The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which exercises federal jurisdiction over Michigan and a handful of nearby states, recently decided that schools receiving federal funds are not subject to Title IX liability under a “cat’s paw” theory. In Bose v Bea, a student was expelled from Rhodes College (Tennessee) for cheating on tests and quizzes. During the hearings related to her expulsion, she accused the reporting professor of sexual harassment and alleged that he had attempted to have her expelled for cheating because she had rejected his sexual advances. Rhodes upheld her expulsion and Bose filed a Title IX action.
Bose’s Title IX claim proceeded under a “cat’s paw” theory of liability. A “cat’s paw” is a situation in which a malicious actor, without decision‑making authority, uses a decision‑maker as a “dupe” to deliberately trigger a discriminatory action against a victim. The cat’s paw is a valid theory in several areas of the law – FMLA discrimination claims, Title VII race discrimination claims, ADEA age discrimination claims, etc. The question before the Sixth Circuit was whether a cat’s paw theory could be valid for Title IX claims.
The Sixth Circuit held that Title IX does not permit a cat’s paw theory of liability. It reasoned that while other statutes allow for employers and their agents to trigger liability under those schemes, Title IX only imposes liability against schools through the schools’ own official actions. In other words, Title IX actions cannot proceed unless someone with decision‑making authority at the school violated Title IX. In Bose, the professor was the only individual alleged to have acted with discriminatory intent against the students, and he did not have authority to expel her. Consequently, the court dismissed the student’s Title IX claim.
The court’s analysis recognized potential disagreement on the topic in other federal circuits. Such cases are more likely than others to be reviewed by the United States Supreme Court, and it is possible the Court will rule on the issue in the coming years. In the meantime, schools and universities in the Sixth Circuit can rest assured that the cat’s paw theory cannot currently be used in Title IX cases.
The decision may be read here.