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Supreme Court Must Resolve the Many Circuit Splits that Divide Students’ Rights

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Supreme Court Must Resolve the Many Circuit Splits that Divide Students’ Rights

Benjamin North

Associate & Title IX Advisor, Binnall Law Group

May 24, 2023

When a student graduates from high school and looks at potential colleges, they don’t typically do legal research to see where their federal rights differ across federal circuits. They make a very reasonable assumption that their basic rights are the same, because all colleges in the United States are subject to the same federal laws. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth when it comes to student discipline. And the recent proliferation of litigation against colleges (meticulously tracked by Brooklyn College professor KC Johnson [1]) has only made the issue more dire.

Court simply cannot agree on the Title IX disciplinary process. Without uniformity in the law, students across the country are subject to wildly different standards, both with respect to what process a university must take before depriving students of their education, and as to what they must allege in a lawsuit if it becomes necessary to correct discriminatory disciplinary actions in court.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has been thus far reluctant to take any of these issues up on certiorari, and its continued delay in resolving these divides will only result in more inconsistencies. Students deserve the same rights under the same law, and it is critical that the Supreme Court ensure that basic consistency.

The first area in which courts are split is the requirement of constitutional due process; that is, the process that a public school must follow before depriving its students of their education in the form of a suspension or expulsion.

The threshold question, of course, is whether education is protected by due process, and if there is any “due process” required at all. If there is no due process required at all, public schools are free as a constitutional matter to expel tuition paying students for no reason at all, and students have no recourse.

While this would seem on its face to be unjust and incompatible with our system of government (and contrary to existing Supreme Court law in Goss v. Lopez [2]), federal district courts in the Fourth Circuit [3] consistently decline to find any protected interest in public university students’ education, leading to that same result: that students are not entitled to any due process at all. While several circuit courts have held that due process applies (at least the First, [4] Fifth, [5] Sixth, [6] Seventh, [7] and Eighth [8] Circuits), the continued failure of the Supreme Court to address the issue directly means that students in the Fourth Circuit very likely will continue to be on the receiving end of judicial opinions that fail to recognize any due process interests whatsoever. Students deserve a clear and basic rule, that due process applies in the public university setting.

Of course, once it is decided that due process applies, the next question is what process is due? On this question, circuits also are split.

The Sixth Circuit, for example, held in Doe v. Baum [9] that live adversarial cross examination was required by due process in student discipline cases where credibility is an issue. The First Circuit disagreed, holding in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst [10] that live cross examination is not required; rather, impartial questioning by a hearing panel is required. Setting aside the point that the Sixth Circuit took the correct approach (the standard of an “impartial” hearing panel is more vague and far less workable that simply requiring cross examination, among other issues), the issue remains that students in different circuits have different rights, under the same Constitution.

Similarly, circuits are split on what Title IX requires in these cases. The Second Circuit held in Yusuf v. Vassar College [11] that students seeking to remedy discriminatory discipline under Title IX must plead “erroneous outcome” or “selective enforcement” causes of action under the statute. The Seventh Circuit in Doe v. Purdue [12] disagreed, holding that students need only plead facts sufficient to infer discrimination (which tracks almost exactly the language of the Title IX statute itself). This is a foundational difference on what it takes to bring a Title IX lawsuit in the first place, and again, students have wildly different standards based on where they live or attend school.

Even more alarming, sometimes schools assert during litigation that they may have been biased against the student, but it wasn’t on the basis of sex. This argument, schools hope, saves them from liability under Title IX because the law does not prohibit schools from railroading students per se, only if they do so on the basis of the student’s sex.

Circuits again disagree on whether this argument is sufficient to save the school from liability, or put another way, whether a student has to disprove other potential causes of discipline before getting to discovery or to trial. For example, whereas the Eleventh Circuit in Doe v. Samford [13] affirmed a dismissal of a Title IX lawsuit because the student did not disprove other potential causes of the discipline (other than bias on the basis of sex) in his complaint, the Tenth Circuit in Doe v. University of Denver [14] permitted a lawsuit to go to trial on this issue. The Tenth Circuit reasoned, correctly, that the issue of what bias the university used (bias on the basis of sex or bias on the basis of the student being the accused) is a question of fact that needs to be resolved by a jury, because it comes down to what is more believable. Once again, circuits are split, and students across the country do not have uniform rights.

The above is not an exhaustive listing of all of the disagreements among the federal circuit courts in this area. There are other important areas where courts disagree, including the causation standard for Title IX. But for sake of brevity, suffice it to say that students across the country do not have a clear view of what their rights are. Students deserve the same rights under the same law, and I desperately hope that the Supreme Court takes the opportunity to make that a reality in the near future.



[2] Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975)

[3] See, e.g., Doe v. Alger, 175 F. Supp. 3d 646 (W.D. Va. 2016); Dillow v. Virginia Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., No. 7:22CV00280, 2023 WL 2320765 (W.D. Va. Mar. 2, 2023); Doe v. Virginia Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., 400 F. Supp. 3d 479 (W.D. Va. 2019).

[4] See Haidak, infra.

[5] Walsh v. Hodge, 975 F.3d 475 (5th Cir. 2020)

[6] See Baum, infra.

[7] See Purdue, infra.

[8] Doe v. Univ. of Arkansas – Fayetteville, 974 F.3d 858 (8th Cir. 2020)

[9] Doe v. Baum, 903 F.3d 575 (6th Cir. 2018)

[10] Haidak v. Univ. of Massachusetts-Amherst, 933 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2019)

[11] Yusuf v. Vassar Coll., 35 F.3d 709 (2d Cir. 1994)

[12] Doe v. Purdue Univ., 928 F.3d 652 (7th Cir. 2019)

[13] Doe v. Samford Univ., 29 F.4th 675 (11th Cir. 2022)

[14] Doe v. Univ. of Denver, 1 F.4th 822 (10th Cir. 2021)