The University of Tennessee announced on July 5, 2016, that it had settled a Title IX lawsuit filed against it by eight female plaintiffs for $2.48 million. The women alleged that the University fostered a culture of indifference by ignoring sexual assaults committed by athletes, which, in turn, created a hostile environment for females on the 27,845-student campus.
The civil suit, filed on February 9, 2016, included allegations dating back to 1995. The Complaint asserts that the plaintiffs sustained damages as a result of the University’s deliberate indifference to actions before and unreasonable responses after the rapes of female students by four athletes and one non-athlete, in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiffs claimed that the University directly supported a student-athlete environment that encouraged underage drinking, drug use and rape, interfered with the disciplinary process in favor of male athletes charged with sexual assault, failed to promptly investigate and remediate allegations of sexual assault on campus, and discriminated against victims of sexual assault by one-sided misuse of the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act.
Notably, the plaintiffs attacked the University for its alleged inaction despite what they claimed was notice of a harassing and violent atmosphere, as well as its response to the students’ complaints. The plaintiffs sought both monetary and injunctive relief.
The University asserted that settlement discussions have been ongoing since the Complaint was initially filed, and that current negotiations began in April. With respect to payment of the settlement, no taxpayer dollars, donor funds, student tuition, or fees will be used; rather, the University’s Athletics Department and Central Administration will split equally the payment of the settlement.
Following news of the settlement, the plaintiffs’ attorney reflected that in the wake of the litigation, he believed the University made significant progress in the way it educated staff and the student body about sexual assaults and responded to such allegations. Similarly, counsel and head officials for the University of Tennessee indicated that, while the settlement was in no way an admission of guilt or liability, the University took the complaints seriously and intends to address aggressively future sexual assault incidents.
In fact, new initiatives aimed at combating and responding to sexual assault are being introduced and increased funding will be allocated to issues such as handling sexual assaults, student conduct, educational programming, and student well-being.
In addition, Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee system, announced that he plans to appoint an independent commission to review and make recommendations to existing programs relating to Title IX issues.
This settlement adds to a growing list of large universities that, in the past couple of years, have similarly settled lawsuits alleging Title IX violations.