Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Grinnell College, No. 4:17-cv-00079 (S.D. Iowa July 9, 2019)

School type: Private
State: Iowa
Federal Circuit: Eighth
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion for summary judgment
Keywords: Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Title IX

The court denied Grinnell’s motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Title IX and breach of contract claims. The court granted the motion on Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel and negligent misrepresentation claims.

On the Title IX erroneous outcome claim, the court found that Plaintiff, who was expelled for sexual misconduct, had demonstrated an issue of material fact with regard to (1) whether there was articulable doubt as to the accuracy of the finding and (2) whether gender bias was a “motivating factor” behind the inaccuracy.

The court found a reasonable question about articulable doubt because the appeals officer — who was supposed to be impartial — consulted during the appeal with the adjudicator who found Plaintiff responsible, giving the adjudicator “the opportunity to respond with any comments” to Plaintiff’s appeal. The adjudicator did respond, “with an email addressing each of [Plaintiff]’s appeal arguments and providing additional support to the findings.” According to the court, a reasonable jury could find that “such consultation detracts from the appeals officer’s independence,” and that the lack of an impartial appeals officer casts doubt on the accuracy of the proceeding’s outcome.

With regard to gender bias, the court rejected Plaintiff’s arguments (1) that the college used biased Title IX training materials; (2) that external pressure and pressure from student activists led to biased changes in Grinnell’s Title IX adjudication procedures; and (3) that a pattern in the outcome of sexual misconduct cases demonstrates gender bias. However, the court did hold that a jury might find that the “determinations of responsibility relied upon by Grinnell to dismiss [Plaintiff] were based on a biased perspective regarding the behavior of women during sexual encounters.” Specifically, “the determination failed to engage with the evidence in the record indicating Complainant #2 chose to engage in sexual activity—even if she was motivated only by a desire to ‘get [it] over with.’” Plaintiff also raised an issue of material fact by comparing the adjudicator’s discussion of his case to an otherwise similar case involving two female students: “It would be reasonable—although not necessary—for a jury to draw the inference that the language in the 2015 determination differed because the respondent was female.”

The court also allowed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim to proceed. It is undisputed that Grinnell deviated from its policy, and a reasonable jury could conclude that the deviations “made the disciplinary proceedings unfair to [Plaintiff] and thus amounted to a material breach of the contract that caused him harm.”

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim, finding that the statements in question were representations, not clear and definite promises. The court also dismissed Plaintiff’s negligent misrepresentation claim.