Friday, October 07, 2016

Disciplined Student Prevails Against Brown on Breach of Contract Claim

Last week a federal judge in Rhode Island concluded a bench trial in a case between a John Doe plaintiff and Brown University who sued the university after he was suspended for sexual misconduct.  The only issue that the trial addressed was whether the university breached its contractual obligation to John Doe in the manner that it conducted the process by which he was found responsible and disciplined. In siding with the plaintiff, the court made clear that it was not concluding anything about the merits of the complaint against Doe.  It also expressed alarm that Brown students had orchestrated an email campaign directed to the judge to criticize his earlier decision that allowed Doe to remain on campus while his case was pending, and hoped that these students would read the decision and be educated about the role of the courts in such matters.

As for the breach of contract claim itself, the court first acknowledged that the Student Handbook, including the Code of Conduct, form the basis of a contract between a student and the university. In this case, the conduct for which Doe was suspended occurred in 2014, so his case should have been governed by the policy and process contained in the 2014-15 version of the Code of Conduct.  Brown has subsequently updated its policy to provide a definition for consent, which was absent from the 2014-15 policy, but it applied the newly-codified definition of consent when it adjudicated Doe's case.  The new definition clarified that that consent could not be obtained through "manipulation," and the charge in Doe's case was that he had manipulated another student to have sex. (In fact, he had admitted to such "manipulation" in an incriminating text message.)

Brown argued that the consent definition merely "codified community standards" of consent, and therefore did not materially change the 2014-15 Code. But the court determined that a reasonable student would not have expected in 2014-15 that sexual activity to which another had been manipulated to consent violated the Code of Conduct. The Court acknowledged that this case was a "close call" and that the problem it acknowledges is limited only to those cases that occurred prior to the change of definition.  As such, it is not an indictment on Brown's sexual assault response or, for that matter, on Title IX.

Though the court invalidated Brown's decision to suspend Doe, it acknowledged the university's right to hold another hearing using the 2014-15 Code. Presumably, this would mean instructing the panel to apply a common sense/ common understanding of consent, as they had done prior to the Code's incorporation of a specific definition.  It is possible that under such a definition, the "manipulation" in question negates consent, but hearing panel could decide otherwise.