A federal appeals court in New Orleans is allowing a Title IX lawsuit against Louisiana State University to proceed and permitting the parents of a fraternity pledge who died of alcohol poisoning as a result of a hazing ritual to continue to pursue their claim of gender discrimination against the university.
Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, whose 18-year-old son, Max Gruver, was a freshman at Louisiana State when he died in 2017, argue in their complaint that the university scrutinized hazing in its sororities while disregarding dangerous activities in fraternities. They contend the disparity is a violation of Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded institutions. If successful, the case would be the first of its kind to apply Title IX to how colleges discipline fraternities and sororities. A district court judge ruled in July 2019 that the Gruvers' case has merit.
The district court’s ruling was appealed by Louisiana State, which as a state institution claimed it had immunity from the Gruvers’ lawsuit under the 11th Amendment, which prohibits individuals from suing states in federal court, according to an opinion filed May 12 by a three-judge panel in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. But the amendment has an exception for Title IX, and the panel determined that because the university receives partial federal funding, it is obligated to enforce Title IX on its campus. This is a condition the Fifth Circuit and nearly all other federal circuit courts have upheld at one point, the panel said.
“LSU is free to avoid Title IX obligations by declining federal funds,” Fifth Circuit judge Gregg Costa wrote for the panel.
The panel did not address the question of whether Louisiana State can be held liable for “deliberate indifference” for its alleged failure to address hazing in its fraternities. The university argued to the Fifth Circuit that Title IX does not prohibit hazing if such behavior did not include sexual harassment, according to The Advocate, a local publication. The case will now proceed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.