Medical Resident Can Sue for Sexual Harassment Under Title IX

By Karen L. Piper

Jane Doe was accepted into the medical residency program at Mercy Catholic Medical Center, which is affiliated with Drexel University’s College of Medicine, in fall 2011.  As required by the residency program, Doe attended morning lectures and afternoon case presentations, attended a mandatory physics class, attended monthly lectures and sat for annual examinations to assess her progress and competence.

Doe complained several times that the director of the residency program sexually harassed her and retaliated against her for complaining about his behavior.  When she complained to Human Resources, she was referred to a psychiatrist.  In April 2013, Doe complained again and again was referred to a psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist told Doe that all of the other residents loved the director and Doe should apologize to him.  Doe did, but the director said it was not sincere.  He recommended that she be terminated from the residency program and she was.

Exactly two years later, in April 2015, Doe sued the Medical Center in federal district court under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by an education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance.  The district court dismissed the case because it considered Doe an employee, and she should have sued under Title VII after filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) reversed.  It agreed that Doe was an employee but ruled she was not limited to Title VII remedies.  Doe also could sue under Title IX because the medical residency program was an education program or activity that received federal financial assistance in the form of Medicare payments.  The Third Circuit reinstated her retaliation and quid pro quo sexual harassment claims because Doe was dismissed from the residency program within two years before she filed suit.  Doe’s hostile environment claim was time-barred because the alleged harassment did not occur within two years before she filed suit. Doe v Mercy Catholic Medical Center (3rd Cir. March 7, 2017).

The Third Circuit’s decision, in this case, is consistent with decisions in the First Circuit, Sixth Circuit (covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) and Fourth Circuit but contrary to decisions in the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, which have ruled that Title VII is a medical resident’s exclusive remedy.  As a result of the split of opinions, this case may be headed to the United State Supreme Court.

This case involved a hospital residency program.  However, the opportunity to sue an employer without exhausting the EEOC’s administrative remedies could be extended to all educational institutions which receive federal financial assistance, e.g., colleges and universities.  For further information, consult an experienced employment attorney, such as the author.

This article was written by Karen L. Piper, who is Secretary of the Board of Detroit SHRM, a member of the Legal Affairs Committee, and a Member of Bodman PLC, which represents employers, only, in Workplace Law. Ms. Piper can be reached at Bodman’s Troy office at (248) 743-6025 or kpiper@bodmanlaw.com. For further information, go to: http://www.bodmanlaw.com/attorneys/karen-l-piper.

Detroit SHRM encourages members to share these articles with others, inside and outside their organization, as long as its name and logo, and the author’s information is included in the re-post of the article. April 2017.