Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. College of Wooster, 243 F. Supp. 3d 875 (N.D. Ohio 2017)

School type: Private
State: Ohio
Federal Circuit: Sixth
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Title IX

The court granted the university’s motion to dismiss and denied Plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend his complaint.

This was a diversity jurisdiction case involving only state-law claims: breach of contract, promissory estoppel, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation. Plaintiff and the complainant had an encounter that Plaintiff claims ended when he left the room because he wanted to have intercourse and the complainant did not. Six months after the incident, the complainant filed a report alleging that “As [Plaintiff] tried to remove his clothes, along with mine, I was able to mule kick him off of me. He then yelled in my face, shook me, and left the room.” Six months later, however, the complainant changed her report and told the college’s Title IX coordinator that Plaintiff had raped her. Plaintiff maintains that he and the complainant never had intercourse.

Although Plaintiff was first notified of the existence of a sexual misconduct complaint against him in December 2015, he did not learn the details of the allegations until he was given the investigative report on February 19, 2016 — two weeks before his hearing. At the hearing, “[a]ccording to plaintiff, he was prohibited from presenting relevant evidence and witnesses, and was not permitted to be represented by counsel.” He was found responsible and expelled.

At the same time as the college moved to dismiss, Plaintiff moved to amend his complaint to add a Title IX claim in light of the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia University. He alleged that, like in the Columbia case, “[d]uring the period preceding the disciplinary hearing, there was substantial criticism of the College, both in the student body and in the public media, accusing the College of not taking seriously complaints of female students alleging sexual assault by male students.” The court held, however, that Plaintiff’s allegations were based on comments that were entirely gender-neutral and thus, at worst, suggested a bias against individuals accused of sexual assault. The court denied Plaintiff’s motion to amend his complaint.

Plaintiff alleged that the college breached its contract with him by ignoring a number of its policy provisions related to notice, timing, and the obligation to conduct a fair process. Plaintiff pointed to policy language in the student handbook that appeared to require parties to file complaints within 30 days of an incident, but the court held that “Plaintiff’s interpretation of the Student Handbook would violate federal law as it would prohibit Wooster from following up on claims of sexual assault merely because the victim did not come forward within a 30 day window. The Court will not endorse a contract interpretation that obligates one party to violate the law.”

Plaintiff also alleged that the college breached its contract by failing to provide him with more than the barest notice that someone had complained of sexual misconduct; the court held that there was no claim based on notice because “The Student Handbook does not require that the written charges against the accused be provided within any specific time period or contain any specific information.”

With regard to Plaintiff’s claim that the lack of notice was fundamentally unfair, the court held that “[t]he proper focus in analyzing whether a private university provided fundamental fairness is whether the University adhered to its misconduct procedure.” Because the college provided the degree of notice prescribed by its own policy, the court held, it was not fundamentally unfair.

The court dispatched with the rest of Plaintiff’s breach of contract claims on similar grounds, finding that the college had not violated the terms of its own handbook in adjudicating Plaintiff’s case. His good faith and fair dealing, promissory estoppel, negligence, and emotional distress claims were dismissed for similar reasons.