Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Colgate University, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 180267 (N.D.N.Y. Oct. 31, 2017)

School type: Private
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion for summary judgment
Keywords: Biased statements, Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Title IX, Training materials

University’s motion for summary judgment granted.

Plaintiff John Doe was accused by three different complainants of sexual misconduct within the span of the 2011-2012 academic year. These three complainants (Jane Does 1, 2, and 3) all filed reports on October 28 and 29, 2014. Jane Doe 2 later approached Colgate administrator Marilyn Rugg in early November and said that she wanted to file a “formal” complaint. In the university’s investigation of Jane Doe 2’s allegations, Jane Does 1 and 3 were also interviewed, and they identified themselves. Plaintiff was then charged with sexual misconduct, and a hearing was scheduled for several months later. Plaintiff was allowed to view the evidence against him in administrator Kimberly Taylor’s office from March 27 to April 7, subject to her availability. On April 7, Plaintiff had his hearing before a university panel. As there were multiple allegations against him, the panel held separate hearings for each of the three complainants, but all three hearings were presided over by the same panel. Plaintiff was found responsible in all three cases, and was expelled from the university months before he was scheduled to graduate.

Plaintiff’s complaint alleged Title IX sex discrimination, violations of New York State’s human rights law, breach of contract, and “other state statutory and common law claims.” He sought a declaratory judgment reversing his expulsion and expunging his disciplinary record. The defendants, Colgate University and the six administrators he personally named, moved to preclude his expert witness and moved for summary judgment on all of his claims.

The judge ruled for the defendants on all counts, noting that “evidence of bias against the accused in sexual misconduct hearings does not equate to bias against men.” In support of his gender bias claim, Plaintiff made allegations about the pressure on Colgate both from external sources (such as the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter) and from student activism on campus. He also alleged that the university used biased training materials containing gendered language that described victims as “she” and perpetrators as “he,” but the court held that

Even if gendered language, standing alone, could generate an inference of gender bias, Plaintiff provides evidence of limited use of gendered pronouns in one training presentation, which is too benign and isolated to permit an inference that Rugg’s training materials caused the training’s attendees to become gender-biased.

The court did express concern with Colgate’s decision to hold all three disciplinary hearings in front of the same panel and on the same day, which Plaintiff alleged was a breach of contract. This decision, the judge said, could have been handled differently. However, the panel “did not behave as if it was conducting a single hearing.” Rather, every hearing was opened, conducted, and a finding of responsibility (or not) was reached before the next hearing was conducted. Moreover, the panel would have been allowed to hear all evidence from the other cases anyway in order to determine whether Plaintiff’s actions had constituted a “pattern of misconduct,” so this format did not present them with information they would not have encountered anyway. Therefore, there was no breach of contract on the part of the university, which was not contractually obligated to provide Plaintiff a different panel for each hearing.