Following the on-campus murder of a student by her non-student boyfriend at Millersville University in 2015, the victim’s parents filed a Title IX claim against the university. The claim was rejected in a lower court, but, in a significant and consequential decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and held that the school could be held liable for the actions taken by a non-student guest on its campus.
This case serves as an important reminder for colleges and universities to pay close attention to their obligations under Title IX, and revisit and revise their policies as appropriate.
The student-victim, Karlie Hall, was murdered in her dorm room by her boyfriend Gregorio Orrostieta.
Orrostieta was not a student, but he was a frequent visitor to the campus. In 2014, Hall was injured by Orrostieta in a domestic violence incident in her dorm room. Police responded, and Orrostieta was removed from campus, but no incident report was completed at the time. A resident advisor created an incident report, but the university’s administration failed to forward it to the school’s Title IX coordinator as required by school policy.
These and other facts were used to argue that the school acted with deliberate indifference to known harassment of a student.
The Court’s Analysis
Millersville University argued that it could not be held liable for the actions of a non-student guest on campus because it lacked notice that deliberate indifference to harassment, if perpetrated by a non-student guest, could result in Title IX liability.
In rejecting this argument, the Third Circuit cited the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. According to the Third Circuit:
“The Supreme Court made clear in Davis that a funding recipient may be liable for acts of sexual harassment by individuals other than students. Though Davis concerned only deliberate indifference to known student-on-student harassment, the Court’s holding was not based upon the classification of the harasser as a student, guest, or other type of third party … Instead, the Court’s focus was on whether the funding recipient had control over the harasser and the context of the harassment since the funding recipient can only ‘subject’ students to discrimination under Title IX if it has control over the harasser and remains deliberately indifferent to the harasser’s actions.”
The Third Circuit also stated the university’s Title IX policies in place at the time the incident occurred “contemplated Title IX liability could result from the actions of third parties such as ‘visitors’ like Orrostieta.”
While this decision was made by the Third Circuit, and therefore does not have precedential effect in the Sixth Circuit where Michigan colleges and universities are located, it nonetheless should serve as an important reminder to pay close attention to Title IX policies. The decision also comes shortly before the Biden administration is expected to release a Title IX notice of proposed rulemaking.
If you have any questions about this case, or Title IX issues in general, please contact Ryan Kauffman.
Ryan K. Kauffman is a Shareholder at Fraser Trebilcock with more than a decade of experience handling complex litigation matters and representing higher education institutions. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 517.377.0881.