Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Pennsylvania State University, 336 F. Supp. 3d 441 (M.D. Pa. 2018)

School type: Public
State: Pennsylvania
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Cross-examination, Due process, Single investigator

The court denied the university’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s due process claim against the university.

Plaintiff and his accuser, Jane Roe, engaged in sexual activity that Plaintiff said was consensual and Roe said was not. Roe filed a complaint. Penn State adjudicated her complaint using an investigative model, under which the university’s investigator interviewed both parties several times before deciding that a preponderance of the evidence supported the decision to charge Plaintiff with sexual misconduct.

The investigator’s report, plus a few additional documents, were then forwarded to the Title IX Decision Panel, which considers the written packet and responses and uses the preponderance of the evidence standard when deciding whether to find a charged student responsible. Plaintiff was found responsible, suspended from the university for two semesters, and lost his on-campus housing privileges.

Plaintiff filed suit, naming both Penn State and the administrators involved in his case, seeking a declaration that the Investigative Model was unconstitutional; an injunction requiring PSU to reverse its decision, expunge his records, and reinstate him; and monetary damages. PSU moved to dismiss the case.

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s claims against the individual administrators, finding that they were protected by qualified immunity, and dismissed his request for an injunction, declaring it moot. But the court allowed Plaintiff to proceed with his due process claim against the university.

The court found that Plaintiff had both a property interest in his continued education at Penn State and a liberty interest in his reputation. Balancing Plaintiff’s interests and the university’s interests, the court found that Plaintiff’s interests were strongly affected not only because of the suspension but also because of “the stigma of being labeled ‘responsible’ for engaging in nonconsensual sexual intercourse.” The university had a strong interest in student safety, but it also had a strong interest in accurately resolving student complaints: “PSU’s educational mission is, of course, frustrated if it allows dangerous students to remain on its campuses. Its mission is equally stymied, however, if PSU ejects innocent students who would otherwise benefit from, and contribute to, its academic environment.”

The court held that because the case turned entirely on the credibility of the two parties, the investigative model’s “virtual embargo” on allowing the panel to assess credibility (through any kind of live testimony or even through reading non-paraphrased versions of the interviews with the parties) raised plausible doubt about whether Plaintiff had received constitutionally adequate due process.