On June 2, 2022, the Second Circuit held that individuals could sue their employers for gender discrimination under Title IX, resolving a prior split of authority among the lower courts. The lawsuit was brought against Cornell University by a male faculty member claiming that Cornell discriminated against him in violation of Title IX, Title VI, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in addition to other claims. The Second Circuit also held that a flawed Title IX investigation could raise an inference of gender bias in favor of the complainant, thereby creating a cause of action for the respondent based on a violation of Title IX.
In Vengalattore v. Cornell University, et al., 2022 WL 1788705, — F.4th — (2d Cir. June 2, 2022), a former tenure-track assistant university professor sued the University for discriminating against him based on his gender and national origin after he was disciplined following allegations by a female student that he had sexually assaulted her and engaged in an inappropriate relationship with her. The plaintiff alleged that the University conducted a procedurally flawed Title IX investigation into the female student’s allegations, disregarding its own procedures, favoring her account of events, and failing to pursue leads that could have absolved him. The defendants argued that Title IX did not afford a private right of action to bring employment discrimination claims based on gender and that the professor did not sufficiently allege gender discrimination. The District Court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the claims against Cornell. The Second Circuit disagreed, however, and vacated the District Court’s order regarding the Title IX claim. The decision is significant for two reasons.
First, the Second Circuit held that Title IX provides a private right of action for discrimination in employment (assuming Title IX jurisdiction otherwise applies), resolving a prior split of authority among the District Courts within the Second Circuit over whether Title IX afforded a private cause of action by employees against their employer for Title IX violations. Notably, the opinion did not reference the Supreme Court’s recent decision limiting the remedies available under Title IX in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., 142 S. Ct. 1562, 1570, 2022 WL 1243658 (Apr. 28, 2022). In Cummings, the Supreme Court held that Title IX obligations and remedies are based on contract law, and therefore, Congress must state any conditions imposed on federal funding recipients unambiguously. The Supreme Court held that emotional distress damages were not available for violations of Title IX because funding recipients had no notice that they might face such liability at the time they accepted federal funding.
The second reason why the Vengalattore decision is significant is that the Court held that procedural irregularities in a Title IX investigation can result in an inference of intentional gender-based discrimination. Specifically, the Court found it “plausible” that the university was motivated to favor the female complainant over the male respondent in order to demonstrate its commitment to protecting female students from male sexual assailants where the complaint had alleged that the university had:
- failed to act in accordance with university procedures designed to protect accused students;
- failed to seek out potential witnesses whom the respondent had identified as sources of information favorable to him;
- been criticized for not seriously addressing complaints by female students of sexual misconduct by males; and
- made findings against the respondent that were incorrect and contrary to the weight of the evidence.
This decision highlights the importance of a thorough and balanced investigation and ensuring strict adherence to the procedural requirements of Title IX.