By Courtney L. Flowers, Ph.D. and Nana K. Asare, J.D.
Robinette Kelley filed a grievance under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. (hereinafter “Title IX”) against Iowa State University (ISU). The Plaintiff served as the Equal Opportunity Director and Title IX Coordinator at ISU from February 4, 2013 to October 14, 2015. In the case, Ms. Kelley alleges she endured racial and gender-based discrimination, which prevented her from fully executing her Title IX duties and responsibilities accordance to the “Dear Colleague Letter.”
The Plaintiff was supervised by Miles Lackey, Associate Vice President & Chief of Staff, who reported directly to then-President Steven Leath.
ISU is a public state-university located in Ames, Story County, Iowa and therefore is bound by Title IX regulations as it receives federal financial assistance under the guidelines of the Educational Amendment.
Dear Colleague Letter
Disseminated by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to institutions receiving federal financial aid, the “Dear Colleague Letter” simplifies the cumbersome language of Title IX. According to the Plaintiff, ISU received a “Dear Colleague Letter” in April 2011, reminding the institution of its legal obligation to designate an employee to carry out the institution’s Title IX responsibilities. However, it was alleged by the Plaintiff that she was not given direct supervision by the President of the University or given authority to coordinate compliance with Title IX as outlined in the April 24, 2015 Dear Colleague Letter.
Moreover, the Plaintiff claimed she was denied access to historical institutional sexual assault and harassment complaints and prohibited from revising the institution’s Title IX investigation process. Hence, providing barriers for the Plaintiff to effectively execute her Title IX coordinator duties as the outlined in the Dear Colleague Letter.
Moreover, the case also claimed that the ISU Equal Opportunity office was not adequately funded, lacked resources, and required Ms. Kelley to serve in numerous roles. Aside from serving as the Title IX coordinator she also served as the affirmative action compliance officer, the Section 504 Coordinator, and the ADA Compliance Officer. In addition, she was also the civil rights investigator and orchestrated all discrimination, harassment, and Title IX training on campus on her own.
The Plaintiff’s Specific Claims
Count I: Title IX Discrimination
Plaintiff Kelley asserts that ISU was instructed by the OCR of the nature of the Title IX Coordinator position and the level of independence, support and authority required of ISU towards the Title IX Coordinator position. Under 34 C.F.R. § 106.8 (a) Title IX Coordinators must be fully vested of their rights under the law. Ms. Kelley asserts that because she was denied by ISU since day one of these rights, her rights under Title IX was summarily violated. In addition, Ms. Kelley asserts that she was not permitted to exercise her independence nor her authority as the Title IX Coordinator over the University’s Title IX complaints, investigations, and outcomes; all of which under the law are all violations of Title IX.
Furthermore, Ms. Kelley asserts that ISU usurped her designated position as the Title IX Coordinator by “watering down” her job duties by creating conflicts of interests in the processing, case management and sanction of student and employee Title IX complaints; all of which are violations under Title IX.
As such, Ms. Kelley asserts that as the direct and proximate cause of ISU’s actions and her subsequent termination, she suffered and continues to suffer lost earnings and benefits, emotional distress, suffering, professional embarrassment, humiliation and loss of enjoyment of life, and inconvenience.
Count II: Title IX Retaliation
Plaintiff Kelley asserts that after she complained verbally and in writing to ISU, ISU did not permit her to exercise her duties as required under Title IX. Instead, she was fired which is a violation under Title IX’s broad antiretaliation provisions where Title IX coordinators are protected from discrimination, intimidation, threats, and coercion for interfering with performance of their job responsibilities.
More specifically, Ms. Kelly asserts that Title IX incorporates by reference the retaliation provision of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and makes it unlawful to retaliate against individuals including Title IX coordinators not only when they file a complaint alleging a violation of Title IX, but also when they participate in Title IX investigations, hearing, or proceedings, or advocate for the rights of others under Title IX rights. Thus, Ms. Kelley had a right to openly and freely participate in the April 2015 OCR investigation interview without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or coercion. However, ISU denied her this right when the university retaliated against her following her decision to challenge the policies and practices that she as the Title IX Coordinator felt denied students’ their rights to equal educational opportunities based on their gender.
Ms. Kelley also asserts that ISU continued to retaliate against her by taking away her decision-making authority and by re-directing complaints away from her office, ignoring her recommendations and denying her ability to perform her job duties which she had been hired to perform regarding Title IX compliance. Then to compound an already complex work environment, ISU unjustifiably terminated her when she spoke up for her rights along with the rights of students and fellow employees.
Count III: Title VII Race and Gender Discrimination
Ms. Kelley, as an African American woman, is protected from race and sex discrimination in her employment pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Plaintiff, cited being denoted as the “face” of the Equal Opportunity office has stipulation of being seen and not heard. Moreover, the Plaintiff claimed her white male colleagues had the authority to properly execute their duties at ISU whereas she was not privy to these same privileges. In addition, the case cited that Ms. Kelley’s colleagues were allowed “to salvage their professional reputations,” after the April 2015 OCR investigation. Therefore, the Plaintiff suffered and continues to suffer from this wrongful termination.
Plaintiff also requests the Court to require ISU to immediately provide a written strategic plan for the Title IX office for reviewing policies and procedures on sex discrimination and to actively participate in the drafting, revision of best practices policies that adhere to Title IX. Furthermore, Plaintiff request the court to require ISU to draft a comprehensive policy providing that all Title IX Coordinators and Deputy Coordinators at ISU be fully vested with independence, authority and support as required under Title IX.
In addition, Plaintiff requests that ISU undergo a historical analysis of sexual assaults and harassment complaints on campus to determine what if any systemic gender-based discrimination violations are occurring on campus and within all student organizations including ISU’s Greek Life and all of ISU’s athletic departments.
Courtney L. Flowers, Ph.D. is a Professor of Sport Management at Texas Southern University. Her scholarship encompasses Title IX, racial and gender inequality in the sport of Golf, and risk management policies and practices of Historically Black Colleges and Universities athletic departments.
Nana K. Asare, J.D. is an Assistant Professor of Health and Kinesiology and Sport Management at Texas Southern University. His scholarship covers a myriad of legal and ethical dilemmas in today’s the sports industries, the resurgence of the athletes and activism, as well as the governance of international sports.