Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, 307 F. Supp. 3d 121 (E.D.N.Y. 2018)

School type: Public
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion for TRO/preliminary injunction
Keywords: Arbitrary & capricious, Due process

Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction was denied because he failed to show a likelihood of success on his Administrative Procedure Act (APA) claim and on his procedural and substantive due process claims.

Plaintiff attended the Academy’s annual Ring Dance ceremony for midshipmen on August 12, 2017. The complainant, who was under 21 at the time, was introduced to him by a friend (“Friend”) and attended the event with a fake ID. When they arrived at the hotel, Friend told Plaintiff not to have sex with Complainant because she was too intoxicated. Plaintiff agreed, but as soon as they arrived at his room, Complainant began kissing him and initiated sexual intercourse. According to Plaintiff, Complainant did not show signs of upset during or after their sexual encounter.

Later that night, Friend accused Plaintiff of sexually assaulting Complainant when she was too intoxicated to consent. Friend and the Complainant also started dating. Complainant’s mother and others “pressured” her to file charges, even though she did not want to. Complainant also called Plaintiff months after the dance asking him if he remembered what happened that night, because she could not remember herself.

The Academy charged Plaintiff with sexual assault and failing to prevent Complainant from drinking unlawfully. Plaintiff alleged that the Academy failed to provide a number of procedural safeguards during his sexual misconduct hearing. Plaintiff was de facto suspended for a year after the hearing and was not allowed to appeal the decision. He sought reconsideration by the Superintendent, which was denied without an explanation. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction and to be allowed to attend classes at the Academy.

Because the Merchant Marine Academy is considered an agent under the Administrative Procedure Act, Plaintiff’s complaint included an APA claim. A court can set aside agency action only if that action is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.” The court determined that Plaintiff had no likelihood of success on his merits for his APA claim. It held that “defendants are entitled to deference with regard to their policies.” Plaintiff’s assertions that he was entitled to an Executive Board Hearing, that he was unable to cross-examine Complainant, and that the Superintendent applied the wrong definition of consent were incorrect. The court further held that the Superintendent had authority to weigh the importance of evidence and witnesses, and had conducted a fair hearing. The court concluded that there was no basis for the assertion that the Academy’s decision was “arbitrary or capricious.”

The court also held that Plaintiff had no likelihood of success on his procedural and substantive due process claims. For his procedural due process claim, Doe claimed that the Superintendent was not impartial because he was “prosecutor, fact-finder, and appeals court” at the same time. The court held that this was permissible under the policies and procedures established by the Academy, and that both the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit had “rejected the argument that administrative hearings are unconstitutional per se because decision makers who perform multiple roles cannot, as a matter of law, be impartial.” The court then distinguished the present case from Doe v. University of Miami: the fact that the Superintendent questioned Plaintiff more vigorously was not evidence of bias. Finally, the court held that Plaintiff was “given a fair hearing, notice of the charges against him, and the opportunity to defend himself.”

For his substantive due process claim, the court held that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate how the Academy’s actions “shock the conscience.” Plaintiff’s assertion that the Academy’s actions were motivated by ill will and political objectives was unsupported by facts.

Plaintiff later withdrew his complaint.