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Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. University of North Carolina

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 30, 2019



          Loretta C. Biggs, United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”) initiated this action against Defendants (collectively, the “University” or “UNC”), alleging that the University's use of race in its undergraduate admissions process violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq. (“Title VI”). (ECF No. 1 at 2.) Before the Court are: (i) Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 152); (ii) SFFA's Motion for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 158); and (iii) Plaintiff's Motion to File Under Seal Pursuant to Local Rule 5.4(c), (ECF No. 170). For the reasons set forth below, the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment will be denied and the motion to seal will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Parties

         SFFA is a nonprofit corporation which states that its purpose is “to defend human and civil rights secured by law, including the right of individuals to equal protection under the law, through litigation and any other lawful means.” (ECF No. 163-1 at 9.) SFFA's membership is comprised of over 22, 000 members, including, among others, applicants who have applied for and were denied admission to UNC. (See Id. at 9-10; ECF No. 113-9 at 2; ECF Nos. 114-5, 114-6.)

         Founded in 1789, UNC is “the nation's first public university.” (ECF No. 154-1 ¶ 16; ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 7; see ECF No. 163-2 at 2.) As a public university, UNC “receives a portion of its funding from the State of North Carolina and enrolls students who receive financial assistance from the Federal Government.” (ECF No. 30 at 19.) UNC states that its “mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders.” (ECF No. 154-32 at 2.) According to the University, its “experience has shown that [it] cannot achieve this mission without enrolling a broadly diverse student body where everyone feels empowered to be, speak, and act as unique individuals.” (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 10.)

         B. UNC's Admissions Process

         UNC's undergraduate admissions policy is “broadly set by the Board of Trustees, ” which, in turn, has “delegated authority over the establishment of policies and procedures for undergraduate admission to the University's [Faculty] Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions [(the ‘Advisory Committee')].” (ECF No. 154-4 ¶¶ 15-16; ECF No. 155-4 at 4.)

         On September 5, 2007, the Advisory Committee adopted a “Statement on the Evaluation of Candidates for Admissions” which states, in part, as follows:

Just as there is no formula for admission, there is no list of qualities or characteristics that every applicant must present.
In shaping the [entering] class, we evaluate individual candidates rigorously, holistically, and sympathetically. We seek to assess the ways in which each candidate will likely contribute to the kind of campus community that will enable the University to fulfill its mission. This assessment requires not only that we note the achievements and potential of each applicant but also that we understand the context within which achievements have been realized and potential forged.
These comprehensive and individualized evaluations, taken together, . . . aim to draw together students who will enrich each other's education, strengthen the campus community, contribute to the betterment of society, and help the University achieve its broader mission.

(ECF No. 155-2 at 2.)

         For the class of 2022, UNC received approximately 43, 500 applications for undergraduate admission to a class of approximately 4, 325 students. (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 17; ECF No. 154-7 ¶¶ 15-16.) “To enroll a class of this size, the University offered admission to approximately 9, 500 applicants, resulting in an overall admissions rate of approximately 22 percent.” (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 17; see ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 16.)

         UNC's admission process for first-year applicants consists of two deadlines: (i) “a non-binding[1] early action [application] deadline” of October 15; and (ii) “a non-binding regular decision [application] deadline” of January 15. (ECF No. 154-7 ¶¶ 8-9.) All applicants are required to submit a Common Application which is “an application for undergraduate admission [that] may be used to apply to over 700 colleges.” (Id. ¶ 10.) Though not required, the Common Application offers applicants the option of providing demographic information, “such as gender, race, and ethnicity.” (Id.) In addition to the Common Application, applicants must also submit the following materials: (i) a Common Application essay;[2] (ii) two short answers (consisting of 200-250 words) to prompted questions posed by UNC; (iii) “standardized test scores from either the SAT or the ACT”; (iv) a recommendation letter from at least one teacher who taught the applicant in a core academic subject; and (v) for applicants claiming North Carolina residency, a residency verification. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 14.) In addition, a counselor from the applicant's school is required to submit the applicant's official high school transcript, as well as a secondary school statement.[3] (Id. ¶ 12.) Although not required, applicants may submit additional information for consideration including “additional letters of recommendation, resumes, artwork, music samples, or disability-related documentation.” (Id. ¶ 13.)

         UNC's Office of Undergraduate Admissions “has a staff of approximately 120 full-and part-time individuals.” (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 5.) Each application submitted to UNC is “read in its entirety by at least one” of approximately 40 individuals-referred to as “application readers” or “readers”-consisting of both full time admissions office staff members and seasonal employees.[4] (Id. ¶ 20; ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 17.) “All readers undergo annual training” by UNC's admissions office staff and they “receive an up-to-date version of the University's admissions policy document, known as the Reading Document.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶¶ 20, 22; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 21; ECF No. 155-4.) According to UNC, readers are instructed “to consider each applicant as an individual based on all relevant factors revealed in his or her application in order to understand the candidate holistically and comprehensively.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 24; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 22.) Also according to UNC, readers are trained to consider “an applicant's self-disclosed race or ethnicity . . . as one factor among many based on a holistic review of all circumstances relevant to an individual applicant.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 25.) During the application review and evaluation process, readers continue to receive training and feedback. (Id. ¶ 26.)

         During the evaluation process, readers are tasked with assessing each applicant using “more than forty criteria, ” grouped roughly into the following eight categories:

(i) academic program;
(ii) academic performance;
(iii) standardized testing;
(iv) extracurricular activity;
(v) special talent;
(vi) essay;
(vii) background; and
(viii) personal attributes.

(ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 23; ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 31; ECF No. 155-4 at 7-8.) “Though readers consider a candidate's attributes and experiences across all of the [above] eight broad categories[, ] . . . they assign scores for only five of them: academic program, academic performance, extracurricular activity, essays, and personal qualities.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 32.) The remaining categories are considered “when assessing the candidate as a whole in the context of the entire applicant pool, but [UNC] do[es] not assign numerical scores for these elements.” (Id.) With respect to a candidate's race or ethnicity, should a candidate choose to disclose this information on the application, it “may be considered at any stage of the evaluation process . . . within the context of an individual candidate.” (Id. at ¶ 42; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 24; ECF No. 155-4 at 8.) In addition, “[r]eaders are . . . trained to consider the socioeconomic circumstances of the applicant during the evaluation.”[5] (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 26.)

         Since 2014, UNC has divided its readers into two tiers-Tier 1 readers who “exclusively conduct initial evaluations of applications” and Tier 2 readers who “primarily conduct secondary evaluations of applications.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 43.) Once received, applications are randomly assigned to Tier 1 readers who “will read [each] application in its entirety, assess the applicant across all the specified categories, and assign ratings for the five scored categories.” (Id. ¶ 44; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 27.) Then, the Tier 1 reader will either: (i) request a second read of an application; or (ii) recommend that the candidate be admitted or denied admission and provide a comment to support or explain the recommendation. (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 44; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶¶ 27-28.) “Tier 1 readers may also choose to waitlist an early action applicant.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 44.) “Depending on the candidate's residency and the Tier 1 reader's recommended decision, the reader may forward the application for a Tier 2 reader's review or the Tier 1 reader's decision may become provisionally final.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 45.)

         Tier 2 readers are comprised of “experienced Admissions staff and experienced seasonal reviewers, ” and they are responsible for “read[ing] applications requiring secondary review.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 46; see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 28.) Upon reading each application “in its entirety, ” Tier 2 readers “make independent assessments of the candidate across all the specified categories.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 46.) The Tier 2 reader will then input his or her own recommendation that a candidate be admitted, denied, or waitlisted. (Id.) “The Tier 2 reader's recommended decision then becomes the provisionally final decision for that application.” (Id.) “Typically, Tier 1 and Tier 2 readers complete their review of applications three to four weeks prior to the release of admissions decisions for that particular admissions cycle.” (Id. ¶ 47.)

         Next, “over the three-week period prior to [UNC's] release of [final] admissions decisions to applicants, ” each provisional decision made by Tier 1 and Tier 2 readers is subjected to another review, known as a School Group Review (“SGR”). (Id. ¶ 49 (citing ECF No. 156-12); see ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 31.) A yield assessment projection is prepared to predict the “number of spaces in the entering class that students who have been provisionally selected for admission are likely to fill.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 51.) “Based on [this] predicted enrollment, [during the SGR process, UNC] may adjust the number of applicants who will receive an offer of admission.” (Id.) According to UNC, the goals of the SGR are: (1) to “allow[ ] the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to . . . avoid over- or under-enrollment [by] adjusting] up or down the total number of students provisionally designated for admission”; and (2) to “serve[ ] as a quality-control measure.” (Id. ¶ 50; ECF No. 156-12 at 2.) The SGR review process is also used to “ensur[e] a correct proportion of in- and out-of-state applicants.”[6] (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 55.)

         During the SGR process,

[e]ach SGR committee member[7] receives an assigned group of high schools to review Reports generated for each high school from which an applicant applied for admission to the University facilitate this review. These reports include which admissions cycle each applicant applied under, as well as each applicant's provisional admission decision, class rank, grade point average, test scores, admissions ratings, residency status, legacy status, first-generation college status, recruited student-athlete status, and beginning in 2018, fee waiver status. These reports do not include a candidate's race or ethnicity.
SGR committee members review these reports and make an initial determination regarding whether the listed factors, when viewed in their totality, appear consistent with the provisional admissions decision for each candidate. If the reviewer identifies an inconsistent decision, the reader will re-review the underlying application for admission and determine whether the decision should be changed.

(ECF No. 154-7 ¶¶ 53-54; see ECF No. 156-12 at 2.) Upon completion of the SGR process, “the yield assessment projections are updated to ensure the targeted numbers of in-state and out-of-state admit[tees] have been reached. This is typically completed at least two days before [UNC] release[s] final decisions to allow time for any additional required adjustments.” (ECF No. 154-7 ¶ 56.) Admission decisions are then released to each applicant. (ECF No. 154-4 ¶ 36.) “Candidates admitted to the University have until May 1 to accept their place in the incoming class . . . [whereas] [a]pplicants who are denied admission may appeal their admissions decisions.” (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.)[8]

         C. Procedural History

         SFFA initiated the instant action on November 17, 2014 alleging that UNC “has intentionally discriminated against certain of Plaintiff's members on the basis of their race, color, or ethnicity in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and [federal law]” by: (i) “employing an undergraduate admissions policy that does not merely use race as a ‘plus' factor in admissions decisions in order to achieve student body diversity”; (ii) “employing racial preferences in undergraduate admissions when there are available race-neutral alternatives capable of achieving student body diversity”; and (iii) “employing an undergraduate admissions policy that uses race as a factor in admissions.” (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 198, 205, 215.)

         On October 25, 2017, UNC moved to dismiss SFFA's Complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), for lack of standing to sue. (ECF No. 106.) On September 29, 2018, this Court entered a Memorandum Opinion and Order denying the motion to dismiss.[9] (ECF No. 150.) Each party has filed cross-motions for summary judgment[10] on each of SFFA's claims, (ECF Nos. 152, 158), and SFFA has filed a motion to seal certain documents submitted in connection with the pending summary judgment motions, (ECF No. 170). The Court will first address the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.


         Summary judgment is appropriate when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is “genuine” if the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law if the nonmoving party “fail[s] to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case.” Celotex Corp. ...

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