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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that a graduate student may pursue her Title IX retaliation claim against the University of Oregon.
A district court previously granted summary judgment to the University on the alternative grounds that the student did not engage in protected activity and that she adduced no evidence showing that the University's adverse actions were causally related to her protected activity.
Monica Emeldi, formerly a special education doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon, complained to the University in 2007 about the lack of adequate support for female Ph.D. candidates. Emeldi and other graduate students summarized their concerns in a 15-point memo to Mike Bullis, the Dean of the College of Education at the University.
The University claimed that no one other than Bullis knew of the memo; Emeldi said that she was told that all Department faculty received copies, and that it was "common knowledge in the College of Education" that she was dissatisfied with the Department's level of support for women.
Emeldi believes that the University retaliated against her. Weeks after she complained to the administration that her dissertation chair, Robert Horner, was distant, inaccessible and gave male students perks, Horner withdrew as her adviser. After getting turned down by 15 faculty members, Emeldi eventually abandoned the Ph.D. program because she couldn't find another dissertation chair.
Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination by federally funded educational institutions. In Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that "retaliation against a person because that person has complained of sex discrimination" is a form of gender-based discrimination actionable under Title IX.
In Emeldi's case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed for the first time what a plaintiff must prove to prevail on a retaliation claim under Title IX.
The Ninth Circuit criteria follows the Title VII retaliation criteria. A plaintiff who lacks direct evidence of retaliation must first make out a prima facie case of retaliation by showing that he or she was engaged in protected activity, that he or she suffered an adverse action, and that there was a causal link between the two. (A plaintiff only needs make a minimal threshold showing of retaliation to make a prima facie case.)
Once a plaintiff has made the threshold prima facie showing, the defendant must articulate a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the challenged action. If the defendant does so, the plaintiff must then show that the reason is pretextual -- either directly or indirectly -- by showing that the explanation is unworthy of credence.
Emeldi prevailed under the new Title IX retaliation claim criteria, so the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her case. While Emeldi will still have to prove her retaliation claim at trial, the new retaliation criteria can help you decide whether you want to represent a client in a Title IX claim.