Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Austin v. University of Oregon, 205 F. Supp. 3d 1214 (D. Or. 2016)

School type: Public
State: Oregon
Federal Circuit: Ninth
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Biased statements, Breach of contract, Due process, Erroneous outcome, Qualified Immunity, Selective enforcement, Title IX

The court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Plaintiffs, three University of Oregon basketball players, were suspended after a female student accused them of raping her at a party and then again at one of the players’ apartments. The three players brought suit alleging due process, Title IX, and various state-law violations stemming from the university’s adjudication of their case.

Plaintiffs brought their due process claims only against the individual defendants, not against the university itself. The individual defendants asserted the defense of qualified immunity, which shields individuals acting under color of state law from personal liability for violating constitutional rights unless those rights are “clearly established,” which means that “at the time of the challenged conduct, the contours of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.”

A due process violation occurs when the government deprives someone of a protected property or liberty interest without due process of law. Plaintiffs asserted that they had a protected property interest in their continued public education (something courts in many jurisdictions have held), but the court granted the individual defendants qualified immunity, noting that “there is no Supreme Court, Ninth Circuit, or Oregon District Court case that, at the time of the events giving rise to this case, clearly establishes the property rights Plaintiffs assert.”

Plaintiffs also alleged Title IX violations under three theories: selective enforcement, erroneous outcome, and deliberate indifference. They alleged that the university disproportionately disciplines male students accused of sexual misconduct, and they alleged that this was the result of gender bias. As evidence of gender bias, Plaintiffs cited statements by the university’s president referring to the complainant a “survivor” and stating that as a father, he was appalled by the allegations in her complaint.

The court rejected Plaintiffs’ selective enforcement argument, noting that asymmetrical enforcement is not the same thing as selective enforcement, and that “[i]t is a simple fact that the majority of accusers of sexual assault are female and the majority of the accused are male, therefore enforcement is likely to have a disparate impact on the sexes.” Moreover, the court did not view the university president’s statements as evidence of gender bias, noting that “even assuming that President Gottfredson’s statements were biased toward the accuser, Plaintiffs have not established that they were grounded in sexism or gender bias or that they had any substantive bearing on the review process.”

The court rejected Plaintiffs’ erroneous outcome and deliberate indifference claims for similar reasons, explicitly declining to extend the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Doe v. Columbia to this case because “Plaintiffs make no similar allegations of an atmosphere of scrutiny and, even had they done so, there remains no plausible inference that a university’s aggressive response to allegations of sexual misconduct is evidence of gender discrimination.”

The court also dismissed Plaintiffs’ state-law claims. The decision was affirmed by the Ninth Circuit in Austin v. University of Oregon, 925 F.3d 1133 (9th Cir. 2019)