Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Trustees of Boston College, No. 19-1871 (1st Cir. Nov. 20, 2019)

School type: Private
State: Massachusetts
Federal Circuit: First
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion for TRO/preliminary injunction
Keywords: Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Cross-examination, Due process, Single investigator

The court ruled in favor of Boston College and reversed the lower court’s ruling granting Plaintiff a preliminary injunction.

Plaintiff, who was suspended for sexual misconduct, brought a breach of contract claim alleging that the college’s adjudication of his claim using a single-investigator model had violated the “contractual obligation of basic fairness” that exists under Massachusetts law. The district court held that Plaintiff had shown a probability of success on the merits of his claim, finding that — particularly in light of the First Circuit’s recent decision in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts – Amherst — some kind of opportunity for real-time questioning is necessary to the provision of basic fairness.

To analyze Plaintiff’s likelihood of success, the court reviewed his allegations using the two relevant tests under Massachusetts contract law: (1) Reasonable expectations and (2) Basic fairness. Under the reasonable expectations test, the court held that nothing in the contract between Plaintiff and BC (which is comprised of the student handbook and relevant policy documents) would create any expectation of an opportunity for cross-examination. On the question of basic fairness, the panel was highly critical of the lower court’s decision to use Haidak, a public university due process case, to analyze a Massachusetts basic fairness claim:

Haidak, which involved a public university and the federal due process clause, was concerned with a different claim. It does not govern this Massachusetts state law issue and provides no basis to depart from the Massachusetts cases we describe below. BC is not a public university or a government actor and is not subject to due process requirements.

Looking instead to Massachusetts state cases, the court held that “no Massachusetts state decision has ever found the requirements the district court here imposed to be a necessary part of the basic fairness requirement,” and in fact that there were Massachusetts state cases approving of procedures that did not provide an opportunity for real-time questioning.

Ultimately, the court’s decision reflected its view that “[f]ederal courts are not free to extend the reach of state law,” and that “[t]his limited role of federal courts in matters of state policy respects the design of our federal system, which allows a ‘state [to], if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’”