Filed Date: July 3, 1977
Closed Date: Sept. 22, 1980
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This case was the first sexual harassment case brought under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., which bans sex discrimination in education by institutions that receive federal funding.
On July 3, 1977, several female students enrolled at Yale College and a faculty member filed this suit in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut against Yale University. They alleged that Yale was violating Title IX and H.E.W.'s Title IX regulations, claiming that the university's "failure to combat sexual harassment of female students and its refusal to institute mechanisms and procedures to address complaints and make investigations of such harassment interferes with the educational process and denies equal opportunity in education." The plaintiff sought injunctive relief in the form of a court to order requiring Yale to set up a Grievance Procedure for students who felt they had been sexually harassed, designed and implemented under the court supervision.
Plaintiffs were represented by a feminist law firm, the New Haven Law Collective; it was founded by several lawyers and then-Yale Law student Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon was working out the theory of sexual harassment that soon became the 1979 book "Sexual Harassment of Working Women"--that “the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power" constituted actionable sex discrimination. That theory became the theory of the case.
Plaintiffs sought relief for themselves and a class of Yale students and faculty members "who are disadvantaged and obstructed in their educational relations" by Yale's failure to combat sexual harassment. More specifically, they sued on behalf of (1) female students who have had to choose between tolerating sexual demands from "men in positions of authority at Yale" or sacrificing "any educational opportunity, benefit or chance to grow or advance educationally;" (2) female students who "are subject to the discriminatory atmosphere adverse to their educational development created by the practice of such sexual harassment;" and (3) all faculty members "whose professional effectiveness in teaching and in engaging in the pursuit of knowledge with students is seriously impaired by that contamination of the faculty/student relationship created by defendant's tolerance of said sexual pressures." Although the court did not rule on the class action claim, plaintiffs were on December 7, 1977 allowed to add two additional plaintiffs.
The Women's Equity Action League Educational and Legal Defense Fund and the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund appeared as amici curiae on the plaintiffs' side of the case.
On December 21, 1977, District Court Magistrate, Arthur H. Latimer, granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the claims of all but one plaintiff because the court found their claims "tenuous," "conclusory," and "untenable on their face." For two of the plaintiffs, the court held that they had not asserted claims "of personal exclusion from a federally funded education program or activity, or of the personal denial of full participation in the benefits of such a program or activity in any measurable sense." Believing that "(n)o judicial enforcement of Title IX could properly extend to such imponderables as atmosphere or vicariously experienced wrong," the court held that these two plaintiffs "advance(d) no persuasive claim that they have been deprived of cognizable Title IX rights." The court dismissed another plaintiff, although she alleged a "personal experience of sexual harassment," on the ground that her graduation mooted her claim for equitable relief absent the "sheer conjecture" that she might someday wish to resume her study of the flute. The court dismissed a fourth plaintiff, although she too alleged a personal experience of sexual harassment, because she had not complained to anyone at Yale. This left just one plaintiff, Pamela Price; she claimed that she'd been given a lower grade when she declined the sexual advances of a teacher. As to her, the court held that "academic advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes sex discrimination in education," and it therefore allowed her claim to proceed to trial. 459 F.Supp. 1 (1977) (Appendix A). Then-District Judge Jon Newman adopted the opinion as the decision of the District Court. 459 F.Supp. 1.
As the Court of Appeals explained later,
Price subsequently sought class certification for female students at Yale who are discriminated against on the basis of sex by Yale's policies and practices "with respect to the sexual harassment of women students by men in positions of authority, in particular by male faculty members and administrators, specifically by having to choose between toleration of, or compliance with, sexual demands and pressures by such men and any educational opportunity, benefit or chance to grow or advance educationally." Up to this time, the district court had not passed judgment upon the plaintiffs' request for class certification. Price also sought discovery aimed, in addition to adducing evidence supporting her personal claim, at adducing evidence supporting the claims of the class. Magistrate Latimer denied both the class certification and the extensive discovery request. In an unreported opinion, Magistrate Latimer found "no compelling reason to certify a class, there being no reasonable probability that plaintiff's individual claim will become moot in the near future ... and any equitable relief to which she may be possibly entitled being obviously such as to inure to the benefit of all." He then narrowed Price's discovery request correspondingly."
In addition, on June 30, 1978, Magistrate Judge Latimer denied a renewed motion to dismiss; Yale argued that because Price had been admitted to law school, her allegedly lowered grade was no longer affecting her in any way. Judge Latimer denied the motion because Price was still interested in pursuing other graduate school possibilities.
The case proceeded to trial before District Judge Ellen Burns. After a seven day trial Judge Burns found that "the grade of 'C' which she received in his course did not reflect consideration of any factor other than academic achievement." Nonetheless, Judge Burns proceeded to consider the adequacy of Yale's procedures for handling complaints of sexual harassment, and found that they were inadequate:
This court is in agreement that the procedures set forth above give no real guidance to students or to faculty as to procedure. . . . The suggestion that one first approach the offending faculty member seems particularly inappropriate in such a case.
However, given its factual findings about the grade allegations, Judge Burns refused to enjoin Yale to establish a different procedure, concluding, "(I)t does not follow that, if Yale University failed to articulate appropriate procedures to deal with such a claim, a plaintiff who can show neither an improper advance nor the injury she claimed has a grievance to be redressed by this court." The district court therefore entered judgment for Yale on July 3, 1979.
Although the plaintiffs lost on the facts, they had won an important--and landmark--legal victory; the district court held both that "academic advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes sex discrimination in education," and that Yale's investigatory and remedial processes were inadequate. This was years before the Supreme Court endorsed the legal theory that conditioning employment on submission to sexual advances similarly constitutes sex discrimination. Meritor v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986).
Plaintiffs appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeal; on September 22, 1980, in an opinion by Judge Edward Lumbard, the Court of Appeals affirmed. 631 F.2d 178 (2d Cir. 1980). It agreed with the District Court that--since plaintiffs sought only injunctive relief, not damages--plaintiffs' claims were mooted by their graduation. The Court noted, as well:
"It is perhaps more important to note that, as Yale's counsel has assured us in brief and oral argument, Yale in fact has adopted a set of procedures for hearing such complaints. The procedures were proposed by a committee consisting of faculty, administrators and students, in a report published March 1979, following a year of careful study specifically limited to the problems involved in structuring procedures appropriate for consideration of student complaints of sexual harassment. Furthermore, Yale's counsel has also assured us that although the procedures were originally designed only to receive and consider claims of sexual harassment occurring at Yale College, their jurisdiction has since been expanded to afford consideration of claims by those who suffer harassment while participating in any program sponsored by the University. We have no reason to doubt that the procedures now in effect will tend to alleviate the "atmosphere of inequality" alleged by plaintiffs in this suit. Thus, it appears that the major relief sought in this suit has already been granted."
The Court of Appeals agreed, as well, with the District Court that if the plaintiff had failed to prove the incident she claimed, she was not entitled to injunctive relief just because the procedures were inadequate. The case was therefore done.
Margo Schlanger (5/7/2016)
Burns, Ellen Bree (Connecticut)
Latimer, Arthur H. (Connecticut)
Kohn, Margaret A. (District of Columbia)
Meredith, Susan (Connecticut)
Doyle, William (Connecticut)
Last updated June 29, 2023, 3:09 a.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Connecticut
Filing Date: July 3, 1977
Closing Date: Sept. 22, 1980
Case Ongoing: No
The plaintiffs were female college students at Yale University who attended Yale College between 1973 and 1980, and the first to use Title IX in charges of sexual harassment against an educational institution.
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Denied
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Mixed
Source of Relief:
Affected Sex or Gender:
Type of Facility: