The District Court of Connecticut chose to dismiss all but one count of Engender’s lawsuit against the University and nine fraternities alleging gender discrimination on Jan. 30 — a ruling made on the grounds that these claims “lack a strong basis in law.”
The court stated that the plaintiffs — Anna McNeil ’20, Ry Walker ’20 and Ellie Singer ’21 — could not prove that the University had exercised “deliberate indifference” to known acts of harassment. Now, the sole remaining count is a Title IX complaint relating to McNeil’s original allegations of sexual assault at fraternity parties in 2016. But the other eight counts, including a federal Fair Housing Act claim as well as discrimination in places of public accommodation, were dismissed last Thursday. According to McNeil, Walker and Singer, Engender — a student group that advocates for gender integration in campus social spaces — is now assessing its future options.
“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision on the motions to dismiss and are evaluating our next steps,” the three plaintiffs wrote in a joint email to the News. “Regardless of the Court’s decision, Engender will continue its efforts to promote equity and inclusion at Yale.”
The federal class-action complaint, originally filed last February by the three Yale undergraduates, argued that male-only fraternities should “gender-integrate.” In the suit, the plaintiffs accused Yale, a group of fraternities and housing corporations for 340 Elm St. and 402 Crown St. — companies renting properties to Chi Psi and Alpha Epsilon Pi — of gender discrimination and subjection of students to a sexually hostile environment. In May, just three months after the original complaint, Engender also became a plaintiff of the lawsuit. In June, the defendants filed a total of four motions to dismiss the complaint. The next month, Engender’s attorneys filed four oppositions to these motions, which were heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in October.
The filing came amidst nationwide activism regarding Greek life and single-gender spaces. In Massachusetts, an ongoing lawsuit alleges that a Harvard University policy banning members of single-gender campus groups from certain privileges — such as holding campus leadership positions — is discriminatory. In January, a court denied Harvard’s motion to dismiss the suit.
Engender — of which each plaintiff is a co-director — has pushed for Yale fraternities to fully integrate women and nonbinary students since its founding in 2016. After the members’ efforts to rush several Yale fraternity chapters proved unsuccessful in 2017 and 2018, McNeil, Walker and Singer sought legal action.
According to the original lawsuit, Yale’s fraternity culture is “hostile and aggressive” towards women, who are “routinely and openly harassed and assaulted” in these spaces. But throughout the case, Yale’s defense argued that the University plays no formal role in the management of fraternities. It was on these same grounds that the court granted Yale’s motion to dismiss the majority of the counts.
“Here, the alleged misconduct took place off-campus and outside of school hours, in space and time not definitively under Yale’s control,” the ruling and order on motions to dismiss read. “Indeed, the parties here are not school-sponsored events nor educational programs nor educational activities, and, most importantly, do not receive federal funding.”
As part of the University’s defense, Jessica Ellsworth, appellate litigation partner at Hogan Lovells, argued that while Yale is sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ case, Yale has worked to address sexual misconduct issues through a variety of networks — including educational programs coordinated by the Title IX office.
But at the October hearing, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that Yale is able to monitor the fraternities and chooses not to. They noted that Yale claims “no direct control” over the fraternities, while simultaneously promoting a “long record of responding to complaints of fraternity-related conduct.” David Tracey ’08 — one of the plaintiff’s attorneys — called the fraternities “prestigious boys clubs” to which the University gives the responsibility of throwing parties.
“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.”
According to the court ruling, in order to be entitled to relief in a Title IX claim, the plaintiffs needed to demonstrate Yale’s failure to respond to sexual misconduct allegations. McNeil allegedly reported the assault to her first-year counselor — who failed to report the misconduct, as required by Yale’s policies — so the court deemed her claim the sole count worthy of further investigation.
“Anna McNeil’s factual allegations here in support of her Title IX claim, while limited, plausibly suggest that a Yale official may have been indifferent to the allegedly hostile educational environment she experienced,” the court’s ruling read.
While both Singer and Walker also claimed they were sexually assaulted at fraternity parties, the court ruling noted that they did not claim to have reported the misconduct through established University channels — nor that University officials declined to investigate.
In response to the News’ request for comment, University spokeswoman Karen Peart wrote in an email that the “University does not comment on pending litigation.”
In an email to the News, Senior Associate Dean of Yale College Burgwell Howard wrote that Yale will “continue to support all our students with trainings and counsel around our policies, supports and complaint resolution procedures related to issues of discrimination or harassment.” Aside from “bringing to a close these legal proceedings as they involve the university,” Howard said he is not aware of any other future steps planned by the University.
The North American Interfraternity Conference — a national advocacy group for fraternities — praised the ruling in an email to the News. Judson Horras, president and CEO of the organization, said that all students “should have the right” to join coed or single-sex organizations that add to their college experience.
Still, McNeil, Singer and Walker told the News that despite the case’s result, they will continue Engender’s work.
“We have sought to educate the Yale community, we have organized poster campaigns, we have helped support alternative party spaces, we have been advocates, and we plan to continue doing all of these things,” they wrote.
The nine fraternities implicated in the case were Alpha Epsilon Pi, Alpha Delta Phi, Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Epsilon/LEO, Sigma Chi, Sigma Nu, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Zeta Psi.
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