Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Knoch v. University of Pittsburgh, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117081 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2016)

School type: Public
State: Pennsylvania
Federal Circuit: Third
Decision primarily favorable to: University
Stage of litigation: Motion for TRO/preliminary injunction
Keywords: Due process, Exculpatory evidence, Right to counsel

The court denied Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to register for classes despite his suspension from the university.

The case stems from alleged incidents of domestic violence between Plaintiff and his ex-girlfriend. She filed a complaint after Plaintiff allegedly bruised her hands and threw her laptop off the table during an argument, and later amended that complaint to include additional, earlier incidents as well. Following a hearing, Plaintiff was suspended for two semesters.

Plaintiff also filed a complaint against his ex-girlfriend alleging several incidents of domestic violence; his complaint was never adjudicated.

To obtain a preliminary injunction in the Third Circuit, the moving party must demonstrate (1) a reasonable probability of success on the merits; (2) irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction; (3) that the injunction would not cause greater harm to the nonmoving party; and (4) that the injunction is in the public interest.

Plaintiff brought a § 1983 claim alleging several due process violations. He was prohibited from introducing an expert witness to testify about how several of his ex-girlfriend’s psychological issues might affect her credibility; the university prohibited this testimony because, among other things, Plaintiff’s expert had never treated his ex-girlfriend. The court held that the university had discretion over whether to allow various types of testimony, and that this did not amount to a violation of due process. The court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that the hearing panel’s failure to consider exculpatory evidence amounted to a due process violation.

The court was more troubled by the fact that university policy prohibits the creation of any contemporaneous record of the hearing, such that any hearing notes created by any of the parties must be destroyed immediately after the hearing. “The court does take pause with the fact that the university does not create a contemporary record of the only fact finding proceeding in its discovery process, ostensibly rendering a de novo review impossible.” However, the court found that because Plaintiff had not cited any legal authority on the issue, he had not met his burden of demonstrating a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of this claim.

The court was also concerned that Plaintiff’s attorney had not been permitted to actively participate in the proceedings, noting that given the length of Plaintiff’s suspension, this “may implicate due process violations.” However, Plaintiff again did not cite any legal authority for his proposition that this amounted to a due process violation, so he did not demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of success on the claim.

Plaintiff also brought an equal protection claim based on how differently the university treated his complaint of domestic violence from the way it treated his ex-girlfriend’s complaint (for example, no interim restrictions were imposed on his ex-girlfriend, and his complaint against her was never even adjudicated). While the court held that Plaintiff had made a prima facie showing of unequal treatment, this was largely negated by testimony from university administrators about why the cases were handled differently. Most importantly, the complaint against Plaintiff was filed by a police officer, whereas the complaint against his ex-girlfriend was filed by Plaintiff himself.

The case subsequently settled.