It's been two years since U.S. Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked the Obama administration's guidance directing how colleges should investigate and arbitrate episodes of sexual violence on campus.
Coming in the form of a "Dear Colleague" letter in 2011, the rules were largely credited with giving sexual assault survivors new protections and implied colleges and universities should more aggressively pursue sexual violence on campus. But the guidance was extremely unpopular among civil liberties advocates who believed university officials, under threat of losing federal funding, were pressured to find accused students responsible in these cases.
DeVos' replacement for the Obama administration's guidelines is set to drop soon. Though the Ed Department has provided colleges and universities with interim directives for handling sexual violence, many of the Obama-era procedures remain in place on campuses. And hundreds of lawsuits have been filed since 2011 challenging the fairness of institutions' processes.
This is a trend that will likely continue, said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. He told Education Dive that "there has been a litigation explosion" on Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination, with more novel arguments and theories of liability being attempted.
A Supreme Court battle on many of these issues is looming, Lake said. And it seems unlikely that the lawsuits will cease any time soon.
To examine how these issues are working their way through the courts, we've gathered five Title IX cases that have drawn the attention of lawyers, pundits and administrators this year.
James Haidak v. University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Details of the case: James Haidak is a former University of Massachusetts at Amherst student who was suspended and then expelled after his ex-girlfriend accused him of physical assault while they were studying abroad in 2013. Haidak sued the university, alleging administrators subjected him to a biased hearing process. A federal district court dismissed his claims, but an appellate court found his suspension was likely unconstitutional because he hadn't been given a chance to have a hearing beforehand.
Why it's significant: In the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit deviated from an opinion issued last year by the Sixth Circuit's appeals court, which presides over Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky. In 2018, the latter wrote that accused students had a right to the cross-examine their accusers in most Title IX proceedings.
The First Circuit agreed, to an extent, that cross-examination should be allowed but maintained that the questions can come from a neutral panel rather than accused students or their proxies. The discrepancies in the court rulings potentially set up a Supreme Court challenge, and may clarify a major issue among Title IX practitioners, experts told Inside Higher Ed.
Where it is now: Remanded to a federal district court for further proceedings.
John Doe v. Boston College
Details of the case: In 2012, John Doe was attending an event on a cruise ship for Boston College's student newspaper. While Doe was crossing a crowded dance floor on the ship's deck, another student was sexually assaulted, turned around and saw him, and assumed he was at fault.
While Doe was arrested, his charges were eventually dismissed after prosecutors reviewed video of the night. But college officials did not wait for the criminal investigation to conclude, and they ultimately found him responsible for the assault. In September, a jury found that he was denied a fair process.
Why it's significant: It is the first sexual assault case to reach a federal jury trial since Obama introduced the 2011 guidance, according to media reports, though it claimed a state "breach of contract" rather than a Title IX violation.
Where it is now: Decided. The jury awarded the student more than $100,000, a far cry from the $3 million he initially sought.
John Doe v. Rhodes College
Details of the case: A former fraternity member and football player sued the college after he was expelled for allegedly raping a female student in February of this year. The student contended that wide news coverage of the incident influenced the college's decision.
Why it's significant: In June, a U.S. district court stopped the college from enforcing the expulsion pending the outcome of the lawsuit. In that order, the judge indicated that the student's due process rights were likely violated.
This may not seem extreme, but Rhodes is a private institution. And the concept of constitutional due process is not usually a factor in cases involving private colleges, according to The National Law Review.
Where it is now: The college settled privately with the plaintiff.
John Doe v. Michigan State University; John Doe v. University of California
Details of the cases: In both cases, only one or two students alleged unfair Title IX processes, but their lawyers are attempting to turn them into class-action lawsuits. In the separate lawsuits, the students allege that their respective institutions didn't let them cross-examine their accusers.
Why they are significant: If either of the lawsuits were to be successful, lawyers estimate they could potentially overturn hundreds of university decisions in sexual violence cases. This would open the door for similar lawsuits to be filed at other major institutions.
Where they are now: Lawyers are waiting for the lawsuits to be certified as class-action.
Gruver v. Louisiana State University
Details of the case: Max Gruver, 18, died in 2017 while pledging a fraternity at Louisiana State. He was ordered to chug hard liquor during a hazing ritual and later died from alcohol poisoning. His passing garnered national attention and increased calls for a crackdown on hazing.
Gruver's parents sued under Title IX, arguing the university had not monitored hazing among the fraternities in the same way it had sororities, putting men at greater risk for injury or death. This, the parents' lawyer contends, is a Title IX violation. In July, a federal judge allowed the case to move forward.
Why it is significant: Never before has Title IX been tested in this realm. It has usually been applied to campus sexual violence or inequities in athletics. Claiming a Title IX violation in a hazing episode opens up the possibility for students to allege administrators have been biased in other areas, such as if men and women were cited for underage drinking disproportionately.
Where it is now: Awaiting trial.