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Why You Cannot Depend on an Atlanta College or University to Properly Investigate Your Sexual Assault Case

A sexual assault can occur anywhere. But college campuses are one of the more common places where we frequently see reports of such attacks. Atlanta’s many colleges and universities draw students from all over the world. Unfortunately, that also means drawing people who believe they have the right to engage in unwelcome and unwanted sexual acts against others.

There have been a number of high-profile civil lawsuits in recent years targeting not only the individual attackers who commit sexual assault, but also the colleges and universities themselves. Most institutions of higher education accept some form of federal funding (such as student loans), which means they are required to follow Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. In broad terms, Title IX prohibits any sex-based discrimination in schools that accept federal funds.

Title IX creates a federal right to sue a school for sex discrimination. This can include taking legal action against a college or university that fails to take seriously allegations of sexual assault made by one student against other students. It can also cover a situation where a student is punished or retaliated against for filing a complaint regarding a sexual assault.

Former Emory Law Student Alleges Retaliation After Reporting Classmate’s Sexual Assault

The rules governing sexual assault claims under Title IX are complicated and often end up hurting the victims they are supposed to help. A recent decision from a federal judge here in Atlanta illustrates the struggles faced by sexual assault survivors. This case, Doe v. Emory University, remains pending before the court.

The plaintiff in this case, who filed under a “Jane Doe” pseudonym, was a law student at Atlanta’s famous Emory University. Doe alleged that in August 2018, she was raped twice by a male classmate. The plaintiff, who comes from an unspecified Middle Eastern culture, initially felt too ashamed to come forward or report the sexual assault. But a few weeks later, Doe said she started experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and met with the law school’s Title IX officer where she discussed her sexual assault “in hypothetical terms,” according to court records.

Doe said her attacker later approached her and admitted to the sexual assault. The plaintiff then filed a formal complaint with Emory’s Title IX office in March 2019, several months after the attack. Doe said she asked the university to make certain accommodations–including being allowed to attend a class without her attacker present–but the university refused, allegedly citing American Bar Association rules and Title IX guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Doe also informed her father of the sexual assault. Her parents filed a police report. The attacker, who was also not from the United States, filed his own complete alleging retaliation. He subsequently left the country and never returned. But Doe said the university acted upon his retaliation complaints and “subjected her to aggressive, hostile questioning about her rapist’s accusations and often with short deadlines.” Ultimately, Doe decided to withdraw from Emory due to what she considered hostile and unfair treatment.

Doe filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in February 2021, more than two years after the sexual assault occurred, which eventually led to a lawsuit. In her complaint, Doe alleged Emory violated her rights under Title IX and committed a breach of contract. Emory moved to dismiss the lawsuit.

Title IX vs. Breach of Contract

On December 5, 2022, U.S. District Judge Thomas W. Thrash, Jr., of Atlanta partially granted Emory’s motion. Thrash dismissed the Title IX claims but held Jane Doe could proceed with her breach of contract claim. The judge’s reason for rejecting the Title IX claims had nothing to do with the merits of Doe’s allegations but rather her timing in bringing the case to court.

Civil lawsuits generally must comply with a legal principle known as the statute or limitations. In simple terms, this is the deadline to file a complaint with the court. Title IX itself does not actually specify such a deadline. But federal courts in Georgia have typically applied the state’s statute of limitations for personal injury claims, which is just 2 years.

Here, Thrash explained the 2-year limitations period applied to Doe’s Title IX claims against Emory. The 2-year clock itself started to “run” when Doe “knew or should have known of [her] injury and its cause.” Emory argued that Doe’s legal injury occurred no later than November 5, 2019, when Doe withdrew from classes at the law school. But Doe did not actually file her lawsuit until November 28, 2021, which was 23 days after the statute of limitations expired. Thrash agreed with this timeline and accordingly dismissed the Title IX portion of Doe’s lawsuit.

But her breach of contract claim survived. The “contract” in this context refers to the legal relationship between a student and a university, which is usually derived from the school’s student handbook and related policies. (This is similar to an employee handbook in the context of employment law.) Here, Doe alleged the university effectively violated its own policies and acted in bad faith when investigating her sexual assault complaint. In Georgia, a six-year statute of limitations period applies to breach of contract claims, so Doe’s allegations on this issue were not subject to dismissal on procedural grounds.

Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys Today

A critical lesson from this case is that you should always take prompt action when you have been the victim of a sexual assault. Any delay in reporting a sexual assault or asserting your legal rights can later prove fatal to your claims, regardless of how much proof you might have.

Another key lesson is that you cannot rely on a college or university to act in the best interests of a sexual assault victim. Many college administrators are all too happy to bury reports of sexual assault or, as alleged in the case above, to try and blame the victims by investigating them for “retaliation.” Additionally, many colleges and universities adopt much higher burdens of proof in sexual assault cases than civil courts. So you are often unlikely to obtain any sort of justice through a campus-based proceeding.You should also never hesitate to seek out your own independent legal counsel. An experienced Atlanta sexual assault lawyer can provide you with advice and representation in this area. Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today at (404) 529-3476 to schedule a consultation.

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