The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to dismiss Plaintiff’s due process and Title IX claims.
This case involves allegations of sexual misconduct following a dating relationship in which Plaintiff claims he broke up with his accuser, Jane Doe, after she attempted suicide. Following an investigation, a three-person panel of the university’s Advisory Committee on Equity was tasked with determining whether Plaintiff was responsible for sexual misconduct. Plaintiff’s accuser never met with or even provided her own statement to the panel; rather, an administrator “wrote the Advisory Committee and [Title IX Coordinator Katherine] Sermersheim a letter summarizing Jane’s accusations.”
Plaintiff met with the panel, but he was not allowed to see the investigative report. Two members of the panel said they had not even read the investigative report; the third asked Plaintiff accusatory questions that assumed his guilt. Having not seen the investigative report, Plaintiff was unable to effectively answer the panelist’s questions. He was suspended for one year and his appeal was denied.
Plaintiff’s due process claim was complicated by the fact that unlike most courts, the Seventh Circuit “has rejected the proposition that an individual has a stand-alone property interest in an education at a state university,” finding it instead to be a contractual matter. In this case, “John has not adequately alleged that Purdue deprived him of property because his complaint does not point to any specific contractual promise that Purdue allegedly broke.”
He did, however, adequately allege that Purdue deprived him of a protected liberty interest to pursue naval service, his occupation of choice.
The court then held that Plaintiff had adequately pled that Purdue used unfair procedures that violated his right to due process: “[Plaintiff]’s circumstances entitled him to relatively formal procedures: he was suspended by a university rather than a high school, for sexual violence rather than academic failure, and for an academic year rather than a few days. Yet Purdue’s process fell short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension.”
For one thing, Plaintiff was not allowed to see the investigative report. “And withholding the evidence on which it relied in adjudicating his guilt was itself sufficient to render the process fundamentally unfair.”
The court also found that the hearing was a “sham” because two of the three panelists openly admitted they had not read the investigative report, meaning that “they decided that [Plaintiff] was guilty based on the accusation rather than the evidence,” and because they had deemed Plaintiff’s accuser more credible without ever speaking with her or even receiving a statement she had written herself. This lack of a meaningful credibility assessment was “all the more troubling because [Plaintiff] identified specific impeachment evidence,” such as the fact that his accuser may have been angry with him for reporting her suicide attempt.
With regard to the individual administrators, however, the court held they were entitled to qualified immunity even though Plaintiff had adequately alleged a constitutional violation, based not on their treatment of Plaintiff but on the fact that the Seventh Circuit had not previously found a protected liberty interest in continued public education: “Because this is our first case
addressing whether university discipline deprives a student of a liberty interest, the relevant legal rule was not ‘clearly established,” and a reasonable university officer would not have known at the time of [Plaintiff]’s proceeding that her actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Plaintiff also sought “an injunction enjoining violations of the Fourteenth Amendment in the process of investigating and adjudicating sexual misconduct complaints,” but the court held he did not have standing to pursue that claim because he has not alleged that he intends to re-enroll at Purdue. The court noted that “What [Plaintiff] really seeks to do is champion the rights of other men at Purdue who might be investigated for sexual misconduct using the flawed procedures that he describes in his complaint, and found that “[t]hat is a no-go.” Plaintiff also argued that “he is also entitled to an injunction ordering university officials to expunge the finding of guilt from his disciplinary record.” The court held that Plaintiff did have standing to bring this claim, and ordered the lower court to address it on remand.
Plaintiff’s Title IX claim was more successful. The court declined to separate Title IX claims into the usual doctrinal tests — erroneous outcome, selective enforcement, etc. — and looked simply at the question of whether “the alleged facts, if true, raise a plausible inference that the university discriminated against [Plaintiff] ‘on the basis of sex’?”
The court first held that the 2011 Dear Colleague letter was relevant to its evaluation of the plausibility of Plaintiff’s claim, particularly because Purdue was under 2 OCR investigations at the time of Plaintiff’s adjudication. But while the letter and investigations are part of the picture, the court also held that Plaintiff must allege some case-specific facts suggesting that gender was a motivating factor in the adjudication of his case. According to the court,
[Plaintiff] has alleged such facts here, the strongest one being that Sermersheim chose to credit Jane’s account without hearing directly from her.
Overall, the court held that
It is plausible that Sermersheim and her advisors chose to believe Jane because she is a woman and to disbelieve [Plaintiff] because he is a man. The plausibility of that inference is strengthened by a post that CARE put up on its Facebook page during the same month that [Plaintiff] was disciplined: an article from The Washington Post titled “Alcohol isn’t the cause of campus sexual assault. Men are.” Construing reasonable inferences in [Plaintiff]’s favor, this statement, which CARE advertised to the campus community, could be understood to blame men as a class for the problem of campus sexual assault rather than the individuals who commit sexual assault.