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Student suing U. over expulsion for alleged Title IX violation will not be reinstated to finish academic year

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

A student suing the University after he was expelled earlier this term over Title IX violations will not be able to finish the academic year, a federal court ruled on Tuesday.

The student, under the pseudonym “John Doe,” sued the University on April 15, asserting that Princeton had violated Title IX, a federal law that bans sex and gender discrimination in higher education, by expelling him for alleged violations of the University’s “Intimate Partner Violence” policy. The complaint was filed in the federal district court in Trenton.

On the same day, Doe filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO). The TRO sought to prevent the University from enforcing, while Doe’s lawsuit is pending, its decisions to expel him and prohibit him from attending class and sitting for exams. The University defended its actions, and the court heard oral arguments from both sides on April 21.

In an opinion published on April 21, Judge Brian Martinotti agreed with the University, ruling that Doe is unlikely to succeed in his claims against Princeton. 

“Given the information available at this time, the Court finds Plaintiff has not alleged particular facts sufficient to cast doubt on the accuracy of the outcome of the disciplinary proceeding,” Martinotti wrote.

As a result of the ruling, Doe’s expulsion will remain in place as he litigates his claims against the University.

The University is pleased with the court’s ruling, according to University Spokesperson Ben Chang in an email to The Daily Princetonian.

“The lawsuit remains pending, and the University is not going to litigate plaintiff’s claims through the press,” Chang wrote. “We can say that we stand by our handling of the student discipline matter and the actions of our administrators, and we are confident that we will prevail on the merits.”

Emily Thall, a representative for Doe’s counsel, wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’ that they are unable to comment.

Princeton has faced litigation over alleged Title IX violations twice in the past year and prevailed in both instances. In November 2019, a federal court of appeals affirmed a motion to dismiss a former male graduate student’s claims that the University had violated Title IX, allegedly showing bias against male sexual assault victims. And in late March, the University won a discrimination lawsuit filed by former professor Sergio Verdú, after the judge ruled Verdú had failed to demonstrate evidence of gender bias in his 2018 firing for allegedly violating University policies that prohibit consensual relations with students.

In suing now, Doe joins a plethora of other “Does” across the country — male students accused of sexual misconduct who believe their universities have denied them due process in Title IX proceedings. The group Title IX for All has tracked around 500 such suits, many of which have seen rulings favorable to the plaintiffs. 

In July 2019, a former student at Michigan State University filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court, alleging his university had violated Title IX law in adjudicating his two-year suspension. As many as 200 students stood to benefit from the class action, the student’s counsel said at the time in an interview with Reason magazine.

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In 2011, the Obama administration sent a  “Dear Colleague letter to university administrators, imploring institutions of higher learning to proactively address campus sexual assault. In 2017, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolled back the letter and proposed changes to Title IX rules, emphasizing the need for “basic due process protections for students” accused of sexual misconduct. The action elicited varied responses from legal advocates, with some applauding her proposal and others condemning it for purportedly undermining the rights of sexual assault survivors. 

Court rejects Doe’s claim that U. was likely motivated by gender bias

The court previously sealed Doe’s complaint and most other materials filed in the case. But the court’s 17-page opinion, which was publicly filed on April 21 before being temporarily sealed the following day at the University’s request, recites many of Doe’s allegations. At the time of publication, the opinion remains available online. 

The opinion, as is customary in a ruling on a preliminary injunction, was based solely on facts as characterized by Doe in the complaint and presumed them true only for the purposes of this opinion.

According to the April 21 opinion, the lawsuit arose after Princeton’s Title IX Office investigated allegations of intimate partner violence brought against Doe by his ex-girlfriend, referred to in the opinion as “Jane Roe.” 

In February, the Title IX Office found there was sufficient information to substantiate all five incidents of abuse alleged by Jane but insufficient information to substantiate any incident of abuse by Jane that Doe alleged, as recounted in the April 21 opinion. A panel that conducted the investigation noted that it found Jane “very credible,” and the plaintiff not credible.

The opinion also stated the University sent notice to the plaintiff on Feb. 27 informing him of his expulsion. Doe appealed the decision on March 9, and a three-member appellate panel denied his appeal on March 18.

In his ruling, Martinotti rejected Doe’s argument that the University had likely been motivated by gender bias. 

“Notably, Plaintiff does not allege any statements by University officials or the Panel that reflect bias by anyone involved in the investigation or adjudication of Jane’s claims against Plaintiff,” Martinotti concluded.

The judge ruled that Doe’s “conclusory allegations of gender bias” did not include “specific instances of gender bias” such as “statements by members of the disciplinary tribunal, statements by pertinent university officials,” or “patterns of decision-making that also tend to show the influence of gender.” 

Instead, the court concluded that Doe had attempted to demonstrate gender bias by “pointing to the alleged disparate treatment he and Jane received throughout the investigation” and “the fact that Jane was given credibility for her version of the events while he was not.” But Doe’s allegations fell short because they did not claim that Jane’s gender was the basis for these differences, the court ruled.

The court also rejected Doe’s arguments that Princeton was holding men to a different standard than women. Martinotti explained that to successfully make such a claim, a “male plaintiff must demonstrate that a female was in circumstances sufficiently similar to his own and was treated more favorably by the university.”

But Doe did not successfully “demonstrate Jane was treated favorably during the investigations,” Martinotti concluded.

Martinotti ultimately ruled that Doe’s argument about alleged disparities between the University’s investigations of his and Jane’s claims against one another and its response to his and Jane’s respective violations of a No Contact Order was not likely to succeed in demonstrating his claim of selective enforcement.

The Court also concluded that Doe would not suffer irreparable harms — an element of the high legal standard required of a plaintiff seeking a temporary injunction — as a result of his expulsion remaining in place while his suit against the University proceeds.

Doe’s legal team asked the Court to “provisionally reinstate” him by allowing him to watch recorded classes, sit for spring exams, and have those exams graded and sealed, to be opened should he prevail in his suit. But the court rejected this request, too, ruling that because Doe’s claims will likely take months to completely resolve, he would still suffer the harm—a gap in his resume—whether or not he is provisionally reinstated. 

Yet, according to an April 21 letter to the judge by Princeton’s counsel, Stephen Kastenberg, the University has confirmed it is able “to take steps” to preserve existing and future recordings of John Doe’s lectures from this semester “for the pendency of this litigation.”

Although no date has been set yet for further proceedings, the case is ongoing. 

Editor’s Note: This piece was last updated on April 27 at 3 p.m. 

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