Doe v. Columbia University, No. 15-1536 (2d Cir. 2016)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Plaintiff, a Columbia University student, appealed the dismissal of his amended complaint for failure to state a claim. Plaintiff alleged that the University violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. 1681 et seq., and state law, by acting with sex bias in investigating him and suspending him for an alleged sexual assault. The court concluded that the complaint meets the low standard described in Littlejohn v. City of New York, by alleging facts giving rise to a plausible minimal inference of bias sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, which the court held applies to Title IX cases. In this case, the complaint alleged that 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; and the investigator, the panel, and the reviewing Dean reached conclusions that were incorrect and contrary to the weight of the evidence. Accordingly, the court vacated and remanded.

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15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT 1 2 3 4 August Term, 2015 5 6 (Argued: April 12, 2016 Decided: July 29, 2016) 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Docket Nos. 15-1536 (Lead), 15-1661 (XAP) -----------------------------------------------------------X JOHN DOE Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee, v. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, THE TRUSTEES OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY Defendants-Appellees-Cross-Appellants. -----------------------------------------------------------X 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 Before: LEVAL, DRONEY, Circuit Judges; KOELTL, District Judge.1 Plaintiff John Doe appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Furman, J.), which granted Defendant Columbia University’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a sufficient claim. The complaint alleged that Defendant violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and state law by practicing sex bias in disciplining him for an alleged sexual assault. The complaint meets the low burden of alleging facts supporting a minimal plausible inference of bias. We therefore vacate the judgment and remand. VACATED and REMANDED. 1 The Honorable John G. Koeltl of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, sitting by designation. 1 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University PHILIP A. BYLER, NESENOFF & MILTENBERG, LLP, New York, NY, (Andrew T. Miltenberg, on the brief), for Plaintiff-Appellant-Cross-Appellee. 1 2 3 4 5 PAUL R.Q. WOLFSON, WILMER CUTLER PICKERING HALE AND DORR LLP, Washington, DC, (Bruce M. Berman, Saurabh Sanghvi, Alan E. Schoenfeld, on the brief), for Defendants-Appellees-CrossAppellants. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Leval, Circuit Judge: 14 15 Plaintiff, a Columbia University student who is identified by the pseudonym 16 John Doe, appeals from the judgment of the United States District Court for the 17 Southern District of New York (Furman, J.), dismissing his amended complaint 18 (“the Complaint”) under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) "for failure to state a claim on 19 which relief can be granted." The Complaint alleges that Defendant Columbia 20 University2 violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 21 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”), and state law, by acting with sex bias in investigating 22 him and suspending him for an alleged sexual assault. We conclude that the 23 Complaint meets the low standard described in Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 2 Although the Trustees of Columbia University are also Defendants in this action, we generally use “Defendant” hereinafter to refer to Columbia University. 2 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 F.3d 297 (2d Cir. 2015), of alleging facts giving rise to a plausible minimal 2 inference of bias sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, which we hold applies 3 in Title IX cases. We therefore VACATE the judgment and REMAND. 4 I. Factual Background 5 On a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a 6 claim, the only facts to be considered are those alleged in the complaint, and the 7 court must accept them, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, 8 in deciding whether the complaint alleges sufficient facts to survive. See DiFolco 9 v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 110-11 (2d Cir. 2010). Furthermore, the 10 plaintiff is at liberty to plead different theories, even if they are inconsistent with 11 one another, and the court must accept each sufficiently pleaded theory at face 12 value, without regard to its inconsistency with other parts of the complaint. See 13 Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(d)(3) (“A party may state as many separate claims . . . as it has, 14 regardless of consistency.”); Gregory v. Daly, 243 F.3d 687, 701 n.12 (2d Cir. 15 2001). Needless to say, the facts a plaintiff alleges in the complaint may turn out to 16 be self-serving and untrue. But a court at this stage of our proceeding is not 17 engaged in an effort to determine the true facts. The issue is simply whether the 18 facts the plaintiff alleges, if true, are plausibly sufficient to state a legal claim. For 19 that reason, the court, in judging the sufficiency of the complaint, must accept the 3 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 facts alleged and construe ambiguities in the light most favorable to upholding the 2 plaintiff’s claim. If the complaint is found to be sufficient to state a legal claim, the 3 opposing party will then have ample opportunity to contest the truth of the 4 plaintiff’s allegations and to offer its own version. In light of those rules, we set 5 forth below facts alleged in Plaintiff's Complaint in the light most favorable to him, 6 drawing reasonable inferences in his favor. 7 a. The Sexual Encounter between Plaintiff and Jane Doe 8 On the night of May 12, 2013, Plaintiff, a male Columbia freshman who 9 upon completing his freshman year became a varsity athlete, was studying for a 10 final exam in his residence hall. At approximately 1:00 a.m. a female classmate 11 and member of the same circle of friends, identified in this litigation by the 12 pseudonym Jane Doe, approached him and initiated a conversation. They took an 13 hour-long walk together, and eventually began discussing the topic of “hooking 14 up.” The Complaint alleges that, in the interest of privacy for a sexual encounter, 15 Jane suggested using the bathroom of her dormitory’s suite. She insisted on using 16 her suite rather than his because her ex-boyfriend was Plaintiff’s roommate. She 17 told Plaintiff to wait in the bathroom while she went to her bedroom to retrieve a 18 condom. She then undressed herself in the bathroom, and they proceeded to have 4 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 sex. Over the next two weeks, Jane contacted Plaintiff twice to express doubts 2 about how their friends would react. 3 4 b. Jane Doe’s Complaint and Defendant’s Investigation After the start of the next school year, on September 24, 2013, Rosalie Siler, 5 Defendant’s Assistant Director for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct, 6 contacted Plaintiff to inform him that a fellow student had made allegations of 7 sexual assault against him, and advised him to come in for a meeting. The next 8 day, Plaintiff met with Siler, who gave him a formal written notice that he was 9 charged with “Non-Consensual Sexual Intercourse” in violation of the school’s 10 Gender-Based Misconduct Policies for Students (“GBMPS”), which established 11 procedures for responding to allegations of sexual assault on campus. He was told 12 that, as a consequence of Jane Doe’s accusation, the University had issued an order 13 barring him from contact with her and restricting his access to residence halls on 14 campus. Although Plaintiff was advised that he was entitled to access the on- 15 campus Counseling & Psychological Services, he was not advised of other sources 16 of support during the disciplinary process. 17 Plaintiff was summoned to meet on September 25, 2013, with the Columbia 18 Title IX investigator, Jilleian Sessions-Stackhouse, who Plaintiff alleges, referring 19 to her prior experience, was not gender neutral. In her role as Title IX investigator, 5 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Sessions-Stackhouse was “charged with creating the narrative account that is 2 eventually adopted by the [disciplinary] panel.” A 90. Plaintiff told Sessions- 3 Stackhouse that the encounter had been consensual and that there had been 4 witnesses at the residence hall lounge that night who could be helpful. The 5 Complaint alleges that Sessions-Stackhouse’s response was hostile. She did not ask 6 him about the witnesses, interview them, or follow up with them in any way.3 7 According to Plaintiff, “[a]t all times, [he] was under the impression that Ms. 8 Sessions-Stackhouse would investigate and follow up on [his] account of the 9 evening once he conveyed his side of the story; [but] as it turns out, that never 10 11 happened.” A 89. According to the Complaint, Sessions-Stackhouse’s questioning of Plaintiff 12 was akin to cross-examination calculated to elicit a confession. She failed to tell 13 him he could submit his own written statement to her or to the disciplinary panel, 14 and failed also to advise him that he was entitled to seek the support of a student 15 advocate. Nor did she advise him of resources available to him to aid him in the 16 process. 3 The Complaint later acknowledged that Sessions-Stackhouse interviewed at least one witness identified by Doe. 6 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Plaintiff alleges in contrast, upon information and belief, that, in meeting 2 with Jane Doe, Sessions-Stackhouse took a narrative account without leading 3 questions and without hostility, giving Jane thorough advice as to the resources 4 available to her. The interviews conducted by Sessions-Stackhouse were not 5 recorded. She took handwritten notes. 6 On October 21, 2013, Plaintiff reported to Siler that Jane Doe’s friends had 7 harassed and assaulted him on campus. Siler “did not take [his] complaint . . . 8 seriously.” A 91-92. 9 On October 22, 2013, Plaintiff met with Sessions-Stackhouse to review her 10 notes from their previous meeting. He “observed that [her] notes inaccurately and 11 inadequately paraphrased [Plaintiff’s] verbal account of the events.” A 92. On 12 January 25, 2014, Plaintiff met with Interim Assistant Director, Deputy Title IX 13 Coordinator Virginia Ryan (Siler’s replacement) to review Sessions-Stackhouse’s 14 report. 15 According to the Complaint, the report falsely depicted Plaintiff as having 16 inflicted nonconsensual sex on Jane Doe, by virtue of having coercively pressured 17 her over a period of weeks to have sex with him.4 The report showed that Sessions- 4 While the Complaint does not explicitly allege what Sessions-Stackhouse wrote in her 7 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Stackhouse had disregarded Plaintiff’s account of Jane Doe’s clearly expressed 2 consent, and failed to reconcile Jane’s account with conflicting information 3 provided to Sessions-Stackhouse by India Knight, who was a friend of Jane’s, 4 about Jane’s motivation on May 12. The report also allegedly failed to include 5 statements of persons, including Jane’s roommate, “who had occasion to witness 6 Jane Doe in the weeks before” the encounter as well as on that night. A 104-05, 95. 7 Plaintiff attempted to correct Sessions-Stackhouse’s mistakes. Ryan gave Plaintiff 8 a form to state his response, which he completed and returned on January 29, 2014. 9 Soon thereafter, Ryan provided Plaintiff with a hearing date of February 12 10 and gave him a list of the panelists. According to Plaintiff, at no point during the 11 investigative process did Sessions-Stackhouse, or any administrator, advise him 12 that he was entitled to seek advice and counsel from his Dean of Students. 13 14 15 16 c. Criticisms of Columbia Among Students and in the Press for its Previous Lenient Handling of Sexual Assault Complaints In the period preceding Plaintiff’s disciplinary hearing, Columbia students 17 had expressed concern that the University did not take seriously the complaints of 18 female students about sexual assaults by male students. Various student report, it can be fairly inferred that the report took the position that Plaintiff coerced Jane into sex by weeks of pressure, and that her participation was deemed to be without consent by reason of the prior pressure. 8 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 organizations had “alleged that the school [was] not being firm enough in the 2 disciplinary process” in cases involving accusations by female students of sexual 3 misconduct by male students. A 97. This controversy reached the press. On 4 December 11, 2013, a New York Post article declared, “Columbia drops ball on 5 jock ‘rapist’ probe: students.” Id. The article quoted several female students 6 asserting that Columbia had mishandled their sexual assault complaints, failing to 7 act with expediency in investigating, giving lenient sanctions, and conveying an 8 overall tenor of “dismissal” with regard to the serious nature of the complaints. 9 The article stated that the University’s Presidential Advisory Committee on Sexual 10 Assault intended to schedule a meeting with the Columbia University Student 11 Democrats to learn more directly about student concerns and explore possible next 12 steps. 13 On campus, the Columbia University Democrats had criticized the 14 University’s handling of sexual assault complaints and called for reforms. Sarah 15 Weinstein, the Membership Director of that student organization, had written 16 opinion articles calling for increased transparency at the school, and had 17 spearheaded a petition to request statistics on sanctions issued by Defendant in 18 sexual assault cases. Referring to reports that Yale University had given light 19 punishments to male students found to have raped or assaulted female students, 9 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Weinstein was quoted in articles as saying, “[W]e want to make sure that what’s 2 happening at Yale isn’t happening here at Columbia.” A 98. 3 On January 23, 2014, an independent, student-run newspaper criticized 4 Columbia’s handling of sexual assault complaints, discussing the experiences of 5 three alleged sexual assault victims “in an effort to highlight how the university’s 6 internal investigation allowed [an] accused student athlete to escape punishment.” 7 The articles particularly criticized Sessions-Stackhouse for “inadequate 8 investigation[s].” A 99. In February 2014 (close to the time of Plaintiff’s hearing) 9 Columbia University President Lee Bollinger promised to hold a Town Hall 10 meeting on the school’s handling of sexual misconduct. Columbia Dean James 11 Valentini was scheduled to attend the meeting. 12 On April 24, 2014, twenty-three students filed complaints with the United 13 States Department of Education for violations of Title IX and other laws, alleging 14 that Defendant mishandled incidents of sexual assault and misconduct on campus. 15 d. Columbia’s Policies for Addressing Sexual Assault 16 Columbia’s policy on gender-based misconduct (the GBMPS) provided that 17 a student accused of sexual assault would be given notice of the complaint and 18 written notice of the allegations, as well as an opportunity to meet with the 19 Assistant Director for Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct 10 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 to review the GBMPS policy and procedures. A specially trained Title IX 2 investigator (Sessions-Stackhouse) would then interview “the complainant, 3 respondent, and any witnesses,” “gather any pertinent documentation,” and 4 “prepare a report detailing the relevant [findings].” A 178. If the investigator found 5 “reasonable suspicion,” then the respondent and complainant would “each have the 6 opportunity to review the investigative report and . . . documentation.” A 179. If 7 the respondent denied responsibility or did not respond, a hearing panel would be 8 convened. 9 Hearings were to be closed proceedings. The hearing panels, when 10 practicable, would consist of two deans and/or senior-level administrators and one 11 student drawn from a specially trained pool. A party could challenge a panelist’s 12 participation in writing. During the hearing, only the panel would call and question 13 parties and witnesses, but parties could submit questions, which the panel would 14 have discretion to decline to ask if it found them irrelevant or duplicative. Panels 15 were to base their decisions on a “preponderance of [the] evidence” standard of 16 proof. A 181. Decisions were to be made within five business days, and the Dean 17 of Students would render a decision five business days later. Sanctions could range 18 from a warning to suspension to full dismissal. Respondents had the right to an 19 appeal. 11 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University e. The Disciplinary Hearing and Plaintiff’s Suspension 1 2 Plaintiff’s disciplinary hearing took place on February 12, 2014, before three 3 panelists—the Director of the Office of Disability Services at Barnard College, the 4 Associate Director for Residential Life and Housing at Barnard College, and a 5 graduate student at the Columbia School of Public Health. Ryan and her assistant 6 were also present. Plaintiff brought his roommate. Jane Doe was accompanied by 7 Weinstein, who had been among the most vocal critics of the University’s prior 8 handling of rape complaints. Weinstein was not Jane’s friend, and had no prior 9 relationship with her. Columbia’s rules did not allow the accused student legal 10 11 representation. There were three rooms set up for the hearing—one for the panelists, one for 12 Plaintiff, and one for Jane Doe. In each room, a television was set up with a live 13 video feed of the hearing so that each participant had the opportunity to watch at 14 all times. 15 At the start of the hearing, the panelists asked Plaintiff to make a statement. 16 Because Sessions-Stackhouse allegedly had not told Plaintiff he would be called on 17 to make a statement, he had nothing prepared and merely stated that he “did 18 nothing wrong.” A 101-02. 12 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 At the hearing, the panel considered Sessions-Stackhouse’s report, which did 2 not include reference to witnesses who could have supported Plaintiff’s defense, 3 allegedly because Sessions-Stackhouse had declined to follow the leads Plaintiff 4 had given her. The panel did not call witnesses who could have supported 5 Plaintiff’s defense. Plaintiff submitted questions to the panelists to be put to Jane 6 Doe, but they did not allow him to exhaust his list, asserting that the questions 7 were “irrelevant.” A 103. 8 9 The hearing lasted less than two hours. The panelists found Plaintiff “Responsible” for the charge of “sexual assault: non-consensual sexual 10 intercourse.” A 104. Although Plaintiff denied having coerced Jane Doe and 11 alleged that no evidence was presented in support of such coercion, the panel 12 found that Plaintiff had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward 13 the Complainant over a period of weeks” and that “this pressure constituted 14 coercion [so that] the sexual intercourse was without consent.” A 104. 15 On February 26, 2014, Plaintiff was informed that Columbia was issuing an 16 order of suspension until Fall 2015. Because the University refused to give 17 Plaintiff credit for his Spring 2014 classes, the suspension was functionally 18 equivalent to one and one half years. Plaintiff stated that on the same day, he saw 13 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Jane Doe, who called out to him that she was “sorry” and that she was going to get 2 his punishment lessened. A 105. 3 Plaintiff was advised of his right to appeal within five business days. On 4 March 3, 2014, Plaintiff appealed, citing, among other things, Sessions- 5 Stackhouse’s failure to interview key student witnesses. Jane Doe also submitted 6 an appeal to reduce the severity of Plaintiff’s punishment. 7 On March 10, 2014, Dean Valentini denied Plaintiff’s appeal, explaining in 8 part that Sessions-Stackhouse’s failure to interview “key witnesses” identified by 9 Plaintiff was within her discretion, that such witnesses were “not raised with Ms. 10 Sessions-Stackhouse and were ‘raised for the first time on appeal,’” and that 11 Plaintiff’s coercive behavior “was committed outside the purview of other 12 witnesses, and, thus, such witnesses’ testimonies were insufficient.” A 107. The 13 Dean concluded that the sanction was appropriate because sexual assault is an 14 egregious offense. Dean Valentini’s denial of Plaintiff’s appeal occurred four days 15 prior to the University-wide meeting for discussion of the school’s handling of 16 such complaints, which the Dean was scheduled to attend. 17 18 19 f. Proceedings Below Plaintiff filed his suit on June 9, 2014, alleging that Columbia subjected him to sex discrimination in violation of Title IX and state law. The Complaint seeks 14 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 both damages and expungement of his disciplinary record. It alleges that Sessions- 2 Stackhouse, in the role of the University’s supposedly neutral Title IX investigator, 3 was motivated by pro-female sex bias, attributable in part to a desire to refute 4 criticisms of herself and of the University for their past handling of similar 5 complaints, to perform her duties in a manner that discriminated against the 6 accused male. The Complaint alleges that she conducted a sex-biased and deficient 7 investigation that was hostile to his claim, failed to carry out her duty to interview 8 his witnesses and explore channels that could be helpful to him, failed to advise 9 him of his rights, and drew unfair and incorrect conclusions against him in her 10 report to the adjudicatory panel. The Complaint alleges also that the University’s 11 decision-makers (the panel and the Dean), seeking to protect the University from 12 criticism both among students and the public to the effect that it was not taking 13 women’s sexual assault complaints seriously, took a pro-female, sex-biased stance 14 on Jane Doe’s allegations, leading them to decide against him, incorrectly and 15 contrary to the weight of the evidence. 16 The district court granted Columbia’s motion to dismiss the federal law 17 claims. The court also “declin[ed] to exercise supplemental jurisdiction” over 18 Plaintiff’s state-law claims. A 223. Plaintiff then brought this appeal. 19 15 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 2 3 4 DISCUSSION I. Title IX Title IX’s relevant portion provides, “No person in the United States shall, 5 on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or 6 be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving 7 Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) (emphases added). This 8 provision, which is enforceable through an implied private right of action, was 9 enacted to supplement the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s bans on racial discrimination 10 in the workplace and in universities. Yusuf v. Vassar Coll., 35 F.3d 709, 714 (2d 11 Cir. 1994). Because Title IX prohibits (under covered circumstances) subjecting a 12 person to discrimination on account of sex, it is understood to “bar[] the imposition 13 of university discipline where gender is a motivating factor in the decision to 14 discipline.” Id. at 715. 15 II. Standard of Review 16 A court of appeals reviews de novo a district court’s grant of a motion under 17 Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief 18 can be granted." Littlejohn, 795 F.3d at 306. 19 16 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 2 3 4 a. Standard for Judging the Sufficiency of a Complaint Alleging Discrimination under Title IX In a series of cases beginning with McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 5 U.S. 792 (1973),5 the Supreme Court ruled that, in suits alleging employment 6 discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title 7 VII”), as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and related statutes, until the 8 defendant furnishes a nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action it took 9 against the plaintiff, the plaintiff needs to present only minimal evidence 10 supporting an inference of discrimination in order to prevail. See McDonnell 11 Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. 12 As set forth in our recent explanation of McDonnell Douglas’s standard, 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 [I]n the initial phase of the case, the plaintiff can establish a prima facie case without evidence sufficient to show discriminatory motivation . . . . If the plaintiff can show (1) that she is a member of a protected class; (2) that she was qualified for employment in the position; (3) that she suffered an adverse employment action; and, in addition, has (4) some minimal evidence suggesting an inference that the employer acted with discriminatory motivation,[6] such a showing 5 See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133 (2000); St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993); Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248 (1981). 6 The “minimal evidence suggesting an inference that the employer acted with discriminatory motivation” can be satisfied by as little as a showing that the position sought by the plaintiff remained open after plaintiff’s rejection and that the employer 17 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 will raise a temporary “presumption” of discriminatory motivation, shifting the burden of production to the employer and requiring the employer to come forward with its justification for the adverse employment action against the plaintiff. However, once the employer presents evidence of its justification for the adverse action, joining issue on plaintiff's claim of discriminatory motivation, the presumption “drops out of the picture” and the McDonnell Douglas framework “is no longer relevant.” At this point, in the second phase of the case, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the proffered reason was not the true reason (or in any event not the sole reason) for the employment decision, which merges with the plaintiff’s ultimate burden of showing that the defendant intentionally discriminated against her. Littlejohn, 795 F.3d at 307-08 (internal citations omitted). With respect to the sufficiency of federal complaints generally, the 18 Supreme Court ruled in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, (2009),7 that a 19 complaint must plead specific facts sufficient to support a plausible 20 inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. at 678. 21 While “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ . 22 . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted 23 unlawfully.” Id. continued to seek applicants from persons of plaintiff’s qualifications. See McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802. 7 See also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). 18 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 In Littlejohn, we clarified that Iqbal applies to employment- 2 discrimination complaints brought under Title VII. “To the same extent that 3 the McDonnell Douglas temporary presumption reduces the facts a plaintiff 4 would need to show to defeat a motion for summary judgment prior to the 5 defendant’s furnishing of a non-discriminatory motivation, that presumption 6 also reduces the facts needed to be pleaded under Iqbal.” Littlejohn, 795 7 F.3d at 310. Because “[t]he discrimination complaint, by definition, occurs 8 in the first stage of the litigation . . . the complaint also benefits from the 9 temporary presumption and must be viewed in light of the plaintiff’s 10 11 minimal burden to show discriminatory intent.” Id. at 311. In other words, at the 12(b)(6) stage of a Title VII suit, allegation of facts 12 supporting a minimal plausible inference of discriminatory intent suffices as to this 13 element of the claim because this entitles the plaintiff to the temporary 14 presumption of McDonnell Douglas until the defendant furnishes its asserted 15 reasons for its action against the plaintiff.8 8 For this reason, we have often vacated 12(b)(6) and 12(c) dismissals of complaints alleging discrimination. See Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 84 (2d Cir. 2015) (vacating 12(c) dismissal of Title VII claim because the district court held Plaintiff to overly stringent pleading standards); Dawson v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 624 F. App’x 763, 770 (2d Cir. 2015) (summary order) (vacating 12(b)(6) dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint); Azkour v. Bowery Residents’ Comm., Inc., 2016 WL 1552367, *2 (2d Cir. 2016) (summary order); Osby v. 19 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 A further question we now face is whether the burden-shifting framework 2 established by the McDonnell Douglas line of cases for claims of discrimination on 3 account of race, religion, or national origin under Title VII, and the associated 4 pleading burden we articulated in Littlejohn, apply also to Title IX claims alleging 5 discrimination on account of sex in education programs or activities that receive 6 federal support. These claims have so much in common that, at least on certain 7 sorts of facts, rules the Supreme Court established for Title VII litigation appear to 8 apply also to such similar claims of sex discrimination under Title IX. See Yusuf, 9 35 F.3d at 714 (“[C]ourts have interpreted Title IX by looking to . . . the caselaw 10 interpreting Title VII.”). In several prior cases, we have applied Title VII’s 11 framework and principles to Title IX claims. See Weinstock v. Columbia Univ., 12 224 F.3d 33, 42 n.1 (2d Cir. 2000) (explaining that the Title VII framework applies 13 to employment discrimination claims brought under Title IX); Murray v. N.Y. 14 Univ. Coll. of Dentistry, 57 F.3d 243, 248-49 (2d Cir. 1995) (stating that Title VII 15 standards should be applied in determining a university’s liability for a student’s 16 claim of sexual harassment under Title IX); see also Papelino v. Albany Coll. of City of New York, 633 F. App’x 12, 13 (2d Cir. 2016) (summary order). We have also cautioned district courts against imposing too high a burden on plaintiffs alleging discrimination at the 12(b)(6) stage. See Dawson, 624 F. App’x at 770 (“At the pleading stage, district courts would do well to remember this exceedingly low burden that discrimination plaintiffs face . . . .”). 20 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Pharmacy of Union Univ., 633 F.3d 81, 89 (2d Cir. 2011) (stating that “[i]n 2 [certain] respects, a Title IX sex discrimination claim requires the same kind of 3 proof required in a Title VII sex discrimination claim,” and applying Title VII 4 standards to two sexual harassment claims). 5 While we did not explicitly state in Yusuf that we were incorporating 6 McDonnell Douglas’s burden-shifting framework into Title IX jurisprudence, we 7 did state, after discussing the plaintiff’s allegations, that “[s]imilar allegations, if 8 based on race in employment decisions, would more than suffice in a Title VII 9 case, and we believe they easily meet the requirements of Title IX.” Yusuf, 35 F.3d 10 at 716. We also adopted Title VII’s requirement of proof of discriminatory intent, 11 and stated that “[a]llegations of a causal connection in the case of university 12 disciplinary cases can be of the kind that are found in the familiar setting of Title 13 VII cases.” Id. at 714-15. Yusuf made clear that Title VII cases provide the proper 14 framework for analyzing Title IX discrimination claims.9 We therefore hold that 9 Our court has extended the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework to several other statutory schemes. See, e.g., Gant ex rel. Gant v. Wallingford Bd. of Educ., 195 F.3d 134, 146 (2d Cir. 1999) (applying the framework to racial discrimination claims brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983); Leibowitz v. Cornell Univ., 584 F.3d 487, 498 & n.2 (2d Cir. 2009) (applying the framework to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), with the distinction that an ADEA plaintiff must demonstrate that age was a but-for, and not merely a motivating, factor), superseded by statute on other grounds; Boykin v. KeyCorp, 521 F.3d 202, 213 (2d Cir. 2008) (applying the framework to Fair Housing Act disparate treatment claims). 21 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 the temporary presumption afforded to plaintiffs in employment discrimination 2 cases under Title VII applies to sex discrimination plaintiffs under Title IX as well. 3 Thus, a complaint under Title IX, alleging that the plaintiff was subjected to 4 discrimination on account of sex in the imposition of university discipline, is 5 sufficient with respect to the element of discriminatory intent, like a complaint 6 under Title VII, if it pleads specific facts that support a minimal plausible inference 7 of such discrimination. Because Littlejohn was not decided until after the district 8 court made its decision in this case, and it had not yet been decided that the Title 9 VII McDonnell-Douglas framework applies to Title IX complaints, the district 10 court might not have anticipated that McDonnell-Douglas’s temporary 11 presumption in a plaintiff’s favor reduces the plaintiff’s pleading burden, so that 12 the alleged facts need support only a minimal inference of bias. 13 b. Plaintiff’s Title IX Claims 14 Plaintiff’s Complaint pleads sufficient specific facts giving at least the 15 necessary minimal support to a plausible inference of sex discrimination to survive 16 a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, if Title IX’s other requirements are met. It 17 alleges that Columbia’s hearing panel (which erroneously imposed discipline on 18 the Plaintiff), its Dean (who rejected his appeal), and its Title IX investigator (who 19 influenced the panel and the Dean by her report and recommendation), were all 22 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 motivated in those actions by pro-female, anti-male bias. Those alleged biased 2 attitudes were, at least in part, adopted to refute criticisms circulating in the student 3 body and in the public press that Columbia was turning a blind eye to female 4 students’ charges of sexual assaults by male students. 5 Among the Complaint’s allegations that support the inference of sex 6 discrimination are the following. Both the investigator and the panel declined to 7 seek out potential witnesses Plaintiff had identified as sources of information 8 favorable to him.10 The investigator and the panel failed to act in accordance with 9 University procedures designed to protect accused students. The investigator, the 10 panel, and the reviewing Dean, furthermore, reached conclusions that were 11 incorrect and contrary to the weight of the evidence. 12 13 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 10 Columbia’s proffered explanation that those witnesses were not sought out because they had no relevance to whether Plaintiff had coerced Jane Doe by unreasonable pressure during the preceding weeks does not justify the dismissal of the Complaint. This is so for two reasons. First, while a factfinder might ultimately determine that this was the true reason for not seeking out and interviewing these witnesses, it is also plausible that the failure to seek them out was attributable to discrimination, as the Complaint alleges. It is not the court’s function in ruling on a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the complaint to decide which was the defendant’s true motivation. Second, it is not correct that the potential witnesses suggested by Plaintiff related exclusively to the events of the night of the sexual encounter and not to the preceding weeks. At least one was allegedly identified as a friend and potential confidante of Jane Doe’s and not as a person who observed the interaction between John and Jane on the night of the encounter. 23 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 apparent reason based in the evidence), it is plausible to infer (although by no 2 means necessarily correct) that the evaluator has been influenced by bias. Here, the 3 facts pleaded in the Complaint (which we must accept in the light most favorable 4 to Plaintiff) support John Doe’s version (not surprisingly as they represent his 5 contentions). The Complaint’s narrative depicts Jane Doe as an altogether willing 6 participant. It denies that Plaintiff coerced Jane and asserts that “no evidence was 7 presented” in support of the claim of coercion. A 114. The alleged fact that 8 Sessions-Stackhouse, and the panel and the Dean, chose to accept an unsupported 9 accusatory version over Plaintiff’s, and declined even to explore the testimony of 10 Plaintiff’s witnesses, if true, gives plausible support to the proposition that they 11 were motivated by bias in discharging their responsibilities to fairly investigate and 12 adjudicate the dispute. 13 While those allegations support the inference of bias, they do not necessarily 14 relate to bias on account of sex. Additional allegations of the Complaint, however, 15 give ample plausible support to a bias with respect to sex. As outlined above, the 16 Complaint alleges that during the period preceding the disciplinary hearing, there 17 was substantial criticism of the University, both in the student body and in the 18 public media, accusing the University of not taking seriously complaints of female 19 students alleging sexual assault by male students. It alleges further that the 24 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 University’s administration was cognizant of, and sensitive to, these criticisms, to 2 the point that the President called a University-wide open meeting with the Dean to 3 discuss the issue. Against this factual background, it is entirely plausible that the 4 University’s decision-makers and its investigator were motivated to favor the 5 accusing female over the accused male, so as to protect themselves and the 6 University from accusations that they had failed to protect female students from 7 sexual assault. 8 Columbia argues that the pleaded facts do not support an inference of 9 intentional sex discrimination. It argues that the criticism of the University was for 10 not taking student complaints of sexual assault seriously, and that any motivation 11 on the part of the panel to demonstrate that it takes such complaints seriously is not 12 the same thing as a motivation to discriminate against an accused male student. 13 The district court stated that any bias in favor of Jane Doe “could equally have 14 been—and more plausibly was—prompted by lawful, independent goals, such as a 15 desire (enhanced, perhaps, by the fear of negative publicity or Title IX liability to 16 the victims of sexual assault) to take allegations of rape on campus seriously and to 17 treat complainants with a high degree of sensitivity.” Doe v. Columbia Univ., 101 18 F. Supp. 3d 356, 371 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). This reasoning fails to recognize the court’s 19 obligation to draw reasonable inferences in favor of the sufficiency of the 25 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 complaint. Iqbal does not require that the inference of discriminatory intent 2 supported by the pleaded facts be the most plausible explanation of the defendant’s 3 conduct. It is sufficient if the inference of discriminatory intent is plausible. 4 The Complaint alleges that, having been severely criticized in the student 5 body and in the public press for toleration of sexual assault of female students, 6 Columbia was motivated in this instance to accept the female’s accusation of 7 sexual assault and reject the male’s claim of consent, so as to show the student 8 body and the public that the University is serious about protecting female students 9 from sexual assault by male students—especially varsity athletes. There is nothing 10 implausible or unreasonable about the Complaint’s suggested inference that the 11 panel adopted a biased stance in favor of the accusing female and against the 12 defending male varsity athlete in order to avoid further fanning the criticisms that 13 Columbia turned a blind eye to such assaults.11 11 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. 26 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 The Complaint sufficiently alleges circumstances plausibly supporting a 2 similar motivation on the part of Sessions-Stackhouse. It alleges that she had 3 suffered personal criticism in the student body for her role in prior cases in which 4 the University was seen as not taking seriously the complaints of female students. 5 At the time Sessions-Stackhouse investigated Jane Doe's accusation of Plaintiff, 6 she knew that the University had been criticized for its conduct of investigations of 7 sexual abuse, and specifically accused of conducting the investigations in a manner 8 that favored male athletes and that was insufficiently protective of sexually 9 assaulted females. It is plausible that she was motivated to refute those criticisms 10 11 by siding with the accusing female and against the accused male. Columbia further contends that bias on the part of Sessions-Stackhouse 12 cannot be actionable because she “was merely the investigator [and] did not sit on 13 the panel that found [Plaintiff] responsible for sexual misconduct.” Defendant’s Br. 14 at 33. It argues, “Because the purported procedural errors were made by someone 15 who did not participate in determining [Plaintiff’s] responsibility, those errors are 16 insufficient to state [a claim].” Id. 17 The argument is not persuasive. Although Sessions-Stackhouse was not the 18 decision-maker, she allegedly had significant influence, perhaps even 19 determinative influence, over the University’s decision. According to Plaintiff’s 27 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 allegations, Sessions-Stackhouse was appointed by Columbia to the role of Title 2 IX investigator with the expectation that her investigations and reports would 3 inform the University’s decisions. The Complaint plausibly alleges that her report 4 advocating discipline influenced the University’s decision to sanction John Doe. 5 The fact that Sessions-Stackhouse was not the decision-maker does not render sex 6 bias in her performance of her duties irrelevant to liability of the University.12 7 According to precedent under Title VII, a defendant institution is not 8 shielded from liability for discrimination practiced by an employee endowed by the 9 institution with supervisory authority or institutional influence in recommending 10 and thus influencing the adverse action by a non-biased decision-maker. See 11 Holcomb v. Iona Coll., 521 F.3d 130, 143 (2d Cir. 2008) (holding that a plaintiff is 12 “entitled to succeed, even absent evidence of illegitimate bias on the part of the 13 ultimate decision maker,” so long as a biased person endowed with institutional 14 influence “played a meaningful role in the process” (internal quotations and 15 alteration removed)); see also Staub v. Proctor Hosp., 562 U.S. 411, 422 (2011) 16 (holding, in the context of the Uniformed Services Employment and 12 We recognize that depending on the answers to questions regarding the status of the Title IX investigator in the Columbia hierarchy, the theory of bias on the part of SessionsStackhouse may be precluded by the standards enunciated in Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 290-91 (1998). 28 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 Reemployment Rights Act, that when a supervisor performs an act motivated by 2 antimilitary animus intended to cause an adverse employment action, and the act 3 proximately causes that adverse action, the employer is liable notwithstanding that 4 the biased supervisor did not make the ultimate employment decision). 5 We conclude that the Complaint adequately pleads facts that plausibly 6 support at least the needed minimal inference of sex bias. See Littlejohn, 795 F.3d 7 at 311. Accordingly, we vacate the district court’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, 8 and remand for further consideration. Our decision to reinstate the Complaint in no 9 way suggests that our court has any view, one way or the other, on the likely 10 accuracy of what Plaintiff has alleged. We recognize that the facts may appear in a 11 very different light once Defendant Columbia has had the opportunity to contest 12 the Plaintiff’s allegations and present its own version. The role of the court at this 13 stage of the proceedings is not in any way to evaluate the truth as to what really 14 happened, but merely to determine whether the plaintiff’s factual allegations are 15 sufficient to allow the case to proceed. At this stage, the court is compelled to 16 assume the truth of the plaintiff’s factual allegations and draw all reasonable 29 15-1536 (L) John Doe v. Columbia University 1 inferences in his favor. Following those rules, we conclude that the Complaint 2 sufficiently alleges that Columbia was motivated by sex bias.13 3 CONCLUSION 4 For the foregoing reasons, we VACATE the district court’s judgment 5 dismissing the Complaint and REMAND for further proceedings. 13 We also vacate the dismissal of the state-law claims asserted in the Complaint. The district court dismissed these claims without prejudice to their renewal in state court, on the theory that these claims were supplemental to the federal-law claims from which the court’s jurisdiction derived. The Complaint, however, asserted diversity jurisdiction as well as federal question jurisdiction. The court will need to address the state-law claims on remand. 30
Primary Holding

The court repeatedly emphasized the “minimal plausible inference” that the plaintiff must satisfy when alleging discrimination. This low pleading burden comes about as a result of the burden-shifting framework first established by the U.S. Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green. Plaintiffs must merely plead facts that give rise to a plausible satisfaction of the first part of of the McDonnell Douglas framework.


A female student accused a male athlete at Columbia University of sexual assault. He maintained throughout the school’s investigation that the sex was consensual. Columbia found, however, 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 suspended Doe for three semesters. Doe sued Columbia for violations of federal and state law on the ground that Columbia failed to properly investigate the matter because its disciplinary process is biased against men.

The allegations supporting the inference of bias included that the university’s investigator and the panel (1) declined to seek out potential witnesses that the plaintiff had identified as sources of information favorable to him, (2) failed to follow the university’s procedures designed to protect accused students, and (3) along with the reviewing dean, reached conclusions that were contrary to the weight of the evidence.

These allegations showed biases. Additional allegations gave “ample plausible support” to the assertion that the bias was because Doe was a man. Doe alleged that, prior to his disciplinary hearing, there was substantial criticism of the university in the student body and in the public media asserting that Columbia did not take seriously complaints of female students alleging sexual assault by male students.

The administration was aware of, and sensitive to, these criticisms so much that Columbia’s president called a school-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.”

Case Commentary

"The general perception in the legal community has been that men faced a difficult road in alleging sex discrimination after being disciplined by a school. Prior to Doe, only one court had not dismissed a male student’s complaint of sex discrimination in these proceedings.

The Second Circuit’s decision to vacate the dismissal and remand the case for discovery is significant if only because it marks a pivot in how courts handle these cases. It is also the first decision by a court of appeals to address the pleading requirements for men who allege sex discrimination in a university or college’s internal disciplinary process. Doe will have an impact on similar cases across the country and schools will need to consider how to provide an impartial process to accused students."

Brian Lehman, 2nd Circ. Stresses Low Standard For Discrimination Claims, August 23, 2016 available at

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