The court granted the university’s motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim (all other claims had been dismissed by the university’s earlier motion to dismiss).
The Supreme Court of Minnesota has ruled that private universities have a common-law duty to their students “parallel [to] those imposed by the due process clause on public universities.” Although these rulings did not arise in the negligence context, the court here found them sufficiently analogous to decide, on an issue of first impression, that universities owe a reasonable duty of care to their students in the handling of sexual assault investigations. Therefore, a negligence claim may be appropriate in instances when a university has breached that duty of care:
The issue, therefore, is not whether universities have the ability to discipline their students in ways that give rise to severe consequences. Instead, given the harm that can come from that discipline, and given the unique relationship between student and university, the question is whether a private university must use reasonable care before making disciplinary decisions. The Court today holds that they must.
What constitutes reasonable care, the court held, must be flexible and, like due process, vary with the individual circumstances of the case. The court was unpersuaded by Plaintiff’s argument that the university used biased training materials which breached the duty of care. While bias could breach the duty of care, Plaintiff’s “bare platitudes” about the content of the training materials is insufficient to overcome the “presumption of fairness” that must be afforded to the university administrators. The court was also unpersuaded by Plaintiff’s claims of procedural irregularity. While the court did frown on contact between the factfinder and the appeals officer that occurred prior to Plaintiff’s appeal, the court ultimately found their contact “harmless” because it was 5 separate members of an appeals panel who recommended to the appeals officer that Plaintiff’s appeal be denied.