Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Collick v. William Paterson University, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160359 (D.N.J. Nov. 17, 2016)

School type: Public
State: New Jersey
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Cross-examination, Due process, Erroneous outcome, Notice, Qualified Immunity, Title IX

The court denied the university’s motion to dismiss many of Plaintiffs’ claims, including Title IX sex discrimination, constitutional due process violations, breach of contract, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Following a group sexual encounter with a complainant, Jane Doe, Plaintiffs — students at William Paterson University — were arrested by university police and jailed for 9 days until a grand jury declined to indict them. They were nonetheless expelled from WPU. Plaintiffs alleged that both in bringing criminal charges and in expelling them through the university’s disciplinary process, the university and its police department took all of the complainant’s allegations at face value, ignored exculpatory evidence, and performed no independent investigation. They brought suit alleging sex discrimination, racial discrimination (Plaintiffs are African-American), procedural and substantive due process violations, and various state-law claims including negligence, breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The court dismissed all of Plaintiffs’ racial discrimination claims, finding that the complaint “fails to support with facts its allegations of racial discrimination.” The court allowed Plaintiffs’ Title IX sex discrimination claim to proceed, however, finding sufficient evidence of gender bias in Plaintiffs’ allegations that the university accepted the alleged victim’s complaint as true without any independent investigation, and that Plaintiffs were denied notice and an opportunity to meaningfully defend themselves. The court also viewed pressure from the Department of Education as a relevant factor, holding that “it is no more than a commonsense inference that the public’s and the policymakers’ attention to the issue of campus sexual assault may have caused a university to believe it was in the spotlight.”

Plaintiffs alleged Fourth Amendment violations on the grounds that their arrest by university police was made without probable cause. The judge noted that probable cause is typically a question for the jury, and stated that he was — accepting Plaintiffs’ allegations about the total inadequacy of the investigation as true — “not prepared to hold, as a matter of law,” that there was probable cause here. The defendants argued they should be entitled to qualified immunity, but the court held that:

The Complaint alleges that the University Police arrested Collick and Williams without probable cause, failed to take basic investigatory steps that reasonable officers would at least have attempted, jumped to the conclusion of probable cause, and generally showed little interest in corroborating the veracity of Doe’s report of sexual assault. If that were all true, it could constitute a violation of clearly established law that would have been apparent to a reasonable officer.

The court also denied defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claim, finding that the complaint plausibly alleged that the university’s decision to discipline the Plaintiffs was not supported by substantial evidence. The court dismissed Plaintiffs’ substantive due process claim, however, on the grounds that the interests implicated by the university’s actions were not the kind of “fundamental rights or liberty interests” necessary to sustain a substantive due process claim.

The court also denied defendants’ motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ breach of contract claims. The judge noted that under a 2010 decision of the court, “a student in a private university contesting disciplinary proceedings, including expulsion, will not prevail if the university adhered to its own rules, the procedures followed were fundamentally fair, and the decision was based on ‘sufficient’ evidence.” The court then held that “[r]ead in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Complaint sufficiently alleges that Defendants did not adhere to WPU’s own rules, that the procedure they followed was unfair, and that the decision was not based on sufficient evidence.”