Courtesy of Ian Christmann

In the most recent development in Engender’s lawsuit against the University and nine fraternities for alleged gender discrimination, lawyers representing the student group challenged the University in court last week following Yale’s motion to dismiss the suit.

The federal class-action complaint — originally filed in February by Anna McNeil ’20, Ry Walker ’20 and Ellie Singer ’21 — argued that male-only fraternities should “gender-integrate.” In the suit, the complainants accused Yale and nine of its fraternities of allegedly discriminating on the basis of gender and of fostering a sexually hostile environment. In May, just three months after the original complaint, Engender — a student group that advocates for gender integration in campus social spaces like fraternities — also became a plaintiff on the lawsuit. In June, the defendants — Yale, nine fraternities and the housing corporations for 340 Elm St. and 402 Crown St. — filed a total of four motions to dismiss the complaint. Engender’s attorneys filed four oppositions to these motions in July, which were heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on Tuesday, Oct. 15.

“The hearing gave us our first opportunity to argue that our claims are legally valid,” wrote Gabriel Roy ’21, a member of Engender, in an email to the News. “We should be permitted to move onto the next stage of the case, which would allow us to procure documents and other information from the defendants — including from Yale. This evidence will help prove our claims that Yale has failed to protect its students from gender discrimination.”

Since its founding in the fall of 2016, Engender has pushed Yale fraternities to fully integrate women and nonbinary students. In spring 2017 and 2018, the group contacted several Yale fraternity chapters to request access to the rush process. After these and other efforts proved unsuccessful, McNeil, Walker and Singer filed the February 2019 suit. The plaintiffs claim that the University and its fraternities violate state and federal laws — including Title IX and Connecticut legislation prohibiting gender discrimination in places of public accommodation — and their contracts.

During the hearing, David Tracey ’08, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said that Yale has “breached [its] promises” to its students of not tolerating sexual misconduct and providing a safe environment. He called fraternities “prestigious boys clubs” that are given the responsibility of throwing parties by the University. Tracey and his team claimed that Yale has known for at least a decade that fraternities are a “central locus of sexual misconduct” and that the University has failed to make a substantial effort to change these environments.

As part of the University’s motion to dismiss, Jessica Ellsworth, an appellate litigation partner at Hogan Lovells, argued that Yale is sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ case, but the University has no direct control over fraternities’ off-campus activities.

“Title IX gives the University flexibility,” Ellsworth said during the hearing. “[It] can ensure there is a system in place for dealing with [sexual misconduct].”

In her argument, Ellsworth said that the University has worked to address issues of sexual misconduct through a variety of networks including educational programs coordinated by the Title IX office. She added that the fraternities are independent student groups, and they would not fall under the law’s purview. As such, “monitoring fraternity parties in some way” would be an incorrect application of Title IX, he said.

Still, the plaintiffs argued that Yale’s defense was contradictory. They noted that Yale claimed to have “no direct control” over the fraternities, while simultaneously stating that they have a “long record of responding to complaints of fraternity-related conduct.” According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, this demonstrates that Yale can monitor the fraternities, yet chooses not to.

The plaintiffs also claim gender discrimination in housing, stating that the fraternities are in violation of the Fair Housing Act. McNeil, Walker, Singer and other members of Engender had on at least two separate occasions attempted to become members of and were denied the right to live in local chapter housing for Chi Psi and Alpha Epsilon Pi, they said in their opposition to the motion to dismiss. But the lawyers for the defendants said there is no evidence that the plaintiffs had been denied housing — or had even inquired into housing — associated with fraternities.

“Nineteen years into the 21st century, this Court faces a similar case in which entrenched secular institutions bar their doors to women and deprive them of the important and extensive benefits of membership,” read the plaintiffs’ opposition to the defendant fraternities’ motion to dismiss. “The defendant fraternities — nationwide organizations with tens of thousands of members each — promulgate and rigorously enforce blanket exclusionary policies shutting out all women. Female candidates who would otherwise satisfy the criteria for admission are denied membership in the fraternities. Being a woman is an automatic and fatal disqualifier.”

The nine fraternities implicated in the case are Alpha Epsilon Pi, Alpha Delta Phi, Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Epsilon/Leo, Sigma Chi, Sigma Nu, Sigma Pi Epsilon and Zeta Psi.

Alayna Lee | alayna.lee@yale.edu

Audrey Steinkamp | audrey.steinkamp@yale.edu