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Mar312017

Sexual Harassment Claims at Educational Institutions, including Medical Residence Programs, Covered by Both Title VII and Title IX

On March 7, 2017 the Third Circuit issued its opinion in Doe v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr., 16-1247, --- F.3d ----, 2017 WL 894455 (3d Cir. Mar. 7, 2017) addressing two matters of first impression in the Third Circuit: (a) whether a hospital’s residency program was an education program under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; and (b) whether an employee of an educational program covered by Title IX could seek relief for sex discrimination despite the availability of relief under Title VII. 

In Doe, plaintiff, a former medical resident of the defendant medical center, a private teaching hospital with a medical program, brought a claim of sex discrimination against Defendant.  The District Court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint, finding that Mercy was not an “education program or activity” under Title IX. 

The Third Circuit found that Title IX applied to Mercy’s medical residency program.  The Court recognized that “education program or activity” was left undefined by statute but that Mercy’s position that the statute only applies to entities (unlike Mercy), principally engaged in providing educational offerings was untenable given the wide breadth of Title IX.  The Third Circuit found that a “program or activity” is covered by Title XI “if it has features such that one could reasonably consider its mission to be, at least in part, educational.” Id. at *6 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).  The holding is in accord with case law from the First, Second, Eight, and Ninth Circuits as well as the interpretations of twenty-one federal agencies.  Id. at *6.  

In analyzing the framework for the “educational program or activity” inquiry, the Court considered whether:

(A) a program is incrementally structured through a particular course of study or training, whether full- or part-time; (B) a program allows participants to earn a degree or diploma, qualify for a certification or certification examination, or pursue a specific occupation or trade beyond mere on-the-job training; (C) a program provides instructors, examinations, an evaluation process or grades, or accepts tuition; or (D) the entities offering, accrediting, or otherwise regulating a program hold it out as educational in nature.

Id. 

The Court noted that Mercy’s program had various trappings of an educational program (e.g. lectures, exams, and a general focus on regimented training and studying) which showed that its mission was, at least in part, educational.  The Court also found that that Mercy’s association with Drexel University’s medical school (where plaintiff, in fact, took certain classes) supported a finding that Mercy was covered by Title IX.  Id. at *7.   

The Third Circuit then addressed whether plaintiff’s discrimination claims were cognizable as private causes of action under Title IX.  Id. at *8.  The Court noted, pertinently, that Title IX, unlike Title VII, does not require administrative exhaustion as prerequisite of suit, potentially putting the statute in tension with Title VII’s exhaustion requirements.  While plaintiff may have been a student as well as an employee, plaintiff still fit the bill of employee: she provided various services to Mercy as a medical resident; she received a work schedule; and, the Court presumed, she received taxable payments from Mercy for her services.  The Court concluded that Plaintiff could pursue a Title IX claim despite her ability to also pursue relief under Title VII.  The court therefore found that Title IX protects both students and employees and that Plaintiff’s Title IX claims were legally cognizable. 

The Third Circuit noted that its decision was in line with decisions from the First and Fourth Circuits but at odds with decisions from the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, the latter Circuits holding that Title VII is the exclusive federal remedy for sex discrimination claims by employees against their employers. Given the widening circuit split on this crucial issue, it is likely only a matter of time before the issue comes before the U.S. Supreme Court.  In the interim, employers whose mission, at least in part, may be deemed educational may incur exposure under Title IX from sex discriminations claims without the protections of administrative exhaustion requirements.    

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