Cannon v. University of Chicago

At issue in Cannon v. University of Chicago was whether a private right of action existed under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in a suit where a woman claimed that she was denied admission to a medical school on the basis of her sex. The 1979 case of Cannon is important, because in ruling for the woman, the Court firmly established the methodology for evaluating whether a private right of action exists in a remedial federal statute such as Title IX.

The petitioner in Cannon was a woman who unsuccessfully filed suit alleging that she was discriminated against on the basis of sex, in violation of Title IX, when she was denied admission to two medical schools. After a federal trial court in Illinois dismissed the woman’s claim, the Seventh Circuit affirmed in favor of the university on the ground that she lacked a private right of action under Title IX.

On further review, the Supreme Court reversed in favor of the woman. In an opinion written by Justice Stevens, the Court addressed the question of whether Title IX contains an implied right of action that allows private litigants to bring claims of sex discrimination in federal court, rather than having to depend on the federal government to intervene on their behalf. The Court held that while Title IX does not expressly provide a private right of action, it implies such a right for individuals who file suit against educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance when such individuals believe they have been discriminated against on the basis of gender.

In its analysis, the Supreme Court employed its own precedent as contained in the four-part test from Cort v. Ash (1975) to determine whether Title IX provides, by implication, a private right of action. This four-part test asks (1) whether the statute was enacted for the benefit of a special class and whether the plaintiff was a member of that class; (2) whether the law’s legislative history indicates a legislative intent, explicit or implicit, either to create or to deny such a remedy; (3) whether the recognition of an implied private right of action is consistent with the underlying purpose of the legislation; and (4) whether the cause of action is one that is traditionally relegated to state law, in an area of basic concern to the states, such that it would be inappropriate to infer a cause of action based only on federal law.

On the first of the four Cort questions, the Supreme Court noted that Title IX was written with “an unmistakable focus on the benefited class” (p. 691). Consequently, the Court was convinced that Title IX explicitly conferred a benefit upon persons discriminated against on the basis of sex and that the petitioner was clearly a member of the class for whose special benefit Title IX was enacted.

Turning to the second question, with regard to the legislative history of Title IX, the Supreme Court found that Title IX had been patterned after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the Court, while both statutes include mechanisms for terminating federal funding for institutions that engage in prohibited discrimination, neither explicitly provides for a private right of action. However, the Court pointed out that when Title IX was enacted in 1972, a private right of action had already been construed for Title VI, and Congress did nothing to alter this interpretation. At the same time, the Court acknowledged that there was express language in the Education Amendments of 1972 authorizing federal courts to award attorney’s fees to prevailing parties, other than the federal government, in private actions brought against public and private educational institutions to enforce Title IX. To this end, the Court interpreted congressional intent as demonstrating the assumption that Title VI provided a private right of action and that it did nothing to alter this interpretation in enacting Title IX.

As to the third question, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that Title IX had two express purposes: to avoid using federal funds to support discriminatory practices and to provide individual citizens with effective protection against those practices. As such, the Court decided that a private remedy did not thwart these purposes.

On the fourth question, the Court observed that because the federal government and courts have the primary duty to protect citizens against discrimination, the case should have been permitted to proceed. The Court thus concluded that an implied right of action existed under Title IX to seek redress for discrimination based on gender.

Cannon is noteworthy insofar as it established that a private right of action exists for individuals who believe they have been discriminated against under Title IX, thereby opening the door for monetary damages under Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992), a case wherein the Court reasoned that a female student could file suit under Title IX after she was sexually harassed by a male high school teacher.

David L. Dagley

See also Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools; Title IX and Sexual Harassment

Legal Citations