A woman is suing the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, alleging that, until recently, the school was in violation of the federal civil rights law that dictates how universities handle allegations of sexual misconduct by illegally delaying the process and offering more rights to the alleged perpetrators than to victims.
Attorneys Justin Gilbert and Eric Oliver, who represent the woman — identified only as Jane Doe — said the suit was filed "to shine a light on UTC's longstanding failed Title IX procedures for victims of campus rape," according to the suit filed in federal court on Friday.
"Until recently, the UT Title IX system has been operating without victims receiving full access to evidence, without victims receiving any hearing, and, even if the victim prevails, the perpetrator enjoys a "get out of jail free pass" by invoking administrative procedures to 'start all over,'" Gilbert told the Times Free Press in a written statement. "In our view, this is wildly inconsistent with what Title IX law has always required."
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that dictates how universities handle complaints of sexual assault and other incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment or retaliation. Under Title IX regulations, universities are required to respond to reports of sexual misconduct, but are not required to turn them over to law enforcement.
UTC officials declined to comment, stating, "the University is aware of the lawsuit. The University does not comment on pending litigation and therefore does not have any further comment at this time."
'What more does UTC want?'
Gilbert and Oliver say their client was raped in her dorm room in January 2020 by two male students — one who attended UTC and another who was visiting from Samford University in Alabama.
A date is not specified, but the attorneys said she reported the alleged rape to university officials on Jan. 11.
Shortly thereafter, one of the woman's friends texted the male UTC student asking, "What is wrong with you?" according to the suit.
The student allegedly responded, saying, "I'm sorry. I'm getting kicked out of UTC and I'll get what I deserve."
Doe took that text message, photographs of her "still-fresh bruises on her neck and arms, the result of being held while raped," had a rape kit done and turned all of that over to UTC officials, the suit claims.
The rape kit allegedly sat untested for at least six months. It's not clear where it stands today.
Over the course of several months, the university gathered video footage showing the two male students leaving the woman's dorm room, and campus police interviewed the two suspects, the lawsuit states.
At least one of the men "minimized the events, stating, 'We made out. That was it,'" according to the lawsuit.
By March 12, the university's Title IX coordinator Stephanie Rowland gave Doe an update.
"The Office of Student Conduct has reached out to all of the witnesses to request interviews," Rowland wrote, according to the the lawsuit. "As of today, only one witness has responded."
"I gave you his confession by text message," Doe responded. "How was that not enough to remove him from campus? Not even a suspension? What more does UTC want?"
There was no intermediate suspension or other measures to keep the woman safe from the student who raped her, Gilbert and Oliver argue. And at one point, the Title IX coordinator reportedly suggested that Doe — not the alleged perpetrator — might want to consider transferring to another school.
'My life has been a continuing hell'
On July 1, without giving the woman access to the evidence it gathered and without giving her the opportunity cross-examine witnesses, the university decided her allegation of rape was "inconclusive."
The woman appealed the decision five days later. That process, however, is nothing more than "a written appeal that simply provides another behind-closed-doors review by a different person, this time the Vice Chancellor," Gilbert and Oliver argue.
By July 16, the university reversed its original finding of "inconclusive," stating that it found "the two male students' statements to the UTC investigator to be inconsistent or irreconcilable, thus impacting their credibility," the lawsuit states.
The university then told the male UTC student he would be dismissed.
"This news, albeit way too late, provided some comfort to Jane Doe," the attorneys wrote in the suit. "She hoped that UTC's nightmareish Title IX process was finally over. It was not."
Eleven days later, the male student appealed the discipline and requested a hearing.
"Even though no hearing had been provided for seven months, UTC advised Jane Doe that the male student was entitled to one for 'discipline,' invoking the 'Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedure Act," the attorneys argue. "Making matters worse, this hearing was not simply about whether the imposed discipline was too harsh, but it would remove all prior findings and the rape itself would be litigated [anew] with [evidence], depositions, and a trial."
In other words, the state's administrative procedure act trumped Title IX — something the attorneys argue is illegal — and undid all findings made before the act was called into play.
"UTC then reached a form of 'settlement,' not with the rape victim but with the perpetrator," Gilbert and Oliver argued.
That is, the university downgraded its finding to that of a "generalized misconduct" offense after the student agreed to leave the school and stop the administrative court proceedings, they wrote.
"As a result, Jane Doe won under UTC's Title IX procedures, only to watch the findings stripped from her," the attorneys wrote, arguing that UTC used its inexplicably long legal process as justification to avoid drawing it out even longer by exonerating the alleged perpetrator in order to put the issue to bed.
By August, the university updated its Title IX policies, the lawyers note.
Now, victims and the accused are given access to the evidence, are appointed a "hearing officer" and have an appeal option on limited grounds, according to the lawsuit. As a result, the administrative procedure act no longer applies to Title IX cases.
But in cases that took place before Aug. 14, as in Doe's case, the former policy still applies.
"My life has been a continuing hell because of UTC's delays and excuses on a rape with a confession," the woman wrote in her response to the Title IX coordinator. "I hope this never happens to any other female."