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Court Allows Suit by Expelled Saint Joseph’s Student to Proceed

Last July, former Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) student Brian Harris filed suit against the Philadelphia university in federal district court, alleging, among six other counts, that his expulsion for an alleged sexual assault without a fair hearing constituted a breach of contract and a Title IX violation. Last week, Judge L. Felipe Restrepo denied SJU’s motion to dismiss three of the charges and granted SJU’s motion to dismiss the other five, but left the door open for Harris to amend his complaint as to those charges.

Let’s first look at what survived SJU’s motions to dismiss. Harris argued that because SJU created the impression that students like Harris who are accused of sexual misconduct would receive a fair hearing by trained professionals, SJU’s failure to provide adequate notice and fair procedures in his case violated Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. Harris also argued that SJU, a public safety officer at SJU, and his accuser Jane Doe defamed him by referring to him “as the perpetrator of a sexual assault on Doe, even though they knew the allegations were false, or with reckless indifference as to the truth or falsity of said allegations.” Judge Restrepo allowed both of these claims to proceed. Harris’ claim against Jane Doe for intentional interference with a contract claim also survived, without much discussion.

With respect to the remaining counts, Restrepo ruled that Harris had not pled sufficient facts to support his claims. But the ruling doesn’t preclude Harris’ success on those claims altogether—Judge Restrepo dismissed the five remaining claims without prejudice, which allows Harris to amend them within 20 days, and the judge’s analysis contains some critical points in Harris’ favor.

For example, Judge Restrepo dismissed Harris’ breach of contract claim, which was based on Harris’ contention that SJU’s student handbook constitutes a contract between Harris and SJU. Judge Restrepo pointed to the fact that Harris hadn’t specified which provision of the handbook SJU failed to honor, but he also interpreted statements by SJU as a concession that the handbook constituted a contract that could be breached. The notion that a private institution of higher education is contractually bound by its own student handbook has been endorsed by many but not all jurisdictions—including Pennsylvania, where (for example) the Superior Court has held that “the relationship between a private educational institution and an enrolled student is contractual in nature; therefore, a student can bring a cause of action against said institution for breach of contract where the institution ignores or violates portions of the written contract.” Swartley v. Hoffner, 734 A.2d 915, 919 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1999). As a result, Harris may be able to correct his breach claim to survive moving forward. Also working in Harris’ favor is Restrepo’s careful assessment of SJU’s claim that its handbook precludes challenges to hearing results after the university president’s final decision on appeal. Although a student may not challenge the outcome of his misconduct hearing itself, the court can review allegations that the university “breached the terms of [the Handbook] by failing to adhere to its provisions.”

FIRE became involved in the case because the defendants’ motion to dismiss Harris’ complaint included an argument that under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. National Resources Defense Council, Inc. (1984)—the Supreme Court’s seminal decision on when courts must defer to the interpretations of administrative agencies—the court should grant “substantial deference” to the Office for Civil Rights’ (OCR’s) statement in its April 4, 2011, “Dear Colleague” letter that institutions must use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard when adjudicating sexual misconduct cases. The motion says that this and other “specific procedural issues about which Harris complains are mandated” by OCR and therefore cannot form the basis of a Title IX claim. FIRE filed an amicus brief arguing that the “Dear Colleague” letter is not due Chevron deference and that the court should not rely on its mandate in ruling on Harris’ claims. We were pleased to see that the “Dear Colleague” letter was not relied upon in Restrepo’s ruling.

The judge also dismissed Harris’ claim that he had been discriminated against based on his sex in violation of Title IX. Harris’ allegations were “conclusory,” he wrote, and Harris must allege “particular circumstances suggesting that gender bias was a motivating factor” in either the process or the outcome of Harris’ case. As with the breach of contract claim, Harris may correct this deficiency through an amendment of his complaint.

Harris’ Title IX claim is particularly interesting in light of the recent pressure on colleges and universities to better protect victims of sexual assault by bringing their policies and procedures in line with Title IX. Over a dozen lawsuits have been filed in the past year alleging due process violations or violations of Title IX relating to college sexual misconduct hearings, with several plaintiffs claiming that their institutions were motivated in part by this outside pressure.

For example, earlier this week, a male student at Columbia University alleged that his suspension following allegations of sexual assault was a result of “pandering to the political climate on campus and pressure from wom[e]n’s groups” and that John Doe was deprived of due process and discriminated against based on his sex. And if Harris’ amended Title IX claim does ultimately withstand SJU’s motion to dismiss, it wouldn’t be the first time—former Xavier University student and basketball star Dez Wells ultimately settled with the university after his Title IX case involving similar circumstances survived a motion to dismiss in March.

Harris’ complaint may be amended with respect to his other three claims, too, although Judge Restrepo’s discussion of these counts doesn’t leave the door quite as open. On the count of negligence, the judge ruled that any duties SJU had to train staff and provide due process were contractual in nature, so those concerns were properly dealt with as a matter of contract law, not tort law. Harris’ claim that all three defendants “made public statements about Harris which placed him in a false light” failed because such statements must be disseminated widely in order for a “false light” claim to be successful. (The requirement that the statement in question become “public knowledge” is a much more substantial hurdle than defamation’s “publication” requirement, which simply requires that a communication be made to a third party.) And finally, Harris’ allegation of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) against all three defendants failed because in Pennsylvania, a plaintiff alleging IIED “must allege physical injury.” Restrepo further emphasized that IIED must involve “outrageous conduct,” and wrote that Harris’ claims were insufficient on both these grounds.

Harris’ case is one of several of its kind in progress, and its outcome could have noteworthy implications for student due process rights in sexual misconduct cases. FIRE will watch closely for updates on this case and others here on The Torch.

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