Continuing an active year for Title IX precedent, the Sixth Circuit issued an en banc decision in Foster v. University of Michigan, which adds further contour to the Circuit’s Title IX “deliberate indifference” jurisprudence. It also implicitly raises—but does not necessarily answer—important questions regarding the appropriate standard of review for such claims.
In Foster, a divided panel (Judges Clay, Moore, and Sutton, with the latter dissenting) had reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the University of Michigan, holding that the plaintiff had established a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether the school was deliberately indifferent to the sexual harassment she suffered from a fellow student (the respondent). The original panel majority and dissenting opinions agreed that the plaintiff was subjected to sexual harassment and that the school had notice of that harassment. So, as is often the case, the only remaining question was whether the school’s response was “clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances” such that it amounted to “deliberate indifference” under Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 650 (1999). The panel originally concluded that questions of fact remained regarding whether Michigan’s response to the respondent’s harassment was actionable under Title IX, including, among others, whether Michigan had conceded that its response was inadequate yet failed to take any additional measures and whether the university adhered too long to its “no contact order” remedy in the face of mounting evidence that the respondent was likely to violate that order. 952 F.3d 765, 784–88 (6th Cir. 2020). Judge Sutton dissented, and would have held that Michigan’s response was appropriate “proportionate escalation.” The dissenting opinion at the panel stage worried that the majority was “dilut[ing] deliberate indifference into mere reasonableness.” Id. at 791–95.
The Sixth Circuit took the case en banc and affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding, as a matter of law, that Michigan did not show deliberate indifference. The en banc majority (Sutton, J.), echoing the Supreme Court in Davis, explained that the deliberate-indifference standard presents a “high bar” to imposing Title IX liability on a university and that, “[i]n an appropriate case, there is no reason why courts, on a motion to dismiss, for summary judgment, or for a directed verdict, could not identify a response as not [deliberately indifferent] as a matter of law.” (Slip Op. at 7, 14–15.) Plaintiff’s case, according the en banc majority, was such a case. Continue Reading