Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Princeton University, No. 3:20-cv-04352 (D.N.J. Jan. 20, 2021)

School type: Private
State: New Jersey
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Arbitrary & capricious, Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Cross-examination, Erroneous outcome, Evidentiary standard, Exculpatory evidence, Selective enforcement, Single investigator, Title IX

The court granted the university’s motion to dismiss Title IX and breach of contract claims brought by a student accused of relationship violence.

The case stems from a tumultuous relationship between two Princeton undergraduates. Plaintiff alleges that following their break-up, his ex-girlfriend — known in court papers as Jane Roe — “launched a campaign of harassment, threats and false accusations directed at Plaintiff,” telling people she had ended the relationship because Plaintiff was physically abusive.

Plaintiff alleges that when he complained about this harassment to the university, administrators did not investigate his claims of harassment, but instead encouraged Jane Roe to bring a complaint against Plaintiff. Eventually, after going back and forth, Roe agreed that “she would cooperate with Princeton’s Title IX investigation into Plaintiff’s alleged misconduct.” Plaintiff brought a counterclaim against Roe, alleging that she had been physically abusive during their relationship.

The Title IX Panel found that “there was sufficient information to substantiate all five incidents of abuse alleged by Jane, but claimed there was insufficient information to substantiate any incident of abuse alleged by Plaintiff,” and recommended expulsion.

Plaintiff filed suit alleging that Princeton had violated Title IX by subjecting him to a gender-biased proceeding, and had breached its contract by violating its own policies in the course of his proceeding and by failing to provide him with a fundamentally fair process. While Plaintiff brought his Title IX claims under the traditional “erroneous outcome” and “selective enforcement” framework, the court noted that following the Third Circuit’s decision in Doe v. University of the Sciences, “Plaintiff need not allege Title IX violations under separate theories.” Nonetheless, the court found that Plaintiff had not sufficiently alleged that gender bias was a motivating factor in the outcome of his proceeding, holding that the Panel had based its findings on credibility assessments performed in the course of a thorough investigation. The court held that

Based on a reading of the Report, these credibility determinations were supported by sufficient evidence. The mere fact the Panel found Jane credible and Plaintiff not credible does not mean those credibility determinations were “inconsistent,” as Plaintiff alleges.

The court also held that Plaintiff’s issues with the disciplinary process, absent any “statements by University officials or the Panel that reflect bias by anyone involved in the investigation or adjudication of Jane’s claims against Plaintiff,” were insufficient to support his claim of gender bias.

The court also dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim. As an initial matter, the court was not persuaded by Plaintiff’s argument that Princeton had violated specific provisions of its Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities handbook. Plaintiff also argued that, in light of Doe v. University of the Sciences, the absence of a live hearing at which he could cross-examine Jane Roe and other witnesses denied him his contractual right to a fair process. The court, however, relied on a district court decision in Gendia v. Drexel University to find that the USciences decision does not require live cross-examination, but rather that the ability to submit questions to be asked by a third party — in Plaintiff’s case, the Panel — was sufficient.