relate to the Title IX claim. The case was then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit where the court ruled that Ms. Kollaritsch and the other plaintiffs did not have a Title IX case to pursue for their sexual assault allegations. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
The issuance of the opinion in this case has caused quite a stir with a number of publications calling the ruling a “narrowing of a school’s Title IX obligations” to female students who are victims of sexual assault. But those interpretations are a bit extreme and overlook the overall effect of this decision on Title IX cases. The opinion is actually a pretty straightforward illustration of how a court interprets words and phrases in a statute and how a court can rein in interpretations that go further than what is allowed under existing rules and cases. In this case, Circuit Judge Batchelder helped elaborate on the Title IX cause of action against a school by the student by clarifying key terms found in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999). That case held that a school can be held liable to a student if  it is deliberately indifferent to sexual harassment and  has actual knowledge that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive…to deprive the victims of…educational opportunities. Her opinion goes in depth to define each term but when it came time to apply the standard to the facts of Ms. Kollitscher’s case it found that she did not have an appropriate Title IX action. The court said that the victim merely “seeing” the perpetrator around campus did not amount to severe, pervasive and objectively offensive harassment. And it also stated that the school was not deliberately indifferent because it did not take an act or perform an act of omission that could be considered unreasonable to the victim. The court is careful to not be dismissive of the injuries suffered by the victim. But in a civil rights context which could have resulted in liability against the school the court made clear that a victim’s complaint must not be general in nature and must be factually specific as to the harm she suffered, why it was caused by actions taken by the school and not merely be a list of other harms suffered by third parties on campus.
While this opinion may be a controversial ruling at the moment, the key takeaway is that the ruling is laying out the outlines for how sexual assault claims based on Title IX at institutes of higher learning need to be approached. What the case did was help clarify what the obligations are of a school and other parties whenever a sexual assault complaint is filed at and against the school. The way schools approach sexual assault incidents may be different in the future after input from legislators, victim rights groups and other stakeholders but at least for now a court is wading into the issue with a plan that could lay the groundwork for a fair and workable plan in the area of campus sexual assaults. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
RISE NOW – Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights – group advocating sexual assault survivors legislative reform bills.
RAINN – non – profit group geared to developing programs and services that support survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.
Photo by Mihai Surdu