Cannon v. University of Chicago

Cannon v. University of Chicago (1979) stands out as the first case in which the U.S. Supreme Court recognized an implied cause of action for monetary damages under Section 901 of the Education Amendments of 1972, more commonly referred to as Title IX, in response to discrimination based on sex. The Court’s judgment in Cannon paved the way for the subsequent application of Title IX in a wide array of cases involving gender equity for students in the world of higher education.

Facts of the Case

In 1975, Geraldine Cannon, a 39-year-old female, applied for but was denied admission to two private medical schools in Illinois, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Both medical schools, which were recipients of federal financial assistance, had formal policies of not admitting candidates who were over the age of 30 unless they had already earned advanced degrees. In addition, Northwestern University had a policy of denying applicants who were over 35 years of age. When Cannon learned that the admissions policies were more difficult for persons over 30 years of age than for younger, traditional candidates, she claimed they were more likely to be discriminatory against women, whose educations were typically more interrupted than those of men. She filed a legal complaint with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare alleging that university officials engaged in sex discrimination in violation of Title IX. Cannon’s primary legal argument against the admission policies was that women often need to interrupt their studies in higher education to give birth and raise families, which increases the percentage of female applicants over the age of 30 when compared to their male counterparts in the same age category.

Three months later, Cannon unsuccessfully filed suit in a federal trial court in Illinois against both universities alleging that the schools discriminated against her on the basis of sex in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and Title IX; in a distinction worth noting, when addressing the rights of employees and gender equity, cases are filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a statute that is beyond the scope of this entry. The court dismissed the complaint for failure to allege purposeful discrimination and granted the universities’ motions to dismiss the complaint, because Title IX did not expressly authorize or properly imply a private right of action for alleged victims of sex discrimination.

Shortly after the Seventh Circuit affirmed in favor of the defendants, Congress passed the Civil Rights Attorney’s Fee Awards Act of 1976, which authorized the awarding of fees to prevailing private parties in suits seeking to enforce Title IX. After having granted a rehearing, the Seventh Circuit again affirmed that even in light of the new statute, the 1976 act did not intend to create a remedy that did not previously exist.

Undaunted, Cannon appealed the dismissal of her claims to the Supreme Court. In so doing, she challenged the dismissal of her claims in asserting that Congress had acted in light of similar language in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under which the Supreme Court had ruled that the act implied a private remedy was available and that Congress allowed awards of attorney fees for successful claimants in such disputes.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The primary issue before the Supreme Court in Cannon was whether Congress intended a private remedy to be implied from Title IX for institutions that were recipients of federal financial assistance. Reversing in favor of the plaintiff, the Supreme Court relied on the similarity between Title VI and Title IX in finding that an implied private right of action did exist pursuant to Title IX. In reaching its decision, the Court found it necessary to rely on the four-part test that it had enunciated in Cort v. Ash (1975), a case that addressed corporate expenses in connection with federal election campaigns when a statute is silent or unclear about private remedies.

In Cannon, the Supreme Court held that in evaluating whether Congress meant for a law to be enforceable privately or individually, all four of the Cort factors applied in granting her an implied right of action. The four-part test first addresses whether a plaintiff is a member of a special class for whose benefit a statute was enacted. Second, the test examines whether a statute’s legislative history supports the intent to create or deny private rights of action. Third, the test reviews whether a private remedy frustrates or furthers the underlying purpose of the legislation. Fourth, the test considers whether a right basically involves an area of concern to the states. Having reviewed the four-part test, the Court determined that because all of its elements applied to the plaintiff, it was unnecessary to weigh the factors insofar as all of them supported the same result. The Court thus concluded that it had no choice but to reverse the Seventh Circuit’s judgment in determining that Cannon could proceed with her private claim against the universities. As such, the Court remanded the dispute for further proceedings consistent with its opinion, thereby opening the door for later litigation under Title IX aimed at eradicating discrimination on the basis of sex in higher education and beyond.

Darlene Y. Bruner

Legal Citations

  • Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677 (1979).
  • Civil Rights Act of 1871, Section 1983, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • Civil Rights Attorney’s Fees Awards Act of 1976, Pub. L. No. 94-559.
  • Cort v. Ash, 422 U. S. 66 (1975).
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.