Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Rolph v. Hobart & William Smith Colleges, 271 F. Supp. 3d 386 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 20, 2017)

School type: Private
State: New York
Federal Circuit: Second
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Breach of contract, Erroneous outcome, Title IX

The court allowed Plaintiff’s Title IX claims to proceed, but dismissed his state law claims.

Plaintiff Matthew Rolph was a student at Hobart & William Smith Colleges (HWS) along with Jane Roe, with whom he had several sexual encounters before the alleged incident. On the night in question, Plaintiff and Roe were engaging in consensual sexual activity in Roe’s room. At some point Roe stopped to answer her phone. The parties’ testimony diverge at this point. Plaintiff alleges Roe then resumed the consensual sexual activity. Roe claims Plaintiff had engaged in behavior prior to the phone call that she did not consent to, which is why she went to get her phone.

A few days later, Roe filed a complaint against Plaintiff with HWS. The next day, Roe went to the hospital at the urging of a professor, but the university’s investigator, Erin Beatty, did not obtain her hospital records. Beatty also failed to obtain phone records to support witnesses’ statements. Although Beatty gathered several witnesses’ statements, the only witness against Plaintiff at the disciplinary hearing was Roe. Plaintiff was found responsible and expelled, and was also charged with a criminal sex act by the Ontario County District Attorney’s Office, of which he was later acquitted.

Plaintiff sued HWS alleging the following: “(1) a violation of Title IX . . . ; (2) breach of contract; (3) promissory estoppel; (4) negligence; and (5) negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

The court held that Plaintiff provided sufficient evidence to establish an inference of gender bias and satisfy an erroneous outcome claim. Plaintiff provided evidence that “HWS was criticized in the media for failing to take seriously female students’ complaints of sexual assault by male students.” He also alleged that newspaper coverage of a previous sexual assault case that reflected negatively on the university influenced his punishment, and that HWS was under pressure regarding sexual assault decisions due to the “Dear Colleague Letter” and “OCR’s threat to withhold federal funding.” The court found Plaintiff was possibly disadvantaged at his disciplinary hearing since the investigator “failed to review or preserve electronic evidence or conduct any follow-up interviews to resolve inconsistencies between witnesses’ statements.” Plaintiff also alleged he was discriminated against when the panel questioned him “extensively about whether he was intoxicated” on the night of the incident, but did not question Roe about whether she thought Plaintiff was drunk the night of the assault. The court concluded all of these allegations were sufficient to sustain an erroneous outcome claim.

Regarding the selective enforcement claim, the court held it could not survive a motion to dismiss because “Plaintiff allege[d] that ‘women rarely, if ever, are accused of sexual harassment by the Colleges’ which suggests that a similarly-situated comparator may not exist.”

The court dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim because the court found that the statements Plaintiff regarded as contract terms were merely “aspirational statements,” which “do not provide the basis for a breach of contract claim.” To sustain a breach of contract claim, the court said Plaintiff would need to point to “specific terms of the implied contract that were allegedly violated by the college,” and Plaintiff failed to do so. Although the court dismissed Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim, it still recognized that a contract existed between Plaintiff and the school. Because a contract existed, the court dismissed Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim.

Plaintiff also claimed HWS was negligent. The court dismissed Plaintiff’s negligence claim arising from the contract, but Plaintiff also alleged HWS had a duty of care stemming from accreditation standards. The court held Plaintiff failed to show that precedent existed where the law recognized a duty of care arose from accreditation standards. The court, therefore, dismissed Plaintiff’s negligence claim altogether.