Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Amherst Coll., 238 F. Supp. 3d 195 (D. Mass. 2017)

School type: Private
State: Massachusetts
Federal Circuit: First
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Exculpatory evidence, Selective enforcement, Title IX

College’s motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part.

Plaintiff was expelled from Amherst over an accusation that the complainant, Sandra Jones, withdrew consent in the middle of a sexual encounter during which Plaintiff was blacked out from alcohol consumption. Plaintiff had no memory of the encounter.

Plaintiff later discovered text messages that called Jones’ credibility into question, and asked the college to re-open the disciplinary proceedings, which they would not do. Plaintiff then filed suit alleging sex discrimination, racial discrimination, breach of contract, and various other state-law claims.

The court allowed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim — which, under Massachusetts law, is evaluated using a “reasonable expectation” standard — to proceed on several grounds. First, Plaintiff alleged that the hearing board’s decision was not supported by a preponderance of the evidence, as required by college policy. Specifically, he argued that it was not clear, from the language of the sexual misconduct policy, that a student could violate the policy while himself in an incapacitated state. The court agreed, holding that a reasonable student reading the policy would expect that he could not violate the policy while himself incapacitated.

Plaintiff also alleged that college policy promised a fair and impartial process, but that he was not provided with one, in part because the investigator made no effort to obtain what Plaintiff argued was potentially exculpatory evidence. The court agreed, holding that a student could reasonably expect the school, pursuant to its policy, to conduct its investigation such that exculpatory evidence would be obtained and presented to the hearing panel.

Plaintiff also alleged that the college breached its contract with him by violating its policies on sexual and racial discrimination. The court agreed the PLaint finding plausible discrimination in the fact that Plaintiff may himself have been subjected to nonconsensual sexual conduct, but that the college neither investigated nor encouraged him to file a complaint. The court disagreed that Plaintiff had plead any facts suggestive of racial discrimination, despite his allegation that only male students of color had been expelled pursuant to the school’s new sexual misconduct policy: “While he alleges that only members of a disfavored group, male students of color, were subjected to a particular type of punishment, he has not alleged that other male students have been accused of similar conduct and received less severe punishments.”

The court also did not accept Plaintiff’s argument that the college breached its contract with him by refusing to reopen its disciplinary process in the face of potentially exculpatory new evidence, because its policies do not make any such promises.

The court allowed Plaintiff’s Title IX claim to proceed on erroneous outcome, selective enforcement, and deliberate indifference theories. An erroneous outcome claim requires a plaintiff not only to cast articulable doubt on the outcome of disciplinary proceedings (which most courts treat as a low bar to clear), but also to plead facts plausibly tying the erroneous outcome to gender bias. Here, the court held that Plaintiff’s allegation that the complainant was involved in student activism around sexual assault — activism which had the aim of expelling a male student — was sufficient to allege gender bias at this stage. The court also upheld Plaintiff’s selective enforcement claim on the grounds that while the college aggressively pursued Jones’ allegations of nonconsensual sexual contact, it did nothing when it learned that Plaintiff, too, may have been a victim of sexual misconduct under the terms of its policy. The court also allowed Plaintiff’s deliberate indifference claim to proceed, holding that the college may have been deliberately indifferent to the fact that Plaintiff was assaulted.

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s racial discrimination claim for the same reason it dismissed the racial discrimination portion of his breach of contract claim: he had not plead any facts suggesting that similarly situated non-minority students were punished less harshly.

The court also dismissed the remainder of Plaintiff’s state-law claims. The case ultimately settled.