Federal Court Permits Employee to Bring Both Title VII and Title IX Actions Against Educational Institutions for Gender Discrimination

On August 12, 2021, the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts issued a decision, Harrington v. Lesley University, et al. (20-11718-DPW) holding that employees of educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance may bring discrimination claims under both the Title VII and the Title IX statutes, subject to the limitations of each.

Defendant Lesley University hired the plaintiff as an art librarian in 2016.  She alleged that shortly after her hiring, her direct supervisor (also named as a defendant) engaged in nonconsensual, sexualized physical contact and made sexually charged comments toward her.  In 2018, she filed an internal complaint with the Title IX Coordinator, which was not resolved.  Two years later, she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) alleging violations of Title VII, as well as a lawsuit in Massachusetts superior court alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation under Title IX.  Ultimately, the plaintiff combined the MCAD and superior court complaints and they were removed to federal court.

Defendants sought to dismiss the Title VII and Title IX claims.  In particular, they argued that the statute of limitations with respect to the Title VII claim had passed and that the plaintiff could not bring a cause of action under Title IX as an employee.  The court agreed with the limitations argument as to Title VII because the plaintiff had not complied with the requirement that a complaint be filed with the MCAD within 300 days of the latest discriminatory event.

As to the Title IX claim, the court rejected an argument that Title IX claims are limited to students.  Title IX provides that “[n]o person…shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”  While there is a split among the federal appellate courts on this issue, the Court of Appeals in this circuit has expressly rejected that result.  The district court therefore held that the term “person” in Title IX “encompasses claims of both students and employees of federal funded educational programs and activities.”  The court refused to adopt an additional theory that Title IX’s statutory scheme otherwise precludes an employee from bringing a sex discrimination claim.

This decision is an important reminder for school districts to ensure that learning environments and workplaces are free of sex-based discrimination or harassment.  It is also a reminder that while most Title IX claims may be brought by students, a school district should be alert to the fact that a gender discrimination claim by an employee may invoke both the Title IX process and the Title VII/Human Resources process.  Our office frequently provides training to educational institutions on how to properly investigate and respond to allegations of sex-based misconduct.  Moreover, we are pleased to review policies responsive to obligations under Title VII and Title IX.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor and employment law generally, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.