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Federal court dismisses majority of Title IX lawsuits

Tuesday, Mar. 14, 2017

On March 14, the Kansas federal court dismissed the majority of Tessa Farmer’s and Sara Weckhorst’s lawsuits and confirmed that Title IX applies only to sexual violence occurring in Kansas State University’s programs and activities. The Court also rejected an attempt by former student Crystal Stroup to assert a similar claim against K-State.

K-State remains committed to providing a safe learning environment where the rights of all its students are respected and its policies comply with all applicable laws. The Court’s reasoning supports that K-State’s anti-discrimination policy PPM 3010 is compliant with Title IX.

PPM 3010 governs K-State’s investigation of sex discrimination claims, including claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The Court explained that Title IX requires the university to respond to reports of sexual violence that occur within K-State’s education programs and activities. The Court rejected the notion that K-State itself must conduct an investigation of all reported acts of sexual violence between students regardless of location and connection to K-State’s programs and activities. PPM 3010 aligns with these rulings.

While the plaintiffs argued that Department of Education Dear Colleague Letters from 2011 and 2014 require the university to investigate all reports of sexual violence between students, the Court disagreed and held that those Dear Colleague Letters are not Title IX law. The Court’s decision demonstrates that representing such letters as law is inaccurate.

Under PPM 3010, if a report of sexual violence implicates misconduct occurring within K-State’s programs and activities, K-State fully investigates the report. But when a report is about conduct occurring in a private setting unrelated to K-State’s programs and activities, K-State focuses on providing resources and assistance to the reported victim with the goal of ensuring continued access to the learning environment. Local law enforcement is responsible for any criminal investigation. This approach is supported by the Court’s reasoning, balances the constitutional and privacy rights of students, and is consistent with the limited scope of K-State’s authority as a public higher education institution.

Specific to the plaintiffs’ individual claims, the Court dismissed plaintiffs’ Kansas Consumer Protection Act claims. The Court also held that the plaintiffs’ allegations failed to demonstrate that K-State was negligent under Kansas common law. The dismissal of these claims resolves the majority of each lawsuit in the university’s favor.

The plaintiffs advanced two theories in their Title IX claims: That K-State ignored prior reports of sexual assault and crime statistics purportedly showing an increased rate of sexual violence at fraternities and that K-State failed to respond appropriately to the plaintiffs’ own personal reports of sexual assault. 

With respect to the first theory, K-State’s motions to dismiss pointed to government statistics showing K-State’s campus actually has a lower reported rate of sexual assault than the public generally. In response, the plaintiffs disclaimed any reliance on this first theory. As a result, the Court ruled the plaintiffs had abandoned those claims.

At this preliminary stage of the lawsuits, the Court allowed the second Title IX theory to proceed to the “discovery” phase of the litigation — where evidence will be developed through documents and testimony — because the federal rules of civil procedure required the Court to accept as true the plaintiffs’ allegations. The Plaintiffs alleged that K-State had substantial control over private fraternities and their off-campus, private fraternity houses sufficient to consider those fraternities part of K-State’s programs and activities. In reaching this ruling, the Court did not make any factual findings concerning these allegations about the Greek system; instead, the Court simply recited the plaintiffs’ unproven allegations. The university is confident the evidence will demonstrate that K-State did not have substantial control over the context of the alleged sexual assaults. 

Similarly, the Court did not make any factual findings about the reasonableness of K-State’s response to the plaintiffs’ reports. K-State is also confident that it responded reasonably when numerous university employees provided both plaintiffs with substantial assistance and support services, consistent with how K-State helps all its students.

In addition to dismissing the majority of Ms. Weckhorst and Ms. Farmer’s claims, the Court also rejected Ms. Stroup’s attempt to assert her own claims against K-State, which were based on an alleged sexual assault at an off-campus apartment complex. The Court held that because the alleged sexual assault occurred in a private, off-campus apartment unrelated to any of K-State’s programs and activities, Ms. Stroup could not demonstrate that K-State violated Title IX. The Court’s reasoning validates K-State’s practice of providing support and assistance to students who allege they were victimized off-campus, in private settings, while local law enforcement has responsibility to conduct any criminal investigation.

Kansas State University employees work hard every day to ensure students have access to a great education in a safe learning environment. K-State offers a wide range of support and assistance services to all students in need and encourages students to continue to report their concerns. K-State will continue to provide these resources and support to its students, as it always has, as part of its commitment to the K-State family.

Copies of the Court’s orders are available here:  https://www.k-state.edu/media/update/litigation.