Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Syracuse University, No. 5:19-cv-00190 (N.D.N.Y. Feb. 21, 2020)

School type: Private
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Evidentiary standard, Notice, Title IX

The court granted in part and denied in part the university’s motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff and a female student, both religious Christians, had three sexual encounters that left them both conflicted and guilty about feeling like they had compromised their Christian values.

After a conversation with a professor, however, the female student began to believe that her third and final sexual encounter with Plaintiff may have been nonconsensual, and she reported it to the university police. The police conducted a brief investigation and closed it without bringing any criminal complaint. However, the day after the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) visited Syracuse’s campus in response to a complaint that the university was not doing enough to address claims of sexual assault, the university (not the female student) initiated a Title IX complaint against Plaintiff.

After an investigation and hearing, Plaintiff was expelled.

According to Plaintiff’s complaint, Syracuse’s investigator and hearing panel ignored significant evidence undermining the complainant’s credibility (including changes in her story and the fact that she had destroyed relevant text messages), applied archaic assumptions about male desire to conclude that Plaintiff must have sexually assaulted complainant because he admitted to being “horny” prior to the encounter, and unreasonably delayed the disciplinary proceedings, which led him to pay for an extra semester of tuition toward a degree he will not receive. Plaintiff also alleged that the university failed to apply the preponderance of the evidence standard, as required by its own policies. He brought suit alleging Title IX violations, breach of contract, and various other state-law claims (negligence, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, etc.)

The university sought dismissal of all of Plaintiff’s state-law claims, but not his Title IX claims.

Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim alleged that Syracuse had violated a number of its policies in the handling of his case. In New York, the relationship between a student and a private university is contractual in nature, with the terms of the implied contract “contained in the university’s bulletins, circulars and regulations made available to the student.” To prevail on a breach of contract claim, a student must point to specific policy provisions that were violated; “‘[g]eneral policy statements’ and ‘broad and unspecified procedures and guidelines’ will not suffice.”

Here, Plaintiff alleged that Syracuse violated a number of specific policy provisions: (1) a policy providing that both parties will receive a written copy of any no-contact order; (2) a provision stating that “students have the right to fundamental fairness before formal disciplinary sanctions are imposed” by the university; (3) a promise of written notice of the charges filed against the respondent; (4) a provision that the Title IX process will be completed within 60 days of the complaint; and (5) a promise to apply the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to the adjudication of Title IX claims.

The court held that the promise of “fundamental fairness” was the type of “non-actionable statement[ ] of general policy” that could not support a breach of contract claim, but concluded that Plaintiff had sufficiently pled his breach of contract claim with respect to the other policy provisions. Notably, the court found that serious alleged deficiencies in Syracuse’s adjudication process could sustain Plaintiff’s claim that the university failed to apply the preponderance standard, even though the university claimed to have done so:

While the Board’s decision does, as the Syracuse Defendants note, state that the Board applied a preponderance of the evidence standard, and credibility determinations are for the Board, construing the allegations in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, he has plausibly alleged that the disciplinary decision was a result-driven determination in which Syracuse failed to apply the applicable standard.

Specifically, the court found that “Plaintiff has alleged specific facts in support of his allegation that the credibility determinations against him and in favor of [the complainant] were not rationally based on the evidence” and that “Plaintiff has alleged specific facts in support of his assertion that there was a pressure campaign that resulted in Syracuse deciding to make Plaintiff ‘an example of Title IX enforcement’….”

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s remaining state-law claims.