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Case Name Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard ED-MA-0002
Docket / Court 1:14-cv-14176-DJC ( D. Mass. )
State/Territory Massachusetts
Case Type(s) Education
Case Summary
On November 17, 2014, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000d against Harvard College. The plaintiff, represented by private counsel, asked the court for declaratory ... read more >
On November 17, 2014, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000d against Harvard College. The plaintiff, represented by private counsel, asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief to prohibit the consideration of race in college admissions, claiming that Harvard's admissions policy discriminated against Asian American applicants.

Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that Harvard's admissions policy held Asian American students to a higher standard based on their race and intentionally limited the number of Asian Americans admitted each year. Moreover, the plaintiff claimed that Harvard generally considered race to an impermissible degree in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of The Civil Rights Act by engaging in a prohibited form of racial balancing, not limiting its consideration of an applicant's race to "merely a plus factor," and not using an available, racially neutral alternative that would achieve the same goals of diversity.

As evidence of this, the plaintiff pointed to admissions data that showed a disparity between acceptance for Asian American students at Harvard and at other schools—for example, the University of California, which does not employ racial considerations in its admissions process. Additionally, the plaintiff pointed to the stagnant acceptance rates for Asian American students, despite increases in application rates and qualifications of Asian American applicants. According to the plaintiff, this was evidence of a policy indistinguishable from racially based quotas for admissions. The plaintiff also pointed to Harvard's long history of admissions discrimination, which suggested that their current policy had similar aims.

After Harvard denied the allegations, the two parties proceeded with discovery. Other proposed defendant intervenors, including nine potential Harvard minority applicants and five current Harvard minority students, moved to intervene in the lawsuit in defense of Harvard's admissions policy on April 29, 2015. Judge Allison D. Burroughs denied their motion to intervene on June 15, 2015. 91 Fed. R. Serv. 3d 1962. The proposed defendant-intervenors appealed this decision on July 13, 2015. Judge Burroughs ruled that the nine potential Harvard minority applicants did not have a direct, protectable interest in the lawsuit since none of them had yet submitted a pending application, therefore making their interests too removed and speculative to justify intervention. As for the current Harvard students, Judge Burroughs ruled that, because these students had already been admitted and were enrolled at Harvard, they no longer had a remaining interest in Harvard's use of race in its admissions policies. Though the students claimed that they had a personal interest in Harvard continuing to have a racially diverse student body, the judge held that this was not a significantly protectable interest to justify intervention.

On July 6, 2015, Harvard moved to stay the proceeding pending the Supreme Court's resolution of Fisher v. University of Texas. On August 5, 2015, the proposed defendant-intervenors also moved to stay the proceeding pending their appeal to the First Circuit on whether they were rightful intervenors in the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the two parties disputed over the scope of discovery. On July 16, 2017, the plaintiff submitted a motion to compel production of Harvard's admissions files. They claimed that Harvard had agreed to submit a statistically significant sample of their files, which the plaintiff had proposed as 400 completed application files from each of the largest racial categories from each of the past four years, split evenly between admitted and denied. However, Harvard only agreed to produce 160 completed files from the past four years, half of which they proposed to hand pick, claiming that the plaintiff could perform their proposed statistical analysis from the Admissions Office database without the complete application files and that the discovery request was too burdensome. The parties also disputed over whether Harvard should have to produce information connected to its alumni interviewer program and about its use of race in transfer admissions.

On October 9, 2015, Judge Burroughs granted the proposed-defendant-intervenors motion to stay in part and denied it in part. She decided to stay the action until the Court of Appeals decided whether the proposed defendant-intervenors had a right to intervene, but ordered Harvard to continue producing the documents that the original two parties had agreed to during their July 12, 2015 status conference. Specifically, Harvard had to continue producing information pertaining to its admissions policies and procedures, information pertaining to its alumni interviewer program, training manuals, and electronic admissions data from its database from the past two admissions cycles.

On December 9, 2015, the First Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment to deny the proposed defendant-intervenors' motion to intervene. 93 Fed. R. Serv. 3d 792. Subsequently, on March 11, 2016, Judge Burroughs ordered a further partial stay on the action until the resolution of the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas. Some discovery was allowed to continue during the stay, but the parties were barred from taking depositions, requesting information pertaining to alumni interviewers, requesting discovery from third parties, and generally requesting any large scale electronic discovery. However, the parties were allowed to file proposals as to what other additional discovery should go forward during the stay.

The Supreme Court decided Fisher on June 23, 2016, which held that the University of Texas at Austin's undergraduate race-conscious admissions program was lawful under the Equal Protection Clause. Thus, on September 7, 2016, Judge Burroughs issued an order on the parties' scope of discovery going forward. Specifically, she ruled that Harvard should produce comprehensive data from its admissions database from the past six full admissions cycles from 2009–2015 as well as limited admissions data for the 2007–2009 cycles. Harvard did not have to produce information from past alleged discriminatory policies towards Jewish-Americans or about its matriculated students' academic performance-however, it did have to produce information about aggregate graduation data from 2007–2015 and anything pertaining to prior investigations or reports related to Asian American discrimination. Finally, Judge Burroughs limited the plaintiff to 20 depositions, 15 of which could be witnesses from Harvard.

On September 23, 2016, the defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on two of the plaintiff's causes of action as well as a motion to dismiss the lawsuit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Specifically, Harvard argued for judgment on the claims that 1) Harvard violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act because it was not using race merely to fill the last few places in its entering freshman class and 2) that all past Supreme Court decisions upholding the consideration of race in admissions were wrongly decided, and that the Supreme Court should now hold that diversity "is not an interest that could ever justify any consideration of race." On the first count, Harvard claimed that the plaintiff's Title VI violation allegation was not grounded in substantive law, and indeed was contradicted by Supreme Court precedent affirming the use of holistic, individualized review that includes race. On the second count, Harvard claimed that the plaintiff did not have the power to call for overruling Supreme Court precedent. Finally, in its motion to dismiss, Harvard argued that the plaintiff did not have the standing to sue on behalf of its constituents because it lacked the characteristics of a genuine membership organization, such as members having control over leadership, power to influence conduct, and financing or participating in its activities.

On June 2, 2017, Judge Burroughs denied Harvard's motion to dismiss, ruling that the plaintiff was a genuine membership organization with standing to sue on behalf of its constituents. 2017 WL 2407255. However, she granted Harvard's motion for partial judgment on the two counts, ruling that the plaintiff cannot overrule Supreme Court precedent and that its allegation that admissions offices can only use race-conscious admissions for the last few places in its entering class was unsupported by law. 2017 WL 2407254.

Discovery in the case closed on August 4, 2017. On June 15, 2018, the plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that "no rational factfinder could reasonably conclude" that Harvard complies with Title VI because Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian American applicants, engages in racial balancing, and failed to give "good faith" consideration to other workable alternatives to achieve its claimed interest in diversity. That same day, Harvard also filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff lacked standing and that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that Harvard does not discriminate against applicants of any race. On July 24, 2018, Judge Burroughs granted leave for any interested party to file an amicus brief on the pending dispositive motions. Several amicus briefs have been filed. Multiple universities (Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Princeton, etc.), the American Council on Education, and the American Civil Liberties, among others, filed amici briefs in support of defendants. The United States, among others, filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiff. On September 28, 2018, after several interested non-parties appeared as amici regarding the summary judgment motions, Judge Burroughs denied the cross-motions for summary judgment on all counts without prejudice to the parties reasserting their arguments at trial. 346 F. Supp. 3d 174.

The case proceeded to trial. A fifteen-day bench trial took place from October 15 to November 2, 2018.

On September 30, 2019 and in a 130-page findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court held that Harvard's race-conscious admissions process was fair and does not discriminate against Asian American applicants. The court detailed the importance of diversity in educational settings and that ensuring diversity "relies, in part, on race conscious admissions." This interest was sufficient to provide a compelling interest that could withstand strict scrutiny. The opinion summarized and acknowledged the statistical evidence presented by the parties, and concluded later in its analysis that the program was narrowly tailored to meet that compelling interest without unduly burdening Asian American applicants. On the contrary, the court posited that removing race consideration would significantly burden some Asian American applicants. The court also found that Harvard did not engage in racial balancing, which would constitute an impermissible and unconstitutional quota. The court agreed with Harvard that race-neutral alternatives would not suffice. And though the court acknowledged that Harvard could benefit from implicit bias trainings for its officers or more clear guidelines, statistics alone were not enough to demonstrate that Harvard engaged in intentional discrimination. 397 F. Supp. 3d 126.

The plaintiffs appealed (Docket No. 19-2005). The parties are scheduled to submit briefs to the First Circuit in February 2020. The case is ongoing.

Patrick Branson - 02/03/2015
Sarah Du - 11/13/2017
Lisa Limb - 03/23/2019
Chelsea Rinnig - 01/11/2020


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Defendant-type
College/University
Discrimination-basis
Race discrimination
Plaintiff Type
Private Plaintiff
Race
Asian/Pacific Islander
Causes of Action Title VI, Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq.
Defendant(s) Harvard College
Plaintiff Description Students for Fair Admissions, whose membership includes applicants who have been denied admission, prospective college applicants, parents of applicants and prospective applicants, and other interested parties
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted No
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer No
Nature of Relief None yet
Source of Relief None yet
Filed 2014
Case Ongoing Yes
Case Listing ED-TX-0005 : Students for Fair Admissions v. University of Texas at Austin (State Court)
Additional Resources
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Docket(s)
1:14-cv-14176-DJC (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 12/09/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Complaint [ECF# 1]
ED-MA-0002-0001.pdf | External Link | Detail
Date: 11/17/2014
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum and Order On Proposed Defendant-Intervenors' Motion to Intervene [ECF# 53] (308 F.R.D. 39) (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0002.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 06/15/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 110] (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 10/09/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Opinion [Ct. of App. ECF# 114] (807 F.3d 472)
ED-MA-0002-0004.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 12/09/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum and Order Denying Motion to Dismiss [ECF# 324] (261 F.Supp.3d 99) (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0005.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 06/02/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum and Order Granting Motion For Partial Judgment on the Pleadings [ECF# 325] (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0006.pdf | Detail
Date: 06/02/2017
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Memorandum and Order on Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment [ECF# 566] (346 F.Supp.3d 174) (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0007.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 09/28/2018
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law [ECF# 672] (397 F.Supp.3d 126) (D. Mass.)
ED-MA-0002-0008.pdf | WESTLAW| LEXIS | Detail
Date: 09/30/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
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Judges Burroughs, Allison Dale (D. Mass.) show/hide docs
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Kayatta, William Joseph Jr. (First Circuit) show/hide docs
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Lynch, Sandra Lea (First Circuit) show/hide docs
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Plaintiff's Lawyers Caldwell, Benjamin C. (Rhode Island) show/hide docs
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Connolly, John Michael (Virginia) show/hide docs
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Consovoy, William S. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Fasulo, Meg E. (Colorado) show/hide docs
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Hacker, Katherine L.I. (Colorado) show/hide docs
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Hughes, John M. (Colorado) show/hide docs
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McBride, J Scott (Illinois) show/hide docs
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McCarthy, Thomas R. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Mortara, Adam K. (Illinois) show/hide docs
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Park, Michael Hun (New York) show/hide docs
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Perry, Krista J. (Illinois) show/hide docs
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Sanford, Paul M (Rhode Island) show/hide docs
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Strawbridge, Patrick (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
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Amadi, Brittany (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Conley, Danielle (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Cregor, Matthew M. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
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Culleen, Lawrence (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Dinan, Emma Katherine (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
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Gershengorn, Ara B. (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
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Hall, Rahsaan (Massachusetts) show/hide docs
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