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Important Case Update Regarding University Title IX Investigations

July 24, 2019

The District Court of Connecticut recently decided an important case involving Title IX investigations. In John Doe v. Quinnipiac University, 2019 WL 3003830 (D. Conn. July 10, 2019), a male undergraduate student, John Doe (“Doe”), claimed the university treated him unfairly in its Title IX investigation into alleged misconduct by him against two female students, Jane Roe and Jane Roe 2. The court found in favor of the university on some claims, permitting other claims to survive.

Factual Background

Two female students who were previously in a relationship with Doe alleged Doe committed intimate partner violence. Upon learning this information, Quinnipiac University began a Title IX investigation and issued a “no contact” order, instructing each of the involved students that they were not to contact each other pending the outcome of the investigation.

During the investigation, Doe filed a complaint against Jane Roe and Jane Roe 2 for sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and stalking in violation of university policies and the no contact order. The university investigated this complaint, but was unable to substantiate Doe’s claims.

As for the claims against Doe, the university ultimately found Doe to have engaged in misconduct, and imposed various sanctions. 

Doe appealed the decision and subsequently filed a complaint against the University, seeking damages and injunctive relief for alleged violations of Title IX and state common law.

The university filed a motion for summary judgment on all of Doe’s complaint, which included claims of spoliation, violations of Title IX in the investigation and disciplinary processes, breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, tortious interference with contract, and negligence. The District Court of Connecticut granted the university’s summary judgment motion in part, including on the deliberate indifference, tortious interference, negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligence claims. However, the court permitted the spoliation, Title IX, breach of contract and reckless and wanton misconduct claims to proceed, finding that there were material facts in dispute with respect to those charges.

Destruction of Evidence

Doe asserted that the university was liable for destruction of evidence because the investigator and hearing officer shredded their handwritten notes. In the investigator’s defense, she explained that she only destroyed the handwritten interview notes after having “typed the interview.”

Nevertheless, the court found that the hearing officer and investigator had a duty to preserve such documents, as they directly related to Doe’s claims that he had been subjected to an unfair process. The court determined these facts established an adverse inference that the notes likely contained evidence supporting Plaintiff’s Title IX claims. Accordingly, the court denied the motion for summary judgment.

Title IX Claims

Doe brought three claims under Title IX, including erroneous outcome, selective enforcement, and deliberate indifference.

To establish a claim for erroneous outcome, a plaintiff must show specific facts that cast doubt on the accuracy of the disciplinary proceeding. A plaintiff must also show that gender bias was a motivating factor behind the erroneous outcome. The court denied the university’s motion for summary judgment on this claim because there was some evidence that the investigator credited Jane Roe’s statement that she felt unsafe, while failing to credit Doe’s statement that he felt unsafe. This alleged act of differential treatment was enough to raise questions about the accuracy of the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding, and therefore, this claim survived the motion for summary judgment.

Relatedly, a selective enforcement claim requires a showing that, regardless of the student’s guilt or innocence, the severity of the penalty and/or the decision to initiate the proceeding was affected by the student’s gender. In denying the university’s motion, the court focused on three alleged instances in which the university treated Jane Roe and Jane Roe 2 more favorably than Doe:

  1. Reporting and investigating Jane Roe and Jane Roe 2’s allegations about Doe as Title IX matters, while ignoring Doe’s reporting of stalking and harassment by both women.
     
  2. Forcing Doe to file a formal complaint against Roe in order to have his allegations investigated, against Doe’s express wishes, and not requiring Jane Roe 2 to file any complaint at all in order to begin investigating her allegations.
  3. Using an incorrect definition of Intimate Partner Violence in Doe’s hearing, which required fewer elements to be proved, while using the correct definition in the second investigation to find Roe not responsible for charges “based on the same evidence” in the same time frame.

The court determined that these alleged instances demonstrated a triable issue of fact as to whether Doe was subject to an unfair process when compared to the treatment of the female students, and therefore denied the university’s motion for summary judgment on this count.

Lastly, in order to prevail on a claim of deliberate indifference, a plaintiff must show that a university’s response was clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances. The court granted the university’s motion for summary judgment as to Doe’s deliberate indifference claim, determining that the university did, in fact, investigate his claims of sexual harassment, and did not substantiate the claims. Therefore, a factfinder could not determine that the university’s response was clearly unreasonable.

State Law Claims

Doe also asserted various state law claims against the university, including breach of contract, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.

Notably, the court denied the university’s motion for summary judgment with regard to the breach of contract claims. Among Doe’s 29 claimed breaches of contract, Doe alleged the university breached its promise to comply with Title IX; respond to complaints promptly; guide complainants “with regard to how much detail is needed in an initial report”; and select a second trained investigator to assist with the formal investigation.  The court determined that whether the university’s policies created an enforceable contract must be decided by a factfinder.

The court did grant the university’s motion for summary judgment on the claims of negligent infliction of emotional distress and negligence. Courts have historically barred negligence-based claims of “educational malpractice,” and the court here explained that this bar also applies to decisions regarding student discipline.

Key Takeaways

The recent decision by Judge Arterton in John Doe v. Quinnipiac highlights several key lessons  for universities conducting Title IX investigations. First, all handwritten notes must be preserved as evidence, in addition to any formal typed notes. Second, the procedures for filing and investigating complaints by male and female students must be identical. Third, statements by male students concerning fear for safety should be taken as seriously as those made by female students. Ensuring such a fair process will best enable a university to avoid allegations of disparate treatment and reach a fair outcome for all parties.

Please contact Leander Dolphin, Joette Katz or Lauren Cullen with any questions you may have regarding Title IX investigations.

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