Cloud 9

The 3d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may have expanded the mechanisms available for individuals who plan to bring claims of sexual harassment or discrimination against an employer that conducts educational programs or activities, specifically including private teaching hospitals.

Recently, the Third Circuit found that a private teaching hospital could be held liable – under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments  (“Title IX”) – to a female medical resident who claimed sexual harassment by the director of her radiology program. Doe v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center, 2017 BL 69883, 3d Cir., No. 16-1247, March 7, 2017.

Employers know that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”) prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of sex. Under Title VII, an individual must first undertake and complete administrative prerequisites before filing a lawsuit. Fewer employers understand that under Title IX, an education “program or activity” that receives federal funds cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. Further, there are no administrative prerequisites to a lawsuit filed under Title IX.

Medical residency education programs, during which physicians prepare for independent practice after graduating from medical school, are expensive. The federal government funds direct and indirect graduate medical education payments through Medicare thereby, arguably, bringing those entities within the realm of Title IX protections for employees.

Jane Doe joined the diagnostic radiology residency program of Mercy Catholic Medical Center in 2011 as a second year resident. Doe took classes at the associated university (Drexel), attended lectures, and sat for exams to assess her competency. During her residency, Doe was approached by the director of the residency program, who told Doe he was attracted to her and wished to pursue a sexual relationship. When Does rebuffed the advances, the director allegedly gave unwarranted poor reviews of her performance and downplayed her abilities to other faculty members.

Doe ultimately was dismissed from the residency program and filed a federal court lawsuit under Title IX. The Title IX claims were dismissed by the lower court; the court held that Mercy was not an “education program or activity” and that Doe couldn’t use Title IX to circumvent Title VII’s requirement to file an administrative charge with the EEOC prior to a lawsuit. The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal, allowing Doe’s case to move forward, and holding that Title IX applied to Doe’s claims.

The Third Circuit specifically found that the residency program was an “education program or activity” because the program was affiliated with Drexel’s College of Medicine, and because Doe was required to learn and train under faculty members. The Court also held that the requirement regarding federal funding should be determined by looking at the entity as a whole, rather than at one specific program. Therefore, the fact that Mercy’s Medical Center received Medicare payments brought its radiology program under Title IX’s purview.

This case is important to employers who:

  • Deal with individuals in joint student-employees roles (similar to the resident in this case);
  • Have joint educational and business purposes (such as the teaching hospital here or, arguably, an on-the-job training center);
  • Participate in governmental programs, while simultaneously providing educational or training opportunities (for example, a pharmaceutical company that conducts research funded by federal grants, and at the same time provides training or education to its participants).

While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows an employee to claim discrimination and/or harassment under that statute, it does not preclude the filings of those claims under other laws. Importantly, the Third Circuit pointed out that the mere fact that an individual is an “employee” does not limit that person’s claims to Title VII – allowing individuals in positions similar to Jane Doe in this case two options for legal action.

Most education-related entities (primarily colleges and universities) understand that they are obligated to comply with Title IX. But this Third Circuit decision may lead to an expansion of the use of that statute in gender discrimination/harassment cases, should other federal circuits follow this Court’s lead. Employers who may fall within the parameters set forth in this case – even tangentially – should recognize that Title IX also includes requirements such as the appointment of a Title IX coordinator, and the structuring of an internal grievance procedure. It would be wise for such institutions to review the criteria used by the Third Circuit to determine that the program in this case was subject to Title IX.

 

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