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Sunday July 3rd

Breaking down the lawsuits filed against UNC in 2021

DTH Photo Illustration. UNC has faced many lawsuits during 2021.
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. UNC has faced many lawsuits during 2021.

Over the course of the year, there have been many developments in major lawsuits filed against the University. The cases involving Title IX, the North Carolina Open Meetings Law, the Clean Air Act and affirmative action all received rulings or settlements.

Title IX

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the University’s petition for writ of certiorari in the  DTH Media Corp. v. Folt case. The petition was filed on Sept. 28, 2020, and requested that the ruling for the release of sexual assault records be reviewed. 

DTH Media Corp., along with WRAL, the Charlotte Observer and the Herald Sun, sued the University for the release of the records during the fall 2016. 

In May 2020, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the University had to turn over the disciplinary records for individuals found responsible for rape, sexual assault or sexual misconduct. The records, which were released in August 2020, showed that only 15 students were found in violation of UNC’s sexual assault policy since 2007.

Hugh Stevens, a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that since the Supreme Court denied the petition, there is nothing the University could do to make the records private again. However, if federal Title IX law changes in the future, it could impact if the records remain public.

“Under our public records law for the foreseeable future, the names and the punishments that were administered to people for sexual assault or sexual offenses are public, and I don’t see that changing under our law,” Stevens said. “The problem of course is the federal law can always change, and so we always have to be alert to the possibility that they will say those outcomes are not public, so I think everybody just kind of has to keep their eye on the ball.”

Open Meetings Law

In February, DTH Media Corp. settled its lawsuit against the UNC System over allegations of violating North Carolina Open Meetings Law when deciding on the Silent Sam settlement. 

DTH Media Corp. filed the suit in January 2020 after five members of the Board of Governors signed an op-ed that appeared in the News & Observer and brought into question if the settlements between the BOG and the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans involving Silent Sam were conducted in accordance with state Open Meetings Law.

As part of the settlement agreement, the UNC System agreed to give $74,999 to UNC-Chapel Hill for the chancellor to put toward racial equity initiatives on campus, provide a written summary of how the Nov. 21, 2019 agreement with the N.C. Sons of the Confederate Veterans was reached and submit a deposition answering questions related to the details of the News & Observer op-ed that announced the settlement. 

In exchange, DTH Media Corp. agreed to dismiss its lawsuit. 

The complaint filed by the DTH alleged that the members of the BOG who were negotiating agreements with the SCV were a “public body” — which meant they were required to conduct public meetings, give public notice and keep minutes, which they had not been doing.

Clean Air Act

On Aug. 30, the Middle District of North Carolina ruled in favor of UNC in a Clean Air Act lawsuit and dismissed the allegations that the coal-fired combustion broilers part of the University’s coal plant — also known as the Cogeneration Facility — were not in compliance with federal law. The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. 

In October 2020 a judge denied the University’s motion to dismiss nine of the 10 allegations in the lawsuit. The claims alleged that UNC had air-permit violations regarding pollution control, pollution monitoring and noncompliance reporting requirements. 

University Spokesperson Pace Sagester said in an email that the University is pleased with the Aug. 30 ruling in favor of UNC and believes that the Cogeneration Facility operates in compliance with the Title V permit. 

“The University is committed to reducing our environmental footprint and advancing sustainability on campus and in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community,” Sagester said.

Affirmative action

On Oct. 18, the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled in favor of UNC continuing to use affirmative action as a part of its admissions process. The suit was filed by Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit membership group.

SFFA’s federal lawsuit claimed that UNC had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

On Nov. 11, SFFA filed a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Edward Blum, president of SFFA, said in an email that he still has hope that the Supreme Court will rule in SFFA’s favor. 

“While our members were disappointed with the loss of our lawsuit at the district court, we were not without hope that, eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court will end the use of race and ethnicity in the admissions process at all American colleges and universities,” Blum said. 

Beth Keith, associate vice chancellor of University Communications said in an email statement that the Nov. 18 decision made clear that UNC uses a holistic and lawful approach to admissions. 

“We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive,” Keith said. 


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