Thursday, July 09, 2015

Round-up of Decisions in Disciplined-Student Cases

In the last half-year, federal district courts around the country have issued decisions in cases against universities filed by students disciplined for sexual assault.  We blogged about two such decisions when they occurred; courts in separate cases dismissed Title IX and other claims against both Columbia University and Vassar.  Besides these two, several more courts have issued rulings in disciplined-student cases in 2015, warranting an overdue "roundup" from me. The details of these cases are presented below, but by way of summary, in all of these cases, the plaintiff's Title IX claims were dismissed early in the litigation. As for claims under other sources of law, one decision (Sterrett) allowed a plaintiff to continue to litigate a procedural due process claim, though in a considerably narrowed form, and others (Peloe and Doe) foreclosed due process claims entirely because the student did not exhaust other remedies first by appealing within the university. Another decision (Marshall) summarily dismissed a student's First Amendment claim. State law claims were not generally represented among these decisions, except in one case (Knox) where the court remanded state law claims because it was without jurisdiction to consider them once the federal claims had been dismissed.
  • A male student at Knox College was disciplined for sexual assault of two female students.  In his lawsuit against the college, he argued that there were procedural deficiencies in the grievance proceeding that resulted in his discipline, such as not being able to present all exculpatory evidence or cross-examine one of his accusers who did not attend the hearing.  Without deciding whether the alleged procedural deficiencies constituted violations of state law (claims over which the court had no jurisdiction), the court dismissed the plaintiff’s Title IX claim due to the plaintiff’s failure to allege specific facts that support a conclusion that the university intentionally deprived the plaintiff of procedural rights because of his sex.  Blank v. Knox College, 2015 WL 328602 (C.D. Ill. Jan. 23, 2015). 
  • A male student at the University of Michigan sued university officials involved in the process by which he was suspended for raping a female student, which he denied having done. His lawsuit challenged various alleged procedural inadequacies as violations of both Title IX and the Constitution's due process clause. The court dismissed the plaintiff’s Title IX claim because he did not include any specific allegations to support his claim that procedural inadequacies were motivated by gender bias.  But his due process claim was only partially dismissed. He successfully alleged--and will thus be allowed to continue to litigate--his claim that the university failed to provide him adequate notice of the claims against him prior to his initial meeting with the investigator who prepared a report in which she concluded he was responsible for rape (though it did dismiss his claim that notice was inadequate as to the hearing that occurred later).  The court dismissed his claim that the university violated his right to due process by failing to provide him an opportunity to present his side of the matter.  However, this opportunity occurred after the investigator prepared her report, so the court found "plausible" his claim that he should have had greater opportunity to participate in the process prior to that time. Sterrett v. Cowan, 2015 WL 470601 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 4, 2015).
  • After a disciplinary hearing, the University of Cincinnati found the plaintiff, a male student, responsible for sexual assault and imposed sanctions.  The plaintiff sued, challenging the fact that university officials limited the evidence he was able to present at the hearing and did not allow him to record it. Because he sued in federal court before taking advantage of the opportunity to appeal the outcome of his disciplinary hearing to various university officials, the court dismissed his due process claim as premature. Similarly, the court dismissed his Title IX claim, which alleged that the university reached an “erroneous outcome” in his case due to gender bias. Even if the plaintiff was correct about the role of bias, the court refused to hold the university responsible for procedural errors that the plaintiff did not seek to correct through the appeal process that is in place for exactly that reason. Peloe v. University of Cincinnati, 2015 WL 728309 (S.D. Ohio Feb. 19, 2015).
  • A male student was suspended for one semester for sexually harassing a female student, conduct that largely consisted of him pestering her to go out with him or have sex with him.  In seeking a preliminary injunction against the suspension, the plaintiff alleged that the university violated his First Amendment rights to free speech, but the court rejected this argument based on precedent that allows the regulation of sexually harassing speech. The court also rejected his Title IX argument was because he failed to allege any facts that could support a conclusion that gender bias played a role in the university's decision to sanction him. For example, there were no alleged comments by university officials conveying such bias, nor allegations that the university had a motive (such as impressing OCR) to impose unwarranted discipline on a male student. Marshall v. Ohio University, 2015 WL 1179955 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 19, 2015)
  • A federal court in Ohio granted Miami University's motion to dismiss Title IX claims filed by a male student expelled for sexual assault because he did not sufficiently allege that the university's disciplinary proceedings were biased against him because of sex.  One aspect of his complaint alleged that a campus safety officer encouraged a (presumably exculpatory) witness not to testify, an allegation that the court admitted was "troubling" but still void of gender bias ("These facts pleaded against [the officer] do not suggest a gender bias against males so much as against students accused of sexual assault."). The court also refused to interpret allegations that the University had been publically criticized for failing to address sexual assault as an allegation that the University was biased against the plaintiff on the basis of sex. Sahm v. Miami University, 2015 WL 2406065 (S.D. Ohio May 20, 2015)
  • The University of South Florida had sent notice via email (twice and with “high importance”) to a student who had been accused of sexual assault and requested his participation in the investigation and disciplinary process. The student deleted the emails without reading them because he did not recognize the name of the sender, resulting in his summary expulsion. The student then brought a due process and a Title IX claim against USF, both of which were dismissed. The court rejected his due process claim on the grounds that it was premature to sue the university for lack of due process without first going through all of the appeal procedures the university provides. The court also dismissed the student’s Title IX claim because he did not allege any intentional discrimination on the university’s part, only that its procedure for handing sexual assault has a disparate impact on male students, a claim not recognized under Title IX’s private right of action.  Though the court gave the plaintiff permission to amend his complaint to include allegations of intentional sex discrimination, it predicted that such efforts would be "futile." Doe v. University of South Florida Board of Trustees, 2015 WL 3453753 (M.D. Fla. May 29, 2015).