Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Harnois v. University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, No. 1:19-cv-10705 (D. Mass. Oct. 28, 2019)

School type: Public
State: Massachusetts
Federal Circuit: First
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Biased statements, Cross-examination, Due process, Erroneous outcome, Selective enforcement, Title IX

University’s motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part. The court allowed many of Plaintiff’s due process, Title IX, and state-law claims to proceed against various administrators of the university.

Plaintiff is a nontraditional student, a disabled veteran who enrolled at the university to earn his PhD in oceanography. According to Plaintiff’s complaint, after several individuals filed Title IX hostile-environment complaints against him, university administrators notified him of the existence of the complaints but refused to provide any specifics despite his repeated requests. Plaintiff was suspended pending investigation both of the Title IX allegations and an administrator’s allegation that he had a more extensive criminal history than he had disclosed on his application. At the time he was suspended, he still did not know anything about the allegations against him.

While Plaintiff did not know the details of the allegations against him, at an “all hands” meeting, “the entire faculty, staff, and students in Harnois’s degree program were [made] aware that he had a criminal record and was the subject of an impending Title IX investigation.”

Ultimately, the university found insufficient evidence to support a conduct code violation, but still imposed restrictions/penalties on Plaintiff that left him feeling unable to meaningfully participate in his educational program: he lost his thesis advisor, he was limited to a “remote, supervised workspace,” and as a result of the fact that his entire academic community had been informed of the investigation into his conduct and background, he felt “exiled.”

Plaintiff brought §1983 due process and First Amendment claims, Title IX sex discrimination claims, as well as numerous state-law claims including defamation and intentional interference with advantageous relations.

The court allowed Plaintiff’s Title IX selective enforcement and erroneous outcome claims to proceed based on several particularized allegations of gender bias, including an alleged statement by the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs that if Plaintiff would not voluntarily withdraw from the university, “I’ll get your kind with a Title IX investigation.” The same administrator also allegedly stated publicly that sexual assaults are perpetrated exclusively by men.” Unlike many courts, this court did not look for evidence of a similarly situated female complainant who was treated differently, but rather allowed the selective enforcement claim to proceed based solely on the evidence of gender bias. On the erroneous outcome claim, however, the court did identify — in addition to the gender bias allegations — “several alleged procedural flaws corrosive of the proof in his case.”

The court also allowed Plaintiff’s procedural due process claim to proceed against several of the administrators, citing the First Circuit’s recent decision in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts to criticize the inadequacy of the university’s questioning, among other things. The court also declined to consider the administrators’ qualified immunity defense at this stage, finding that it would be premature to do so prior to discovery. The court dismissed Plaintiff’s substantive due process claim, however, finding that Plaintiff’s allegations did not “remotely rise” to the conscience-shocking level necessary to make out such a claim.

The court also allowed Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim to proceed, as well as several of his state-law claims including defamation.