In Doe v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr., No. 16-1247 (March 7, 2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a private teaching hospital operating a residency program can be held liable under Title IX for sex discrimination.

The plaintiff was a resident in Mercy’s accredited diagnostic radiology residency program, which is affiliated with Drexel University’s College of Medicine.  She claimed that the director of Mercy’s residency program sexually harassed her, and that the harassment interfered with her medical training.  The plaintiff also claimed that after she reported the director’s conduct to the human resources department, the director and other Mercy representatives subjected to her retaliatory behavior that eventually resulted in her dismissal from the program.  The plaintiff filed suit against Mercy alleging, among other things, quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile environment sexual harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title IX. 

The district court granted Mercy’s motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Title IX did not apply to Mercy because it is not an “educational program or activity” under 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).  Even if Title IX did apply, the district court held that the plaintiff could not use Title IX to “circumvent” Title VII’s administrative requirements because Congress intended Title VII as the “exclusive avenue for relief” for employment discrimination.  On appeal, the Third Circuit reversed this decision, concluding that Mercy was subject to Title IX because its medical residency program constituted an education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance as defined by Title IX.  It also held that the plaintiff’s timely Title IX claims were viable notwithstanding Title VII’s concurrent applicability.

Title IX states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The Third Circuit held that the phrase “program or activity” includes programs or activities at a variety of entities, not just educational institutions.  Thus, while Mercy was primarily engaged in the business of healthcare, it could be subject to Title IX if operating an education program or activity.

Next, the Third Circuit considered whether Mercy’s residency program constituted an “education program or activity.”  Some factors the Court considered were whether the program (A) was incrementally structured through a particular course of study or training; (B) allowed participants to earn a degree or diploma, qualify for a certification or certification examination, or pursue a specific occupation or trade beyond mere on-the-job training; (C) provided instructors, examinations, an evaluation process or grades, or accepted tuition; or (D) was held out to be educational in nature by the entities offering, accrediting or otherwise regulating it.

Mercy’s program, as alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint, met this definition.   The plaintiff was enrolled in a multiyear regulated program of study and training where she was required to learn and train under faculty members and physicians, attend lectures and help present case presentations, participate in a physics class on a university campus and sit for annual examinations.  Students who complete the program are eligible to take the American Board of Radiology’s certification examinations, and passing scores permit individuals to practice for six years.  Additionally, Mercy held out its residency programs as educational in nature and the Accreditation Counsel for Graduate Medical Education calls residency programs “structured educational experiences.”

Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims for retaliation and quid pro quo harassment.  The plaintiff’s hostile environment claim, however, was untimely, and thus the Third Circuit affirmed the decision to dismiss this claim.