Making Different Choices: Navigating University Grievance Procedures Under Title IX in MOORE v. TEMPLE UNIVERSITY

legal-grievance-complaintA recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Moore v. Temple University serves as a cautionary lesson for those seeking to pursue an action under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  More specifically, the Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of Temple University and against the plaintiff, Ebony Nicole Moore, on the grounds that Ms. Moore’s claims were time-barred by Title IX’s statute of limitations.  In doing so, the Third Circuit underscored the importance of selecting the proper school forum in which to grieve claims of gender-based discrimination.

Ms. Moore, a former member of Temple’s track and field team, alleged that she had been bullied and sexually harassed by her coaches and teammates. Hours after a subsequent, May 4, 2011, meeting convened by the university’s athletic department to address Ms. Moore’s allegations, she informed her coach that she would not be attending what the coach considered to be the team’s most important competition of the year because she had final examinations.  Apparently attaching little importance to the fact that the term “Scholar” traditionally precedes the word “Athlete,” her coach recommended that Ms. Moore’s athletic scholarship not be renewed and that she be removed from the team.  Consequently, on May 11, 2011, Ms. Moore was provided with written notice that her scholarship would not be renewed.  In response, she filed a grievance with Temple’s Athletic Appeals Panel, but on August 2, 2011, the Appeals Panel upheld the decision not to renew her athletic scholarship, although it did grant her a different scholarship so that she could complete her education at Temple.

On July 29, 2013, Ms. Moore commenced suit in state court, and Temple subsequently removed her case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. As noted, the district court ultimately entered summary judgment in favor of Temple on the grounds that the bulk of Ms. Moore’s claims were time-barred and those that were timely lacked merit.  In turn, the Third Circuit rejected both Ms. Moore’s argument that her cause of action did not actually accrue until August 2, 2011, when Temple denied her grievance, and her assertion that the filing of the grievance tolled – or stayed — the statute of limitations. The court reasoned that the alleged injury giving rise to Ms. Moore’s claims was the May 11 decision to non-renew her athletic scholarship, not the August 2 denial of her grievance, as the grievance procedure was merely “a remedy for a prior decision [and] not an opportunity to influence that decision before it [was] made” (emphasis in original).   Consequently, given Title IX’s two-year statute of limitations, her July 29, 2013, filing was untimely.

So What Does It Mean?

Title IX requires educational institutions to maintain a grievance process through which students can seek recourse for alleged violations of the law. Grievances typically are filed against other students or even school employees and are expected to trigger action by the school in the form of an investigation and a determination.  As such, they are different than the grievance process Ms. Moore utilized, which was designed to contest actions that the university – through its athletic department — had already taken.

As noted, Ms. Moore’s original complaint was that her teammates and her coaches were sexually harassing her, which would be a violation of Title IX. Even the coach’s subsequent recommendation to non-renew Ms. Moore’s athletic scholarship could arguably have been characterized as a form of retaliation against Ms. Moore for raising her harassment claims.  As such, both claims would seem to have been classic grist for the Title IX mill, and one wonders whether Ms. Moore’s lawsuit would have had a different outcome had she pursued her grievance before Temple’s Title IX Coordinator rather than through the university’s athletic department.

The key question would have been whether the Title IX grievance would still have been deemed “a remedy for a prior decision,” or whether it would more accurately be considered “an opportunity to influence” – or at least to obtain – a determination from the university? One would reasonably think it would be the latter, and, if so, the pendency of the grievance may have stayed the statute of limitations until the Title IX Coordinator had issued a decision, perhaps thereby avoiding her lawsuit’s infelicitous fate.

That possibility aside, the decision in Moore underscores the fact that for those contemplating the filing of a Title IX lawsuit, it is always prudent to do so well within the timeframe provided for it.