Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Pennsylvania State University, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3184 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 8, 2018)

School type: Public
State: Pennsylvania
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Breach of contract, Due process, Erroneous outcome, Selective enforcement, Title IX

Defendant’s motion to dismiss was granted in part and denied in part.

Plaintiff was in an accelerated pre-medical program with his accuser, Jane Doe, at Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Doe accused Plaintiff of sexual assault during an incident in which both were alone in her dorm room. Plaintiff was found guilty and was suspended for a semester, required to attend counseling, and denied on-campus living privileges. The university also recommended Plaintiff be removed from the pre-medical program.

Plaintiff brought claims against PSU alleging a due process violation, Title IX violation, breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and promissory estoppel.

Plaintiff’s Title IX violation was brought under the erroneous outcome theory. The court held Plaintiff cast articulable doubt on the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding because “PSU ‘erroneously placed the entire burden on [Mr. Doe] to prove his innocence, instead of setting forth competent evidence to demonstrate how [he] allegedly engaged in non-consensual sex with Jane Roe.’” Plaintiff presented evidence that “‘all students that have been suspended or expelled from [PSU] for sexual misconduct have been male’ and that ‘[m]ale respondents in sexual misconduct cases at [PSU] . . . are invariably found guilty, regardless of the evidence[] or lack thereof.” Plaintiff also provided evidence that “PSU was under external social and political pressure to successfully prosecute on-campus sexual assault” due to the “Dear Collegue” letter. Under the selective enforcement theory, Plaintiff alleged “his punishment—recommended expulsion from the accelerated pre-medical program—is disproportionate to the alleged misconduct,” considering his strong academic record and “stellar reputation.” The court found these allegations to be sufficient to support a selective enforcement claim in that particular stage of the proceeding. The court found Plaintiff’s evidence of gender bias to be sufficient to survive at the motion to dismiss stage, and allowed his Title IX claim to proceed.

The Court dismissed Plaintiff’s due process claim against certain individual defendants but not against PSU: “Because claims against individuals in their official capacity ‘are really against the employing governmental entity’ and ‘are redundant with . . . claims against [the] municipality that employs the official’—here, PSU—Count I against all individual defendants in their official capacities will be dismissed.” In order to allege a constitutional violation against an individual, “a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” A person can do this by showing the individual “participated in violating the plaintiff’s rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in his subordinates’ violations.” The court held Plaintiff had sufficiently pled a constitutional claim against Mr. Apicella, Ms. Feldbaum, and Ms. Matic because he was not provided notice of one of the charges against him until months after the original claim, even though he had met with Mr. Apicella and Ms. Matic several times before that. Additionally, Plaintiff presented evidence that “Ms. Feldbaum wrote a ‘cursory and perfunctory decision letter stating that [she] had determined [Mr. Doe] responsible.’” However, the court held Plaintiff had not provided enough evidence to sustain a constitutional claim against Mr. Barron and the Board of Trustees, so those claims were dismissed.

Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was not challenged in the motion to dismiss. Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing were dismissed.