Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. Univ. of Pennsylvania, 270 F. Supp. 3d 799 (E.D. Pa. 2017)

School type: Private
State: Pennsylvania
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Basic fairness, Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Selective enforcement, Title IX, Training materials

University’s motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part.

Plaintiff and the complainant, Jane Doe, engaged in a sexual encounter that Plaintiff maintains was consensual, but that Jane alleged was nonconsensual. Plaintiff alleged that he was given no more than the barest notice of the accusations until he read the Draft Investigative Report, at which point he was “shocked” to learn Jane Doe’s version of the events. He submitted a response to the Draft Report outlining many of his concerns, but felt that none of them were addressed in the Final Investigative Report, which found him responsible and recommended expulsion.

The case then proceeded to a hearing panel. The panelists were three faculty members from the university’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program, all of whom knew Jane Doe’s advisor. Plaintiff alleged that the panel was trained using materials that presumed the guilt of accused male students, and also that the panel refused to ask all but one of his proposed questions to the investigator. The panel also found him responsible and recommended expulsion, but his punishment was later reduced on appeal to two years’ suspension without a guarantee of readmission.

Plaintiff’s suit alleged breach of contract, Title IX and Title VI (racial discrimination) violations, and various state-law claims.

Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim first alleged that the university had disregarded various policies that promise a “fair” investigation and adjudication. This was based on a variety of objections Plaintiff had to the process, including the materials used to train the panelists and the investigator’s use of “inconsistent credibility standards” to judge the parties’ claims. The court held, however, that Plaintiff’s proposed definition of fairness was “broad and unlimited,” and that “the detailed disciplinary procedures that Defendant sets forth in the Student Disciplinary Procedures satisfy the basic requirements of fundamental fairness as they plainly provide notice and an opportunity to be heard.” Ultimately, the court concluded that

[T]he parties intended that “fair” hearings and investigations would be hearings and investigations that complied with the more specific provisions of the Disciplinary Procedures concerning hearings and investigations and did not intend to impose additional, unspecified “fairness” requirements.

However, the court refused — based on potentially biased training materials cited in Plaintiff’s complaint — to dismiss his claim that “Defendant breached the contractual requirement that it train Hearing Panel members ‘to fulfill their responsibilities as adjudicators according to the procedures and policies outlined’ in the Disciplinary Procedures and ‘to ensure compliance with Title IX.’”

The court also refused to dismiss Plaintiff’s claim that the university breached its obligation to conduct a “thorough and fair” investigation by failing to ask critical questions that might have exonerated Plaintiff and by failing to explore whether Jane Doe might have had a motive to exaggerate or lie about the alleged assault.

The court did, however, dismiss Plaintiff’s claim that the university breached its obligation to provide an impartial hearing because the hearing panel members were professionally affiliated with the same university department as Jane Doe’s advisor. The university’s policy on conflicts of interest refers only to personal, not professional, relationships, and “[t]his allegation of a common professional affiliation does not support a reasonable inference that the Panel Members and Jane’s advisor had personal as opposed to professional ties.”

The court also allowed Plaintiff’s Title IX “erroneous outcome” claim to proceed, holding that “the Complaint’s allegations regarding training materials and possible pro-complainant bias on the part of University officials set forth sufficient circumstances suggesting inherent and impermissible gender bias to support a plausible claim that Defendant violated Title IX under an erroneous outcome theory.”

Plaintiff also alleged a Title IX “selective enforcement” claim, alleging that the university treated similarly situated female students differently on the basis of gender. Although Plaintiff did not provide any information about how female students accused of sexual misconduct were treated, he asked the court to allow him to conduct discovery on this point. Because his erroneous outcome claim was already proceeding, and because “certain critical information that would support a Title IX claim based on a selective enforcement theory is undeniably within the University’s exclusive control,” the court agreed and allowed the selective enforcement claim to proceed. However, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s “deliberate indifference” Title IX claim, noting both that it is unlikely that the deliberate indifference framework applies to cases arising out of allegedly biased disciplinary proceedings, and that regardless, the complaint did not plausibly allege deliberate indifference.

The court allowed Plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress to proceed, but dismissed his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. It also dismissed his racial discrimination claim and his unfair trade practices claim.

The case ultimately settled.