Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. University of South Alabama, No. 1:17-cv-00394 (S.D. Al. Feb. 14, 2020)

School type: Public
State: Alabama
Federal Circuit: Eleventh
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Breach of contract, Cross-examination, Due process, Erroneous outcome, Qualified Immunity, Selective enforcement, Title IX

The court granted in part and denied in part the university’s motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff, who was accused of sexual misconduct (nonconsent due to alcohol consumption) by three women at the university, alleged that his disciplinary proceedings were tainted by numerous irregularities.

He alleged that the Title IX Coordinator, who investigated the complaint, exercised undue influence over the hearing panel who decided his first case, brought by Jane Roe 1 and Jane Roe 2. He was found responsible, ordered not to contact the two women, placed on conduct probation, and banned from university housing. On appeal, the Dean of Students modified his sanction to allow him to live on campus.

Shortly thereafter, a third woman (Jane Roe 3) also accused Plaintiff of sexual misconduct, alleging that she was too drunk to consent to their sexual encounter. He counterclaimed, alleging that she had given him a sexually transmitted disease. This proceeding was again marred by irregularities; although Roe 3 was instructed not to mention the prior Title IX proceedings against Plaintiff, she did so anyway and the hearing proceeded. Plaintiff was found “responsible,” and Roe 3 was found “not responsible.” On appeal, the Dean of Students ordered that Plaintiff be given a new hearing, finding that the impermissible mention of the previous proceedings may have tainted his first proceeding. However, the Dean of Students also ordered that the second proceeding be presided over by the Title IX Coordinator, whom Plaintiff had successfully requested not participate in this proceeding because of her alleged bias during the first proceedings. Plaintiff was found responsible and suspended for a year.

He brought suit alleging due process violations, Title IX violations, and state-law breach of contract and negligence claims.

On Plaintiff’s due process claim, the court emphasized the high degree of deference owed to university disciplinary decisions:

“All that is required by the Due Process Clause, which sets a floor or lower limit on what is constitutionally adequate, is ‘sufficient notice of the charges … and a meaningful opportunity to prepare for the hearing.’ ” … “Education is a university’s first priority; adjudication of student disputes is, at best, a distant second.”

One of Plaintiff’s allegations is that some of the Defendants were impermissibly biased. While the court rejected some of these claims, the court did hold that Plaintiff was entitled to present evidence on his “allegations that indicate there may be a personal relationship between individual defendants and accusers or interested parties.” The court held that

Mere allegations of Facebook relationships or that participants knew each other, without more, do not prove actual bias. However, Plaintiff contends Defendants were actually biased and Plaintiff should have the opportunity to present evidence that such relationships are more than just cordial connections.

Plaintiff also alleged that the university violated his due process rights by relying on witness statements from witnesses who did not appear at the hearing and who Plaintiff did not have the opportunity to cross-examine. The court held that while due process “may require the ability to cross-examine the complainant in school disciplinary hearings where credibility is at issue,” it does not require the ability to cross-examine all witnesses.

The court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the university denied him due process by refusing to turn over evidence about the academic accommodations given to his accusers.

Plaintiff also claimed that the university violated numerous of its own rules, in violation of his due process rights. While the court held that Plaintiff did allege facts suggesting the university had violated its own rules, not all rules violations amount to a denial of due process. The only rule violation that might amount to a denial of due process, the court held, was “the alleged violation of the guarantee of a fair and unbiased proceeding,” which could be relevant to support Plaintiff’s claims of bias.

The individual defendants invoked qualified immunity, arguing that even if they had violated Plaintiff’s constitutional due process rights, he had received all of the “clearly established due process” to which he was entitled. The court disagreed, however, finding that if Plaintiff could demonstrate that the individual defendants were biased, they would not be entitled to qualified immunity.

Plaintiff also brought a Title IX claim, alleging that the university’s disciplinary proceeding discriminated against him on the basis of sex. He brought his claim under selective enforcement, erroneous outcome, and deliberate indifference theories.

Plaintiff’s selective enforcement claim turned on the fact that his first two accusers, Roe 1 and Roe 2, had also had sexual relations with each other (in addition to with Plaintiff) while under the influence of alcohol. The court was unpersuaded, finding that “Roe 1 and Roe 2 are not similarly situated because neither made a complaint against the other.” On Plaintiff’s erroneous outcome claim, the court held that he had plead facts sufficient to cast articulable doubt on the outcome of the proceeding, but not sufficient to connect the allegedly flawed outcome to gender bias. Plaintiff also alleged that the university had been deliberately indifferent to his claims that he received threats from friends of the complainants after he was charged by the university. Noting that Plaintiff had failed to allege that this alleged harassment was gender-based, the court dismissed his deliberate indifference claim.

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s state-law breach of contract and negligence claims.