Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Oberlin College, No. 19-3342 (6th Cir. June 29, 2020)

School type: Private
State: Ohio
Federal Circuit: Sixth
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Erroneous outcome, Exculpatory evidence, Notice, Title IX

The Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff’s Title IX suit against Oberlin College, holding:

Any number of federal constitutional and statutory provisions reflect the proposition that, in this country, we determine guilt or innocence individually—rather than collectively, based on one’s identification with some demographic group. That principle has not always been perfectly realized in our Nation’s history, but as judges it is one that we take an oath to enforce. Here, the relevant statute is Title IX … which bars universities that receive federal funds from discriminating against students based on their sex. [Plaintiff] argues that his complaint in this case adequately stated a claim that Oberlin College did precisely that when it determined his responsibility on a sexual-assault allegation. We agree, and reverse the district court’s decision to the contrary.

Plaintiff was expelled from Oberlin following an encounter that his accuser, Jane Roe, alleged she was too drunk to consent to. She also alleged at the hearing that Plaintiff had forced her to perform oral sex on him, but this was inconsistent with the information she had provided to the investigator.

Plaintiff alleged numerous procedural irregularities in the investigation and adjudication of his case. The investigation took dramatically longer than expected (120 days instead of the 20-60 day range cited in college policy), and the college’s Title IX coordinator did not respond to a desperate plea from Plaintiff for information about the status of the investigation despite the fact that college policy provides that students will be notified “of the reason(s) for the delay and the expected adjustment in time frames.”

Plaintiff also alleged that he did not learn the substance of the allegation until the investigative report was issued, four months after the filing of the complaint; that the advisor provided to him by the college left the hearing early and later retweeted a comment about believing all survivors; and that the panel found him responsible despite the fact that Jane Roe’s testimony was inconsistent with her allegation that she was incapacitated. Plaintiff’s appeal was also denied despite the fact that a new witness came forward to say that he knew Jane Roe had given false testimony at the hearing about Plaintiff’s alleged use of force.

The court evaluated Plaintiff’s Title IX claim under an “erroneous outcome” theory, which requires a plaintiff to plead facts (1) casting articulable doubt on the outcome of a disciplinary proceeding and (2) connecting the outcome of the proceeding to gender bias.

The court held that Plaintiff had met both requirements. First, the court held that “clear procedural irregularities” in a disciplinary proceeding “permit a plausible inference of sex discrimination.” In particular, the court noted, “when the degree of doubt passes from ‘articulable’ to grave, the merits of the decision itself, as a matter of common sense, can support an inference of sex bias.” The court also held that several other factors gave rise to a plausible inference of gender bias, including an ongoing OCR investigation into Oberlin’s handling of sexual assault allegations and the fact every formal hearing during the academic year in which Doe’s case was decided resulted in a finding of responsibility.