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Federal court of appeals upholds motion to dismiss claims against U. in Title IX related case

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian
Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

A federal court of appeals affirmed a motion to dismiss a former graduate student’s claims against the University in a Title IX-related case.

The plaintiff, referred to as “John Doe,” accused another Princeton student of sexual misconduct and invoked the University’s Title IX disciplinary process. He claimed the University itself violated Title IX, a federal law banning sex and gender discrimination in higher education, during its investigation into Doe’s accusation. The University found the respondent in the case (the student Doe accused of misconduct) not responsible for violating its Title IX policy.   

Additionally, after disclosing directly to the University that he had attempted to commit suicide, Doe’s request to delay a midterm exam was denied. Subsequently, he was dismissed from the University for “failure to maintain adequate grades.” On the basis of these events, the actions of the Title IX investigative panel, and several other alleged improprieties, Doe sued the University for violations of Title IX, breach of contract, estoppel and reliance, and negligence.

Though the University’s motion to dismiss these claims was previously affirmed by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in February 2018, Doe appealed the decision. On Oct. 25, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision. 

Deputy University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss referred The Daily Princetonian to a 2017 statement from the Office of Communications, which noted that the suit “contains a series of inaccurate accusations and repeatedly mischaracterizes how the University handled this former graduate student’s complaint,” and that the University “intend[ed] to mount a vigorous defense.”

Hotchkiss added, “two courts have now reviewed the complaint and confirmed that it is without merit.” 

According to the District Court opinion, Doe was a graduate student pursuing a degree in finance when he alleged he was sexually assaulted twice, both times by the same Princeton student, in 2014.

The suit mentions that Doe became active at the Jewish religious center on campus, the name of which is redacted in the document. The suit also states, “While engaging with the University’s Jewish community,” Doe met his alleged assaulter, a male undergraduate student and a “prominent member of the University’s Jewish community.”

According to the suit, the two began a relationship in August 2014, and the alleged incidents occurred in August and September of that year. After the second alleged incident, the “[p]laintiff allegedly told [the individual] that he did not wish to date him anymore; and subsequently informed certain mutual friends that [the individual] had sexually assaulted him on two occasions.” 

Doe also claimed that the individual’s friends “created a hostile environment for him” in the Jewish religious center and “harassed him on campus by using a gay slur and calling him a liar.”

On Oct. 21, 2014, according to the complaint, Doe told Assistant Dean for Student Life Lily Secora that he was sexually assaulted. In January 2015, the University appointed a Title IX investigative panel to address Doe’s accusations.

During the course of the investigation, the accused student made allegations of his own, accusing Doe of  “making false statements.” The panel charged Doe with sexual harassment, stalking, and retaliation, and the accused student with “sex discrimination, non-consensual sexual penetration, non-consensual sexual contact, sexual harassment, intimate relationship violence, stalking in the context of human relationships, and sexual exploitation.” 

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According to the District Court opinion, the Title IX investigative report notes that the panel “read nearly 500 pages of documents and conducted [19] interviews of witnesses.” After doing so, the panel “determined that neither student was responsible” for any of the complaints. Doe appealed this decision, but it was affirmed by the appellate panel.

Doe alleged that the panel acted improperly in multiple ways. 

Though the District Court and Third Circuit Court dismissed all legal claims against the University, they did not rule on the factual accuracy of Doe’s story. Rather, the opinion lay out why Doe’s story, even if factually accurate, would not prove any breach of law on the University’s part.

Doe claimed that the convening of the panel was unduly delayed by about two months, showing a lack of urgency. Doe also claimed that the panel did not interview all of his witnesses, did not treat him with respect and concern, and asked insensitive questions about his previous sexual activity.

In its 2017 statement on the matter, the Office of Communications noted that the allegations of misconduct were “investigated extensively and fairly in full compliance with University policies and procedures,” and that the suit “repeatedly mischaracterizes” how the case was handled. 

Furthermore, Doe allegedly told the panel he was depressed, “advised two Rabbis at Princeton” in March 2015 about past suicide attempts, and disclosed this information in April 2015 to the University through “an internal ethics complaint site.”

Around that time, Doe requested to delay a midterm exam in his class on trading options. Associate Dean for Student Life Lisa Schrayer “denied this request but ‘repeatedly told John Doe to take a leave of absence,’” according to the Complaint. 

Because he did not sit for his Options midterm, Doe received an “F” in the course and “was dismissed from the University for failure to maintain adequate grades.”

Doe alleged that the University was deliberately indifferent on the basis of Schrayer’s denial of Doe’s request to delay his Options midterm; on the basis of the University’s “failure to provide psychiatric treatment” after Doe “gave notice to the Rabbis and the internal ethics complaint website”; and on the basis of the University’s “failure to curb the harassment by [the alleged assaulter’s] friends.”

In regards to Schrayer’s denial of the request to delay an exam, the District Court found that the claim of indifference did not hold, because Schrayer offered Doe an alternative: a leave of absence.

The court applied the same reasoning in its evaluation of the University’s failure to provide psychiatric treatment to Doe after he informed the Rabbis and the complaint website about his suicide attempts; the District Court opinion stated that the offered leave of absence was “a reasonable alternative” to psychiatric treatment.

Regarding Doe’s institutional harassment allegation, the suit notes that Doe would have to show the harassment was “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school” in order for the court to find the University violated Title IX. The court determined that Doe’s harassment claim did not successfully meet this evidentiary standard. 

The Circuit Court opinion points out that “one instance of being called a slur, while offensive, is neither severe nor pervasive.”

Doe also made claims of retaliation, alleging that “[d]uring the panel’s investigation and deliberation, Princeton ‘banned’ Doe ‘from attending’ the religious center, but declined to provide Doe with a no-contact order against [the accused student’s] friends.” 

The suit notes that a no-contact order “was something Princeton does not issue to students.” Additionally, the District Court opinion notes, “the fact that he was banned from the [religious community center] ... is only vaguely alleged in the Complaint; and there are no allegations why this action was a product of retaliation.”

Doe’s claim of “selective enforcement” alleged “that there was a bias by the University against male sexual assault victims, which demonstrates that the University was selectively acting against homosexuals.” 

The motion to dismiss this claim was upheld by the Third Circuit Court because “Doe alleged no facts reflecting that the disciplinary process and results for female victims are different from men.”

Doe also made a claim of “estoppel,” alleging that the University “promised, in return for Doe’s acceptance of admission and tuition,” that Doe would not suffer sexual assault, unfair procedures, or an “arbitrary termination of his enrollment.” 

The suit notes, however, that Doe’s “general expectation[s]” for the University do not legally “constitute an enforceable promise.”

To the claim that Doe’s dismissal was “arbitrary,” the court determined that Doe “identified no policy preventing Princeton from imposing academic requirements for continued enrollment.” 

The Graduate School website notes that reenrollment is available to students who have satisfied all academic requirements within their department or program, and the Bendheim Center for Finance website lists one of those requirements as maintaining an overall grade average of B or better.

Doe’s claim of negligence was also dismissed because the Charitable Immunity Act prevents nonprofit organizations from being liable to respond to damages from negligence if the person suffering the damage is “a beneficiary, to whatever degree,” of the nonprofit’s work.

Moreover, Doe claimed the University violated provisions of “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,” but the District Court found that the University followed its procedures by “creating an investigative panel and appellate body on the alleged assaults.” The suit found Doe’s claim of breach of contract to be “without merit.”

In response to a request for clarification as to which specific allegations against the panel were “inaccurate” or “mischaracterized,” a request for clarification as to why the University did not take action against the students, even if the harassment only consisted of “one instance of being called a slur,” and a request for clarification as to whether or not the University banned Doe from the religious center, Hotchkiss and University Spokesperson Ben Chang said they had nothing more to add beyond the 2017 statement.

Kimberly Law, the primary counsel for Doe, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.