The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From a decision last week by Judge Mary McElroy (D.R.I.) in Stiles v. Brown Univ.:
The plaintiff is a senior at Brown and a member of the varsity lacrosse team. As a result of an alleged incident on October 30, 2021, a fellow student, Jane Roe, accused the plaintiff of sexual assault and filed a Title IX complaint with Brown on November 18, 2021. A Brown Threat Assessment Team met the next day to "determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the Prohibited Conduct is likely to continue and/or the [plaintiff] poses a significant threat of harm to the health, safety, and welfare of others and the University community." The Threat Assessment Team completed a rubric of questions concerning the allegations, any potential threat to the community, and any pattern of similar transgressions. Most of the questions were answered in the negative, but "due to the egregious nature of the alleged behavior" the Threat Assessment Team recommended an interim suspension pending determination of the Title IX complaint.
On November 30, 2021, John appealed his interim suspension to Vice President Eric Estes and submitted his response to the Title IX complaint. On December 6, 2021, Mr. Estes partially granted John's appeal by allowing him to complete the current semester remotely and remanded the question of John's suspension for the Spring semester to Brown's threat assessment team for renewed consideration based on John's response to the Title IX complaint. On December 10, 2021, the Threat Assessment Team affirmed its conclusion that the plaintiff's "Prohibited Conduct was likely to continue" as well as Mr. Estes' decision that the plaintiff should be suspended beginning on January 7, 2022, pending an investigation and resolution of the Title IX complaint….
The "student and private university relationship is essentially contractual in nature." "The relevant terms of contractual relationship between a student and a university typically include the language found in the university's student handbook." Courts often interpret the terms of a student handbook "in accordance with the parties' reasonable expectations, giving those terms the meaning that the university reasonably should expect the student to take from them." …
The operative contract is Brown's Student Conduct Procedures and Sexual Misconduct Procedure. Relevant here, the Student Conduct Procedures entitle the plaintiff to "not be presumed responsible of any alleged violations unless so found through the appropriate student conduct hearing" and to be "afforded an opportunity to offer a relevant response." The Sexual Misconduct Procedure also "presumes that the Respondent is not responsible for the alleged Prohibited conduct" and further guarantees John "meaningful opportunities to participate" in the Title IX process. This reasonably includes any important phase of the process that will affect John's rights, such as his continuing education, access to campus, or participation in school sponsored activities.
The Sexual Misconduct Procedure permits the "interim actions" of emergency removal from campus and suspension pending resolution of a complaint if "there is reasonable cause to believe that the "Prohibited Conduct is likely to continue and/or the Respondent poses a significant threat of harm to the health, safety, and welfare of others or the University community."
Here, however, the facts suggest that, in both assessments that it made, the Threat Assessment Team failed to demonstrate anything that would indicate they afforded the plaintiff a presumption that he was not responsible for the alleged conduct as required by contract. Instead, it focused on the nature of the unproven allegations and removed him from campus and suspended him before performing any investigation of those allegations. The plaintiff therefore is likely to succeed on his claim that Brown could not fairly determine if there were "reasonable cause to believe" that the plaintiff would likely continue his alleged prohibited conduct or otherwise be a threat to the university community….
The plaintiff meets his burden to demonstrate irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction. The plaintiff's transcript currently indicates that he is suspended for the Spring 2022 semester. It is not speculative to presume that such a notation on his permanent record will have lasting, negative ramifications. See Doe v. Univ. of Conn. (D. Conn. Jan. 23, 2020) (finding irreparable harm where the student "would also need to explain the suspension notation on his UCONN transcript, and a truthful explanation would seriously hinder his prospects"); Doe v. Middlebury Coll. (D. Vt. Sept. 16, 2015) (finding irreparable harm where the student "would have to explain, for the remainder of his professional life, why his education either ceased prior to completion or contains a gap"); King v. DePauw Univ. (S.D. Ind. Aug. 22, 2014) (finding irreparable harm where plaintiff would "forever have either a gap or a senior-year transfer on his record," noting the inevitability of questions by future employers or graduate schools for which "any explanation is unlikely to fully erase the stigma")….
The balance of the equities favors the plaintiff. Brown's interest in protecting the plaintiff's accuser is mitigated by the fact that a no-contact order is in place between the plaintiff and her, he has not contacted her since before it entered, when he responded to a text message that she sent. Indeed, the plaintiff was on the campus for nearly three weeks without incident between the alleged assault and the date of the suspension….
Brown University is enjoined from denying the plaintiff his contractual rights under the Student Conduct Procedures and Sexual Misconduct Procedure, from suspending him from campus pending resolution of Jane Roe's Title IX complaint, from denying him class attendance and participation and the ability to continue practicing and playing on the varsity lacrosse team, until such time as he is found responsible for the alleged Title IX violations or a renewed threat assessment is properly conducted in accordance with the plaintiff's contractual rights.