Purdue Title IX sexual assault lawsuit still awaiting 7th Circuit decision

The campus sexual assault lawsuit brought by an unidentified male student against Purdue University, which was one of the first such cases to be heard by a federal appellate court since the U.S. Department of Education issued its “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011, is still awaiting a ruling from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals while the number of similar complaints being added to the dockets of circuit courts around the country continues to grow.

Oral arguments in the lawsuit, John Doe v. Purdue University, 17-3565, were heard Sept. 18, 2018. Judges Diane Sykes, Amy St. Eve and Amy Coney Barrett were the panelists who listened to the arguments in Purdue and four other cases that day. Rulings have been handed down in all the other disputes, but the Purdue case remains.

The issues central to the Purdue case are echoed in many of the campus sexual assault cases brought against institutions of higher education across the country. In West Lafayette, the unnamed male student was suspended from Purdue and dismissed from the Navy ROTC after the university investigated and found an allegation of sexual assault made by the student’s former girlfriend was credible.

The male student claimed the university violated his Title IX rights by discriminating against him on the basis of his sex. He described Purdue’s investigation of the allegation as a “Kafkaesque process” that presumed the woman’s story was true rather than presuming he was innocent.

Sparking the Purdue and many similar lawsuits is the letter issued by the Education Department in April 2011. The “Dear Colleague” missive highlighted that under Title IX, colleges and universities have an obligation to address sexual harassment and sexual violence. 

Of the arguments heard on the same day as the Purdue lawsuit, only Barrett has not written an opinion for any of the cases. Sykes wrote the opinions for Jeffery A. Kopplin v. Wisconsin Central Limited, d/b/a CN, 17-3602, and U.S.A. v. Gregory J. Kuczora, 17-2725. St. Eve authored the opinions in St. Joan Antida High School v. Milwaukee Public School District, 17-1673 (Sykes dissented) and the consolidated case of U.S.A. v. Styles Taylor and Keon Thomas, 17-2986 and 17-3145.

Barrett, a former full-time professor at Notre Dame Law School, filled the Indiana seat on the 7th Circuit in November 2017 that was vacated when Judge John Tinder retired in 2015.

Since the Purdue case was heard by the 7th Circuit, oral arguments in another campus sexual assault case have been presented to the Chicago-based appellate court. Judges William Bauer, Daniel Manion and Ilana Rovner heard John Doe v. Columbia College Chicago, et al., 18-1869, April 10, 2019.

To date, five appellate cases against five separate universities — Clarion University in Pennsylvania, University of Oregon and University of Massachusetts as well as Purdue and Columbia College of Chicago — are all waiting for rulings from federal circuit courts, according to research by K.C. Johnson, history professor at Brooklyn College and an expert on Title IX lawsuits.

Four more cases are crowding the docket at the 8th Circuit. Two cases — Thomas Rossley, Jr. v. Drake University, 18-3258, and John Doe et al. v. University of St. Thomas, 19-1594 — have been fully briefed but have not been scheduled for oral arguments, according to Johnson.

In total, Johnson said, 320 campus sexual assault lawsuits have been filed in response to university policies linked to the Education Department’s letter. The case Brandon Roberts v. Board of Trustees of Purdue University, et al., 4:19-cv-28, was the 301st such lawsuit filed and the case, Timothy Scherman v. Indiana University, et al., 19-cv-01866, was the 317th. Along with IU and Purdue, such suits also have been filed against Ball State University, Butler University DePauw University and the University of Notre Dame.

Purdue has filed in the Northern Indiana District Court a motion to dismiss in the complaint brought by Roberts. In part, the university claims it is immune to the lawsuit under the 11th Amendment. 

The case against Columbia College Chicago was appealed to the 7th Circuit after St. Eve, then a judge for the U.S. Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, granted the school’s motion to dismiss.

Columbia College suspended the unidentified male student for the 2016-2017 academic year and barred him from ever again living in a CCC residence hall. He was found to have violated school policy by continuing to have a sexual encounter with a female student despite her repeatedly telling him to stop.

The male student filed the lawsuit claiming a Title IX violation. He asserted because he is a man, Columbia College created a hostile environment by unfairly disciplining him in the sexual assault investigation and failed to adequately respond to his complaints of being harassed — including being punched in the face — and defamed by the alleged female victim and her friends.

However, St. Eve concluded Doe did not show that he was harassed or treated more harshly on the basis of his gender.

“Doe’s allegations about CCC’s archaic assumptions and stereotypes are conclusory and do not plausibly suggest that CCC would have treated a female situated similarly to Doe more favorably. Similarly, the fact that ‘virtually all’ cases of sexual assault at CCC involved a female victim and a male accused does not support the inference that CCC treats males different, it merely ‘negates the possibility of establishing that female students were treated more favorably than males in similar circumstances’ at CCC and does not suggest gender discrimination,” St. Eve wrote, citing Prasad v. Cornell Univ., 5:15-cv-322, 2016 WL 3212079 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 24, 2016). 

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