Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Brown University, 210 F. Supp. 3d 310 (D.R.I. 2016)

School type: Private
State: Rhode Island
Federal Circuit: First
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Other
Keywords: Breach of contract, Exculpatory evidence, Training materials

After a bench trial on Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim, the court found that Brown did not carry out its disciplinary process in line with Plaintiff’s reasonable expectations, and held that he was entitled to a new hearing.

Plaintiff and his accuser, Ann Roe, had a sexual encounter in fall 2014, but Roe did not bring a complaint until fall 2015. In the intervening year, Brown had adopted a new Title IX policy that, among other things, introduced an “affirmative consent” standard that dramatically expanded the range of sexual conduct that would be considered nonconsensual.

Although the university agreed that the 2014-2015 policy would govern Roe’s claim because that is when the encounter took place, the hearing panel was encouraged to “consider” the new definition of “consent” in the Title IX policy. The university justified this by saying that the 2014-2015 policy did not contain a definition of consent and that the new definition simply “codified… existing community standards” about the meaning of consent.

To show a breach of contract in Rhode Island, a plaintiff must show that there was (1) an agreement, (2) a breach of that agreement, and (3) damages caused by the breach. In addition, the court stated that under Rhode Island law, student handbooks are construed with regard to what a student’s “reasonable expectations” would be based on the language of the document.

In this case, the court held that Brown had violated Plaintiff’s reasonable expectations by allowing the panel to use the 2015-2016 definition of consent when considering whether Plaintiff had violated the 2014-2015 policy: “[T]he Court finds that Brown materially altered the standard contained in the 2014-15 Code, and should not have given the Title IX Policy to [Plaintiff]’s panel.”

The court also found that Plaintiff had demonstrated, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Brown’s breach “actually affected the outcome of [Plaintiff]’s hearing”:

Given the difficulty and closeness of this case, the fact that the panel split 2-1, and the other less significant procedural deficiencies discussed below, it is more likely than not that, absent Brown’s procedural missteps, Doe’s previous panel would not have found him responsible.

While not “outcome determinative” since the court had already found Plaintiff was entitled to a new hearing, the court also expressed concern about a panel member’s testimony that she had ignored potentially exculpatory post-encounter communications between Plaintiff and Roe because she had been trained by the university “that survivors of sexual assault sometimes exhibit counter-intuitive behaviors.”