Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Lake Erie College, No. 1:19-cv-02619 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 27, 2021)

School type: Private
State: Pennsylvania
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Title IX

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s Title IX, breach of contract, and other state law claims against Lake Erie College stemming from his expulsion from Lake Erie for alleged sexual misconduct.

Plaintiff, who was both a graduate student and an employee of Lake Erie College, had sex with an undergraduate student who later claimed that she was incapacitated by alcohol at the time of the encounter. Plaintiff brought a Title IX claim under the “erroneous outcome” theory, which requires a party to plead facts (1) casting articulable doubt on the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding and (2) connecting the erroneous outcome with gender bias. Most courts consider the first prong to be a low bar, and the court here “assume[d] arguendo that Doe has satisfied the first requirement of an erroneous outcome claim” and moved directly to the second prong.

On the second prong, however, the court found Plaintiff’s claim to be “entirely devoid of any plausible connection to gender bias.” Plaintiff had alleged that Lake Erie failed to investigate his accuser, but — unlike in other cases where this has been found to be plausible evidence of gender bias — Plaintiff did not actually allege that his accuser had violated university policy or otherwise request an investigation.

Plaintiff also pointed to the fact that the claim against him arose against the backdrop of the “Me Too” movement. However, the court found that

He presents no evidence of any disciplinary policies instituted at Lake Erie as a result of the “Me Too” movement, let alone any policies that reflect gender bias. Likewise, he fails to plead any statements or opinions promulgated by school officials that would link the school’s actions toward him to the “Me Too” movement.

Absent any allegations of gender bias specific to his case, the court found that the backdrop of “Me Too” alone was insufficient to establish a plausible claim for gender bias, holding that “the mere alleged contemporaneous unfolding of the ‘Me Too’ movement and the disciplinary action against Doe is insufficient to sustain his erroneous outcome claim.”

The court also dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim. Unlike other courts that have distinguished between academic and non-academic disciplinary proceedings in terms of the level of deference owed to university decision-making, the court here collapsed that distinction and held that

When assessing a breach of contract claim by a student against an educational institution, a court must “defer to the decisions of the school” unless there is such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate a lack of professional judgment.

Under this stringent standard, even departures from a university’s policies may not suffice to establish a breach of contract claim unless the university, in departing from its established procedures, abused its discretion — which the court found Lake Erie had not.