Another Victory for the Accused

Lawsuit from Quinnipiac student accused of sexual violence will go to trial, with judge agreeing to potential for bias and that university officials destroyed notes in investigation.

July 23, 2019
 

A federal judge will allow a trial in a sex discrimination lawsuit against Quinnipiac University to move forward. The lawsuit is part of an unusual case that involves university officials destroying their notes on the institution’s own investigations.

U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton earlier this month declined to dismiss many of the claims made by an anonymous student, who was accused of verbally abusing and being physically violent toward two ex-girlfriends.

The student, referred to as John Doe in filings, alleged in his lawsuit that the university was biased against him when it investigated his purported behavior as a potential violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal sex antidiscrimination law. He also said the private university, which is located in Connecticut, adjudicated his case unfairly, by not providing him all of the evidence, among other alleged errors.

The judge’s order does not mean Doe will be successful in his lawsuit, only that his complaints will be evaluated by a trial court. But it reflects a growing trend of students accused of sexual violence winning legal cases while the federal rules around Title IX remain in flux. Almost two years ago, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked guidance on Title IX from the Obama administration. Many credited the Obama-era approach with providing survivors of sex assault more protections, but the approach was unpopular among advocates for accused students. The Trump administration replaced the guidance with draft regulations that have not yet been approved.

Quinnipiac is alleged to have broken a contract around sexual violence -- in this case its own policies -- which could potentially infringe on state law. This is an emerging area of law: the idea of a conduct code being a contract between a student and his or her college or university, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults with colleges and universities on Title IX.

“Universities need to think long and hard and be introspective about themselves and make sure they adhere to having good sound policy in advance,” Carter said.

In June 2016, Doe’s girlfriend at the time -- Jane Roe in court records -- reported to the university she had argued with Doe and that he ended their relationship. She said she had been “accidentally struck” while Doe attempted to grab her purse and kick her out of his apartment. Roe noted in her report that the relationship had been “rocky” and that Doe previously had been physically abusive. She also said his ex-girlfriend -- known as Jane Roe 2 -- had warned her about his misbehavior. Both women were students.

Two university investigators interviewed the women, and after interviewing Jane Roe 2 opened up an investigation on her behalf, even though she never filed a formal complaint.

Ultimately, investigators found that Doe likely had violated university policy and engaged in dating violence and assault, among other infractions. Doe met with the investigators and said he had been treated unfairly because Roe’s witnesses were interviewed before him and she had more time to prepare her statements.

Doe met with administrators for several more months, claiming the investigators or the officials who would participate in his upcoming Title IX hearing were biased. He said one administrator had given “lenient discipline” for another student who assaulted Doe.

When the university tried to schedule a hearing date in March 2017, Doe sued, asking for a temporary restraining order, which was eventually denied. A month later Doe was found responsible for dating violence and other accusations, but he was given a relatively light sentence: a deferred suspension, meaning he would be suspended if he broke the rules again. He also was allowed on campus only for classes and was prevented from attending university-sponsored events. Doe later appealed, but the decision was upheld.

Doe said in his lawsuit that two officials destroyed their notes from two investigations -- one that occurred leading up to the initial hearing and the other from Doe’s appeal. Doe claimed they destroyed the notes after he sued for the restraining order. One of the officials was an attorney and the other was a former state trooper who should have known to retain the documents given the legal issues, Doe said.

The judge's ruling largely backed Doe's account.

“Defendants offer no explanation as to why the apparent destruction of hearing and investigation notes by officials who knew of the litigation hold was not at minimum negligent,” Arterton wrote in her ruling.

At the same time, around February 2017, Doe tried to get the university to investigate what he said was harassment against him.

During the investigation, Doe said Roe’s friends approached him about the ongoing probe, which he said was a breach of confidentiality of the process and a violation of the order that none of the parties involved with the case contact each other. In April 2017, Doe said Roe initiated a conversation with him at a restaurant and said she “fucking hated” him. (The university declined to investigate the alleged harassment by Roe 2 because she was no longer a student.) Roe was eventually cleared of the accusations by Doe.

Quinnipiac declined to comment for this story.

Doe is suing for violations of Title IX and state statutes, among other claims. His lawsuit says the university promised to comply with Title IX in its student handbook and that it would respond to Title IX complaints “equitably,” which Doe said officials did not do.

He’s also suing for “reckless and wanton behavior,” which is a more severe charge that has never been tried before in a Title IX case. The university noted this in its response to Doe’s lawsuit, but Arterton wrote that despite such a claim being unprecedented, it can be judged in a trial.

“While the court agrees that only a plaintiff's testimony how defendants acted might not suffice to establish defendants’ recklessness,” Arterton wrote, “it does not preclude the jury from making that assessment.”

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