Student-on-Student Sexual Harassment Title IX Claim Dismissed Against Columbia

In Roskin-Frazee v. Columbia University, 17-CV-2032, 2018 WL 6523721 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 26, 2018), the court dismissed plaintiff’s claim under Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) (and state causes of action) against Columbia University.

In this case, plaintiff alleged “that Defendant created a culture of sexual hostility on campus and acted with deliberate indifference in responding to Plaintiff’s report of sexual assaults and request for certain accommodations as a result of the assaults.”

The court summarized the law relating to pleading a student-on-student sexual harassment claim under Title IX:

Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), provides that, “[n]o 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.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). The statute applies to a school’s disparate provision of programs, aid, benefits or services, or the inequitable application of rules or sanctions on the basis of sex. … It also prohibits a school’s deliberate indifference to acts of sexual harassment committed by one student against another.

To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff bringing a student-on-student sexual harassment Title IX claim must allege that: (1) a federally funded educational institution (2) was deliberately indifferent to and (3) had actual knowledge of (4) sexual harassment that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it could be said to have deprived the plaintiff of access to the educational opportunities or benefits. Davis, 526 U.S. at 650. A defendant acts with deliberate indifference for Title IX purposes “when the defendant’s response to known discrimination is clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.” … Stated differently, to comply with Title IX, a university must respond to known student harassment in a manner that is not clearly unreasonable.

Both the “clearly unreasonable” and “actual knowledge” prongs have real meaning. “Clearly unreasonable” is not a mere reasonableness standard. Davis, 526 U.S. at 649. Rather, it is a high standard that seeks to eliminate any risk that an educational institution “would be liable in damages not for its own official decision but instead for [another individual’s] independent actions.” … Likewise, a university cannot be held liable pursuant to Title IX without actual knowledge or notice of the harassment. Constructive knowledge (i.e., allegations that the school should have known of the harassment) is not enough. … On a motion to dismiss, courts may determine, as a matter of law, whether the response alleged was not clearly unreasonable and whether the university is alleged to have had actual knowledge of the alleged harassment.

Applying the law, the court dismissed plaintiff’s first cause of action – that Columbia “created a sexually hostile culture through its general policy of indifference to sexual misconduct on campus” – since (inter alia) plaintiff “fails to sufficiently allege that Defendant possessed actual knowledge of a heightened risk of sexual assault in a specific context.”

It dismissed plaintiff’s second cause of action – based on Columbia’s “alleged deliberate indifference in responding to Plaintiff’s report of sexual assaults and request for certain accommodations as a result of the assaults” – since (inter alia) plaintiff “fails to sufficiently allege that Defendant responded to Plaintiff’s sexual assaults and request for accommodations in a clearly unreasonable manner, once it had actual knowledge of the assaults.”