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Newsletter > February 2020 > "Federal Court Dismisses Attack on Single-Sex Membership of Fraternities at Yale"
Federal Court Dismisses Attack on Single-Sex Membership of Fraternities at Yale
Clark Brown, General Counsel, North American Interfraternity Conference
In 2018, several female Yale undergraduates, all members of a student group named Engender, brought claims for discrimination in a place of public accommodation in the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. The Commission released jurisdiction—or dismissed—those claims in early 2019. The Commission determined that there was “no reasonable possibility that investigating the complaint [would] result in a finding of reasonable cause.” That dismissal paved the way for the claimants to pursue their claims in civil court.
In February 2019, the Engender students filed suit in federal district court in Connecticut. In addition to a host of public accommodation claims, they also alleged violations of the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) against various fraternity defendants. The suit also included claims against landlord-type entities, whether the typical fraternity house corporation or some other landlord entity. Finally, the plaintiffs brought several Title IX claims against Yale University.
All defendants filed motions to dismiss. After those motions were fully briefed, the court conducted oral arguments. In a resounding victory for the fraternity industry, the court dismissed every claim against the fraternity entities.
The only claim that survived dismissal was a single Title IX claim by one plaintiff against Yale. The court went to great lengths to point out the “limited nature of this claim,” even noting that “discovery of this claim should be rather limited.”
Though the plaintiffs pursed many claims, the essence of the lawsuit, as stated by both the plaintiffs and by Engender, was an attack on the single-sex membership practices of the fraternities. In fact, Engender’s stated mission is “to advocate for the principles of equity and inclusion within Yale’s community.” Its “first initiative has been to work toward gender integration of Yale’s Greek organizations given their sex-discriminatory nature and disproportionate control over campus social life.”
The dismissal briefing is important reading for the fraternity industry. In dismissing the FHA claims for lack of standing, the court noted that “this is not a housing discrimination problem,” but rather, “[a]t its core, Plaintiffs’ Fair Housing Act claim revolves around the denial of membership by fraternities.” The court determined that the plaintiffs lacked standing because “the alleged denial of housing by the Fraternity Defendants is not linked to a policy regarding housing, which the landlords—not the Fraternity Defendants—control, but rather to the Fraternity Defendants decision not to admit women.” The court noted that no plaintiffs only sought housing as an “incidental benefit” of fraternity membership.
In dismissing the heart of plaintiffs’ claims against fraternities, discrimination in a place of public accommodation, the Court held that the facilities at issue are not places of public accommodation. The court stated that the law requires “more than the conclusory allegations provided by Plaintiffs.” The court observed:
“Plaintiffs do not plead facts that lead to the conclusion that these rental properties are places of public accommodation. They allege no ‘goods’ offered to the general public, nor services. Instead, Plaintiffs point to open invitations from tenants which allegedly transform private properties into places of public accommodation.”
The defendants have now found resounding success at both the state and federal level. The dismissals from the state Commission and the federal court will make pursuing similar claims in other jurisdictions very challenging. As the court stated, all of plaintiffs claims against fraternity entities “lack a strong basis in law,” and attempting to amend their pleadings further would almost certainly be “futile.”