December 13, 2019

Federal appeals court ruling sets narrow standard for what institutions are expected to do when students commit sexual misconduct.

An appellate court’s decision could minimize colleges and universities’ responsibility to provide remedies for victims of sexual misconduct on campus.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that Michigan State University and one of its senior administrators cannot be held liable for student victims’ emotional distress after seeing their alleged perpetrators on campus because the interactions did not lead to further sexual harassment or assault, according to an opinion issued Thursday.

Legal experts said the decision is a narrow interpretation of the protections for victims of sexual misconduct under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual assault, on college campuses.

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Thursday’s decision is not a “seismic shift” from how the law is actually stated, said Michael Dolce, a lawyer with the firm Cohen Milstein and chair of its sexual abuse practice group. A student’s fear of coming to campus because they know their perpetrator will be there is not enough to argue a Title IX violation, he said.

“In some views, the mere contact on campus is enough to cause action against the school,” Dolce said. “Courts across the country have said that the mere presence of the perpetrator on campus does not qualify … If the standard was otherwise, anytime a student sexually assaulted someone, you would have to expel them. Title IX is never going to be interpreted that way even in the most liberal courts.”

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