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Appeals Court Revives Harassment Suit

March 10, 2006

A federal appeals court on Thursday revived a Title IX lawsuit brought against the University of Georgia by a woman who said that the university was partly responsible for the harassment she received on the night she charges she was raped by two athletes at the university -- with the assistance of another athlete.

The suit -- which was dismissed by a lower court -- charges that Georgia officials were liable under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for the alleged harassment because they recruited one of the athletes, despite knowledge of past behavioral incidents in which he was involved, and for the way they handled the case once the woman pressed charges. The men accused of the direct incident were subsequently cleared in both the university and state judicial systems. But the suit is about the university's responsibility, not that of those alleged to have attacked the woman.

The case not only revives a set of allegations that continue to upset many at the university, but points to an area of the law of concern to many colleges: What is their obligation to prevent harassment by students of fellow students, and to deal with allegations once presented. In this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit suggested that the actions or inactions of colleges can well result in Title IX violations. Georgia officials could not be reached for comment Thursday night, but in the past the university has said that it was not legally responsible for whatever happened on the night of January 14, 2002.

On that night, a woman who was then a student says that Tony Cole, then a basketball player at the university, invited her to his room, where they had consensual sex. The woman says that -- without her knowledge -- Cole had arranged for Brandon Williams, a football player, to hide in his closet, to wait while Cole and the woman had sex, and to later emerge and rape her after Cole left the room. Then, according to the woman, Cole called one of his teammates, Steven Thomas, who then with Cole's encouragement assaulted and raped the woman.

A district court dismissed the woman's claims against the university, but the appeals court restored several claims. In doing so, the court did not find that she necessarily was correct, but that enough evidence existed for her case to proceed on some of her charges. The appeals court noted that several factors need to be demonstrated to hold a university liable for the harassment of one student by another. An "appropriate person" (one with sufficient authority to act) must be shown to have engaged in "deliberate indifference" and the harassment must be "so severe" that it could prevent a student from continuing her education.

In this case, the appeals court found that the woman did present evidence to meet such a standard. She cited, and the appeals court agreed with the significance of, evidence that Georgia had recruited and enrolled Cole even though he had been dismissed from the basketball team at Wabash Valley College, in Illinois, for disciplinary problems, and that he was dismissed from the Community College of Rhode Island after charges that he sexually assaulted two part-time employees of the athletics department by groping them and threatening them when they rejected his advances. Cole pleaded no contest to charges in the Rhode Island incidents -- of which Georgia officials were aware.

Also key, according to the appeals court, was evidence that the university "responded sluggishly" to the woman's allegations. The court noted evidence that the woman reported the incident and that within 48 hours, the university police had numerous details about the allegations, including "substantial evidence corroborating" the woman's version of what took place. Despite that speedy start, the university took 8 months to conduct a disciplinary hearing and 11 months to make any corrective actions. The combination of factors, the appeals court said, met the woman's test for keeping the case alive -- that the university had "reacted with deliberate indifference."

The ruling by the appeals court calls for the district court, which had dismissed the case, to have a trial on the allegations.

 

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