SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Friday struck down a lawsuit challenging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ revised guidelines for handling on campus sexual assault, which opponents say weaken protections for victims.
“Defendants provide evidence that the 2017 guidance is not final agency action because it does not produce legal consequences, and plaintiffs fail to rebut defendants’ evidence,” Corley wrote in her 25-page ruling.
In September 2017, DeVos rescinded two Obama-era sexual assault policies because they “lacked basic elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness.” At the time, DeVos said the prior guidelines failed to give male students accused of sexual assault the proper presumption of innocence, which violated their due process rights.
In January 2018, three victims’ rights groups led by SurvJustice sued in federal court on claims the DeVos policy disproportionately burdened females and was motivated by sexist stereotypes that women frequently lie about sexual assault and harassment.
The groups also accused DeVos and her employees of bad faith, saying they met with advocates for men when crafting the policy while giving short shrift to victims and their advocates.
A former official at the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) signed a sworn declaration stating the Education Department could not bring enforcement actions against schools or deny funding based on their compliance with the 2017 guidance.
The plaintiffs disagreed, noting several schools had already changed their policies to align with the 2017 guidance. They also cited four letters the OCR penned to colleges from 2011 to 2014 alleging violations of the prior sexual assault guidance.
However, Corley found those documents involved “OCR’s compliance review and informal resolution process, not an administrative enforcement action.”
Because the Education Department cannot withhold funds or punish schools for violating the guidance, it is not considered a final agency action that can be challenged under the Administrative Procedure Act, Corley concluded.
For those reasons she denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and issued final judgment in favor of the Education Department.
Plaintiffs included SurvJustice, Equal Rights Advocates and Victim Rights Law Center.
Jennifer Reisch, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, said although she and her clients are disappointed with the ruling, they are pleased the judge found groups representing victims such as her clients have standing to sue over policies that affect sexual assault victims.
Reisch added the decision also preserves her clients’ rights to bring future litigation over related policies.
“By dismissing the case on finality grounds, rather than reaching the merits of plaintiffs’ claims, the court leaves the door open to mount such a challenge in the future, when this administration issues its final rule on Title IX and sexual assault,” Reisch said.
The U.S. Education Department did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.