On September 24, 2020, Legal Momentum and pro bono partner Latham & Watkins, joined by seven partner organizations, filed an amicus (“friend-of-the-court”) brief in support of a cert petition seeking Supreme Court review of a lower court’s ruling in Bose v. Rhodes College. The petition and our brief challenge an alarming ruling issued by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that threatens to eviscerate Title IX’s core safeguards against sexual harassment in schools.
The case involves a high-achieving undergraduate student, Prianka Bose, who was attending Rhodes College, a small private liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee. Bose was studying history and neuroscience and obtained early admission to medical school. After she repeatedly rebuffed her organic chemistry professor’s advances and confronted him about his sexual harassment, he falsely accused her of cheating on an exam, based on what was later proven by forensic experts to be a fake answer key that he created by manipulating his own laptop.
Her professor’s allegations triggered an investigation by an Honor Council of Bose’s peers, which found her guilty. Bose appealed to the school’s Faculty Appeals Committee and also filed a Title IX complaint, asserting that the allegations were false, retaliatory, and based on sexual harassment. Despite these concerning assertions, the school refused to investigate, or even consider, her claims. Instead, Rhodes College expelled Bose and her admission to medical school was rescinded. Meanwhile, her professor remains a faculty member.
Bose initiated a suit under Title IX, which prohibits schools receiving federal funds from depriving students of educational opportunity on the basis of sex. Courts and the Department of Education have long made clear that such protections cover sexual harassment. Despite the clear violations that took place, the district court granted summary judgment for Rhodes College and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The Circuit Court acknowledged that the professor’s allegations of cheating were fraudulent, but nonetheless concluded that Rhodes College could not be held directly liable because the school itself had no discriminatory motive and schools are not liable for the actions of their employees.
In our brief, Legal Momentum and other amici shed light on the potentially devastating consequences of this decision, which risks eradicating Title IX protections for students who suffer sexual harassment and retaliation by faculty. We argue that by artificially severing the sex-biased actions of Bose’s professor from the school’s expulsion, which was undeniably based solely on those actions, the decision undermines the core purpose of Title IX. Immunizing schools’ disciplinary decisions from Title IX scrutiny—even where the school has been warned that charges are sex-biased, retaliatory, and fraudulent—will deny victims redress for even the most severe deprivations of educational opportunity, including expulsion. Our brief highlights existing data and repeated examples of unchecked faculty abuse to demonstrate how the Sixth Circuit’s decision will embolden abusers and facilitate faculty abuse, a problem already prevalent at academic institutions and particularly harmful to women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The consequences of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling will be both wide-ranging and deeply damaging, impacting women and other students at almost all colleges across the country, leaving them at risk of ongoing physical, sexual, psychological, and financial harm with severe long-term consequences to their academic and career advancement.
Read our amicus brief here.