New Cases and Developments

NACUA's Legal Resources staff summarizes current higher education cases and developments and provides the full text of selected cases to members. New cases and developments are archived here for up to 12 months.  Cases provided by Fastcase, Inc.

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Sex Discrimination; Retaliation; Religious Discrimination; Age Discrimination; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Russell v. New York University, et al. (2nd Cir. June 25, 2018)

Order and opinion affirming summary judgment for the Defendants. Plaintiff, who was the target of anonymous harassment over the internet, alleged that Defendants maintained a hostile work environment by failing to remedy workplace harassment based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, and age. Plaintiff also alleged that Defendants retaliated against her for reporting discrimination by issuing a final written warning for job-related misconduct and terminating her employment.   Regarding Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, the issue on appeal was whether the Defendants’ efforts to remedy the harassment were objectively reasonable.  Pointing to NYU’s prompt internal investigation, efforts to investigate the IP addresses associated with the anonymous harassment, and collaboration with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that no reasonable jury could find for Plaintiff on her hostile work environment claims.  In so holding, the court acknowledged NYU’s limited capacity as a private institution to investigate online misconduct, especially since it lacked subpoena power, and further noted that "[a]n employer need not prove success in preventing harassing behavior in order to demonstrate that it exercised reasonable care in preventing and correcting [the] harassing conduct." The court also affirmed judgment for the NYU Defendants on Plaintiff’s retaliation claim, finding that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that NYU’s decision to terminate her for insubordination and repeated contact with witnesses (which was later deemed by the district court to violate a protective order), was motivated by a retaliatory motive.

Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration; Religious Discrimination; Race and National Origin Discrimination; Practice of Higher Education Law; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Naziri v. Union County College (D.N.J. April 18, 2018)

Unpublished Order granting Defendants’ Partial Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff, a Muslim woman of Afghani descent and student of Union County College (UCC), alleged under Title VI and New Jersey state law that UCC discriminated against her based on religion and national origin, after a UCC instructor purportedly directed disparaging remarks at her in class and denied her an opportunity to sit for an exam. She also brought claims of defamation and defamation per se  against the Defendants.  The court found that Plaintiff’s defamation and defamation per se claims were waived because Plaintiff failed to submit a notice of claim to UCC, as required by state law. To the extent that the Complaint endeavored to allege a cause of action with respect to Plaintiff’s husband, the court dismissed those claims for insufficient factual support.

Religious Discrimination; Race and National Origin Discrimination; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Nielsen v. Talladega College (N.D. Ala. March 15, 2018)

Memorandum Opinion granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, a white Seventh Day Adventist and former Reading Specialist at Talladega College (TC), alleged that TC discriminated and retaliated against her on account of race and religion and breached its employment contract with her, following TC’s decision not to renew her contract based on recommendations from Plaintiff’s immediate supervisor, the Provost’s experience in attempting to resolve disputes with her, and negative feedback she received in a student evaluation. Assuming, without deciding, that Plaintiff had a prima facie case of discrimination, the court found that Plaintiff could not rebut Defendant’s legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for her nonrenewal. Although untimely notice of her nonrenewal may have technically amounted to a policy violation, it did not amount to per se evidence of pretext sufficient to call into question TC’s justifications for ending its contract with her, nor did it establish that unlawful discrimination was the real reason for her nonrenewal. Further, the Plaintiff’s subjective belief that she had been subjected to unlawful discrimination was not enough to prove actual discrimination based on race or religion. The court further found that Plaintiff’s retaliation claim failed because she never linked her complaints about unpleasant interactions with co-workers to alleged race or religious-based discrimination, could not establish religious discrimination was the “but-for” cause of  TC’s decision not to renew her contract, and could not show pretext. Last, Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim failed because she was an at-will employee who could be terminated at any time, for any reason, at TC’s discretion. 

Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration; Religious Discrimination; Practice of Higher Education Law; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Lachaab v. State University of New York Board of Trustees, et al. (2nd Cir. March 16, 2018)

Summary Order affirming the judgement of the district court. Appellant, a former student at State University of New York (SUNY), alleged that he was subjected to discrimination that amounted to violations of  the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and Title IX. In finding that res judicata barred most of Appellant’s claims, the court did not allow Appellant to proceed under new theories of liability or add 3 new individual defendants, since Appellant could have raised these issues in his prior complaint. The court further found that a single incident of classmates making disparaging comments against Muslims did not amount to “severe and discriminatory harassment” to sufficiently state a claim under Title VI. 

Retaliation; Religious Discrimination; Race and National Origin Discrimination; First Amendment & Free Speech; Constitutional Issues; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

El-Akrich v. Bd. of Trs. of the Univ. of Ill. (C.D. Ill. Feb. 26, 2018)

Opinion granting-in-part and denying-in-part Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff, a Muslim man from Morocco who worked as the Interim Director of the Intensive English Program at the University of Illinois (UI), brought claims under Title VII, section 1981, section 1983, section 1985, and Title VI against Defendants for allegedly discriminating against him based on national origin, race, and religion; retaliating against him in response to his complaints of discrimination and for exercising his free speech rights; contracting with racially discriminatory animus; conspiring to deprive him of equal protection under the law; and violating analogous state laws. The court found that Plaintiff exhausted his administrative remedies because his charge of race discrimination was a natural outgrowth of his EEOC charges of national origin and religious discrimination. The court further allowed Plaintiff’s Title VII discrimination and retaliation claims to proceed after finding Plaintiff proffered sufficiently plausible facts of an adverse employment action and retaliation – specifically, Plaintiff’s job duties were reduced or eliminated entirely after he voiced opposition to perceived discrimination he, Muslim students, and another Muslim Middle Eastern employee faced and Plaintiff was ultimately terminated for a staff scheduling decision he did not make. The court allowed Plaintiff’s section 1981 claims against Individual Defendants to proceed since they were based on his employment contract with UI, but dismissed Plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim because his speech was not made as a private citizen. Plaintiff’s section 1985 conspiracy claim was also dismissed because the Individual Defendants were employees of the same entity and acted within the scope of their employment when they decided to terminate Plaintiff. Last, Plaintiff’s retaliation claim under Title VI proceeded because he plausibly showed that UI’s decision not to renew Plaintiff’s contract after he voiced complaints of discrimination would dissuade a reasonable person from exercising the same rights.

Religious Discrimination; First Amendment & Free Speech; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity; Due Process; Constitutional Issues

Duffin v. Idaho State University, et al. (D. Idaho, Dec. 21, 2017)

Memorandum Decision and Order granting-in-part and denying-in-part Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and a former member of the men’s tennis team at Idaho State University (ISU), alleged that ISU officials impaired his free exercise of religion, deprived him of substantive due process, infringed protected speech, and engaged in various tortious acts by harassing and disparaging Plaintiff for participating in a LDS mission and abstaining from alcohol and premarital sex. The court found that Defendants waived Eleventh Amendment immunity by stipulating to an extended scheduling order and summary judgment deadline—where Defendants intended to raise the issue of sovereign immunity for the first time—as a tactical attempt to have the statute of limitations run on Plaintiff’s claims in state court. However, the court found that Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff’s free exercise claim because Defendant’s remarks and actions, while inappropriate, did not rise to the level of coercion or substantial pressure to modify Plaintiff’s behavior, as required in a free exercise of religion claim, and thus did not amount to a violation of a clearly established constitutional right. The court further found no property interest vested in Plaintiff’s education or scholarship to substantiate his substantive due process claim. On Plaintiff’s state law claims, the court allowed Plaintiff’s NIED claim to proceed and submitted a certified question of law to the Idaho Supreme Court to determine whether a special relationship existed between a student and a university, as required by Plaintiff’s negligence claims. 

Sex Discrimination; Retaliation; Religious Discrimination; Disability Discrimination; Age Discrimination; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Heit v. Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, et al. (E.D. Pa. Nov. 29, 2017)

Memorandum granting Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff, a forty-eight year old Jewish woman and former employee of the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, alleged that Defendants discriminated against her on the basis of her age, sex, religion, and disability; retaliated against her for filing internal complaints; and created a hostile work environment in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Title VII, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) after she was terminated for underperformance and for submitting a false timesheet. The court found that Plaintiff’s age discrimination claim failed because she could not show that her termination was pretextual or that discriminatory animus was the but-for cause for her termination. Additionally, Plaintiff’s disparate treatment and ADA claims failed because she did not allege circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination. Moreover, Plaintiff failed to produce evidence of intentional discrimination that was so severe or pervasive that it amounted to a hostile work environment, and her retaliation claim failed because she could not show a causal connection between her termination and her protected activity of filing internal complaints two years prior.

Religious Discrimination; Discrimination, Accommodation, & Diversity

Memorandum on Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty Issued By Attorney General Sessions (Oct. 6. 2017)

Memorandum issued to all administrative agencies and executive departments from Attorney General Sessions regarding religious liberty protections in federal law. The memorandum, issued pursuant to Executive Order No. 13798, identifies twenty principles of religious liberty that should guide administrative agencies and executive departments in their efforts to provide reasonable accommodations for religious observance and practice in all government activities. The Attorney General also issued a second memorandum that implements the religious liberty guidance within the Department of Justice.