Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. University of Notre Dame, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 69645 (N.D. Ind. May 8, 2017)

School type: Private
State: Indiana
Federal Circuit: Seventh
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion for TRO/preliminary injunction
Keywords: Arbitrary & capricious, Breach of contract, Exculpatory evidence

Plaintiff was dismissed for sexual harassment several weeks before graduation, and sought an injunction allowing him to take the two exams he would need in order to complete his coursework for the semester. The court granted the injunction, finding substantial merit in his breach of contract claims and finding that he would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction.

While Plaintiff and Jane Doe were in a dating relationship, Plaintiff became depressed and began talking about suicide. Concerned for his safety but also troubled by the volume and the “manipulative” tone of some of his messages, Jane met with Notre Dame’s Title IX coordinator. At that time, she was primarily worried about John’s safety, and she declined to pursue a formal complaint.

Several months later, however, Jane did decide to pursue a formal complaint, even though she and Plaintiff had continued to engage in a mutually romantic correspondence until just two weeks prior to her complaint. When he received the no-contact order the university imposed in response to Jane’s complaint, Plaintiff deleted Jane from his phone, thereby also deleting all of their text messages. This gave Jane control over which text messages would be shared with the university, and she selectively shared texts that painted Plaintiff in a negative light while excluding those that spoke to the ongoing nature of their romantic relationship.

In the Seventh Circuit, a preliminary injunction is appropriate where (1) the party seeking the injunction would suffer irreparable harm without it; (2) traditional remedies are inadequate to prevent the harm; and (3) the party has some likelihood of success on the merits.

After noting that, under Indiana law, the relationship between a student and an educational institution is contractual in nature, the court found that Notre Dame may have failed to honor its promise to conduct a “prompt, fair and impartial investigation.” Specifically, the court found that Notre Dame’s actions may have been impermissibly arbitrary and capricious in the following respects:

  1. Failure to give Plaintiff specific notice of the allegations against him;
  2. Failure to obtain the full text history between Plaintiff and Jane, which may have called Jane’s credibility into question;
    Limits on calling witnesses, which led to Jane being able to introduce character evidence about Plaintiff without Plaintiff being allowed to respond in kind;
  3. Failure to take Plaintiff’s mental health into account;
  4. Limitations on where, how, and for how long Plaintiff could review the “data dump” of documents that Jane produced, a process that was “not designed to facilitate a fair hearing for which John is fully prepared to respond against Jane’s allegations and evidence”;
  5. Limitations on the ability to question witnesses: “That all questions must be proposed in writing and are asked of witnesses only at the discretion of the Hearing Panel does not permit a robust inquiry in support of a party’s position. The stilted method does not allow for immediate follow-up questions based on a witness’s answers, and stifles John’s presentation of his defense to the allegations.”
  6. The inability to have an advisor actively participate in the proceedings, which leaves an accused student “essentially on his own.”
  7. The “conclusory and dismissive denial” of Plaintiff’s very substantive appeal; and
  8. The delays in the investigation and hearing, which affected Plaintiff’s graduation.

The court also found that Plaintiff was likely to suffer irreparable harm if he could not take his exams, because he would have to take an incomplete for the semester, which would leave him with a permanent gap in his educational record that he would have to explain forever.

The case eventually settled.