Due process legal update: Two accused-student lawsuits survive summary judgment

July 12, 2019

Barring a settlement, sex discrimination lawsuits against Grinnell College and Quinnipiac University appear to be headed to trial after judges in each case denied the school’s motion for summary judgment on both sex discrimination and breach of contract claims.

These decisions demonstrate that schools need to take seriously both their obligation to respond to sexual misconduct and their obligation to conduct fair and impartial judicial proceedings. They are also significant because, coming at a later stage of litigation when discovery has already taken place, they provide the public with a look under the hood of campus judiciaries in a way that decisions at the earlier motion to dismiss stage cannot. The evidence in both cases reveals a concerning disregard for fundamental fairness, one that both courts felt raised serious questions for a jury about whether these schools breached some of their most basic obligations to students. 

Doe v. Grinnell College

The plaintiff in this case, John Doe, was expelled from Grinnell after two women alleged that he had nonconsensual sexual contact with them. Doe alleged that, in the course of its disciplinary proceedings, the college discriminated against him on the basis of sex in violation of Title IX. He brought his Title IX claim under an “erroneous outcome” theory, which requires him to demonstrate both that (1) there was “articulable doubt” as to the accuracy of the college’s finding and (2) that gender bias was a “motivating factor” behind the inaccuracy. 

As the court explained, summary judgment is appropriate only when “there are no genuine issues of material fact in dispute.” If “a factual issue capable of sustaining a claim under the governing law ‘may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party,” then it goes to trial (unless the parties settle before trial, which often happens).

On the Title IX claim, the court first found that there were genuine questions about the accuracy of the proceeding’s outcome because the appeals officer — who was supposed to be impartial — consulted during the appeal with the adjudicator who found Doe responsible. The appeals officer even gave the adjudicator “the opportunity to respond with any comments” to Doe’s appeal, which the adjudicator did, “addressing each of Doe’s appeal arguments and providing additional support” for the finding of responsibility. According to the court, a reasonable jury could find that “such consultation detracts from the appeals officer’s independence,” and that the lack of an impartial appeals officer casts doubt on the accuracy of the proceeding’s outcome.

Moving to the question of gender bias, the court found that the adjudicator may have held “a biased perspective regarding the behavior of women during sexual encounters” when deciding one of the complaints, which turned on whether Doe had coerced the complainant into sexual activity. In deciding that complaint, the court held, the adjudicator “failed to engage with the evidence in the record indicating [the complainant] chose to engage in sexual activity—even if she was motivated only by a desire to ‘get [it] over with.’” 

The court also found that Doe raised an issue of material fact by comparing the adjudicator’s discussion of his case to an otherwise similar case from 2015 involving two female students: “It would be reasonable—although not necessary—for a jury to draw the inference that the language in the 2015 determination differed because the respondent was female.”

The court also denied summary judgment to Grinnell on Doe’s breach of contract claim. The parties did not dispute that Grinnell deviated from its policy, and the court found those deviations may have “made the disciplinary proceedings unfair to Doe and thus amounted to a material breach of the contract that caused him harm.”

Doe v. Quinnipiac University

This case involves a romantic relationship in which both parties — the plaintiff John Doe and his ex-girlfriend Jane Roe — made allegations of intimate partner violence against each other. Doe was found responsible and punished; Jane Roe was not.

The judge was particularly troubled by the fact that two Quinnipiac administrators involved in Doe’s case destroyed their investigation and hearing notes, which Doe believes contain evidence pointing to gender bias as a motivating factor in the outcome of the proceedings. 

In the Second Circuit, a party affected by the “spoliation” (that is, destruction) of evidence is entitled to an “adverse inference” based on the destruction if he or she can show that (1) the party who destroyed evidence was under a duty to preserve it; (2) the destruction of evidence was done with a “culpable state of mind”; and (3) a reasonable jury might find that the evidence was relevant to the affected party’s claim or defense. 

The court found that all of these elements were met, meaning that a jury is entitled to presume that the destroyed evidence likely supported Doe’s claim of gender discrimination.

On Doe’s Title IX sex discrimination claim, the court held that there were “undisputed facts and genuine disputes of material fact that preclude a grant of summary judgment [in favor of the university] on Plaintiff’s Title IX claims for erroneous outcome and selective enforcement.” 

First, the university may have used a different definition of “intimate partner violence” when deciding Doe’s claims against Jane Roe than it did when deciding Roe’s claims against Doe.  Second, the court found it was possible that gender bias was behind the university’s decision to credit Roe’s statement that she was afraid of Doe, but not Doe’s statement that he was afraid of Roe.

In his breach of contract claim, Doe alleged 29 specific provisions of Quinnipiac’s handbook that were allegedly violated in the course of his conduct proceedings. In defense, Quinnipiac pointed to a disclaimer in its handbook stating that it was merely “informational” and did not constitute a contract, but the court held that this did not preclude a breach of contract claim, and denied summary judgment.

While there have been hundreds of lawsuits brought in recent years by students alleging they were denied a fair process in campus sexual misconduct hearings, very few have proceeded to the summary judgment stage. Unlike motions to dismiss, which are brought in the earliest stages of litigation, summary judgment motions are filed after discovery has already taken place. In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court looks not only at the plaintiff’s allegations but also at the evidence in the case. It is quite significant for a court to hold, after reviewing the evidence, that a university may have engaged in deliberate sex discrimination and breached its contract with a student. For courts to hold that in two separate cases in the span of just two days illustrates the magnitude of the due process crisis on campus right now.

Schools:  Quinnipiac University Grinnell College