• Third Circuit Endorses Medical Resident Claims
  • August 8, 2017
  • The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently addressed an important question: whether medical residents who allege sexual harassment and retaliation should be treated as employees, students, or both. This is a critical distinction because it determines whether a plaintiff can file a claim under Title VII, or Title IX—each law has different remedies and ramifications for plaintiffs. The court determined medical residents should be treated as both students and employees in this context.

    Case Background
    Mercy Catholic Medical Center in Philadelphia has four accredited medical residency programs. The unnamed plaintiff was enrolled in one of these programs in 2011, during which time she alleges that the director of the residency program sexually harassed her. She complained to Mercy’s Human Resources Department, which allegedly took no action. The woman further claims she was ultimately removed from the program at the Director’s suggestion in retaliation for rejecting his advances.

    The victim filed suit against Mercy under Title IX. The federal district court dismissed her complaint on grounds that Mercy’s residency program was not an “educational program,” and even if it were, she still needed to exhaust her administrative remedies. The court noted that Title VII is the exclusive avenue for relief for employment discrimination claims.

    On appeal, the court considered whether the residency program was an “educational program” under Title IX. The court adopted a decades-old definition used in O’Connor v. Davis, which stated that an educational program is one that has features “such that one could reasonably consider its mission to be, at least in part, educational.” According to the court, the analysis as to whether a residency program is educational is a mixed question of law and fact.

    The court ultimately found that Mercy falls within the parameters of Title IX, noting that the medical center accepts federal Medicare payments to fund its programs. Its residents are enrolled in a regulated program of study and training, which requires students to work closely with faculty, attend lectures, and take annual exams.

    The court found that as the plaintiff was also an employee, she had to bring her claim under Title VII, which requires an exhaustion of administrative remedies before a plaintiff can avail themselves of the judiciary. However, the court further determined that she was not precluded from bringing a private cause of action under Title IX.

    The case set forth a list of factors for courts to examine when determining whether a program is a Title IX “educational program or activity,” and as such, is precedential. However, the Third Circuit’s opinion failed to answer the question regarding whether Title IX plaintiffs have the same rights as those who seek protection under Title VII. This, along with several other questions, remains unclear.

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