UPDATES & ANALYSIS

5.06

Drake University did not violate trustee’s rights by removing him from the board, federal appeals court rules

by Rox Laird | May 6, 2020

Drake University did not violate the rights of a former Drake trustee removed from the board after he waged an aggressive campaign in defense of his son, a Drake student accused of sexual misconduct, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled May 4.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in St. Louis, has jurisdiction over federal appellate cases in seven Midwestern states, including Iowa. [Disclaimer: Nyemaster Goode attorneys represented Drake University in this case at the trial and appellate levels.]

Tom Rossley, a Drake alumnus and longtime member of the Drake Board of Trustees, was highly critical of the university’s handling of his son’s sexual harassment case, which ultimately led to his being expelled. Rossley’s efforts included conversations with “literally hundreds of people,” either directly or indirectly, including other trustees, university alumni, administrators and donors.

After Rossley refused to take a leave of absence, the trustees voted to remove him from the board for a conflict of interests between his fiduciary duty to the board and his advocacy for his son. In response, Rossley sued the university in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, claiming, among other things, that his removal from the board was illegal retaliation under Title IX of the Educational Amendments to the Civil Rights Act.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger of Des Moines dismissed Rossley’s claims, and the Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial court in a decision written by Judge Steven Grasz of Nebraska joined by Judges Ralph Erickson of North Dakota and Jonathan Kobes of South Dakota.

Rossley claimed that Drake illegally retaliated against him by removing him from the board, in violation of Title IX’s protection from actions taken “on the basis of sex” if it denies the person benefits of “any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

The court disagreed.

“Rossley invites our court to expand Title IX’s reach such that ‘any advocate has standing to bring a retaliation claim under Title IX, and to establish such a claim a plaintiff need only show that he was retaliated against because he complained of sex discrimination,’ ” Grasz wrote. “Because neither the statutory text nor the precedent supports such an expansion, we affirm the District Court’s dismissal of Rossley’s Title IX retaliation claim for lack of standing.”

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