Master of Nine

Christy Fargnoli’s past as a Title IX investigator now helps her bring suits against colleges

Published in 2019 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine — May 2019

When Christy Fargnoli was a high school basketball star in Walterboro, Title IX helped her win a scholarship to play point guard at Newberry. It would play an even bigger role in her life once she became a lawyer.

After graduating from Charleston School of Law, she crossed paths with Title IX again—this time in connection with the Obama administration’s reinforcement that the law covers sexual assault and harassment at federally funded colleges and universities. A college required an investigation, and a colleague recommended Fargnoli for her fact-finding skills.

“I had little background or knowledge,” says Fargnoli, 39. “I had to get up to speed and teach myself the parameters.”

Reinforcement of the law came via a “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Fargnoli says. “It instructed thousands of colleges and educational institutions to use the lowest possible standard of proof, which is the preponderance of evidence. The letter also talked about different things universities could and couldn’t do. It gave victims more rights in the process and told universities they needed to have more prompt and thorough investigations.”

Some schools had Title IX investigators on staff, while others outsourced the work. “You have to start with a blank slate, and leave all your own experiences out the door,” she says. “You conduct a thorough, impartial investigation and weigh what you find against the standard of proof.”

Fargnoli shifted completely to plaintiff’s work in 2017, when she and Sam Clawson Jr. opened a boutique firm. She now uses what she learned in her five years as an investigator to represent people who are injured or victims of sexual abuse.

“Any time you have been close to the inner workings of the other side and have a glimpse of what happens behind closed doors, you’re at an advantage,” she says. “When I talk to Title IX investigators on behalf of my clients, I talk from experience. It also gives us a leg up in dealing with the schools.”

The firm generally has two or three Title IX cases at any time, she says. They have represented people with allegations against all the major universities in South Carolina and several in other states.

“When someone comes to us saying they were sexually assaulted, something tragic has obviously happened to them. Every case is different, but they’re all tragic,” she says. “What we do is guide them through it. It sticks with them and takes an emotional toll, and it’s something that affects us as well.”

Campus sexual assault and harassment is pervasive, she says. “This is likely due to increased reporting and awareness on campuses, as well as the #MeToo movement.”

Repercussions are serious. The federal government can fine or pull funding from schools for a Title IX violation. In civil court, institutions can be ordered to pay compensation to victims, and can also face liability for violating the due process rights of the accused. Thus far, Fargnoli says, all Title IX claims she has handled have settled out of court “because the last thing the colleges want is that publicity.”

After her undergrad, Fargnoli helped manage political campaigns for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor before circling back to law. “In politics, you help people on the macro level,” she says. “I wanted to transition to a profession to help on the individual level.”

She adds: “It’s fulfilling to represent young women who unfortunately have been sexually assaulted or harassed, and to use my experience not only to help victims but to help institutions see how they are falling short, and how to fix it.”

 

Campus sexual assault by the numbers

• 23.1% of female and 5.4% of male undergrads have been sexually assaulted

• More than 90% of campus victims never report it

• 27% of college women experienced unwanted sexual contact

Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network; National Sexual Violence Resource Center

 

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