7th Circuit’s Purdue ruling impacting other Title IX lawsuits

The case against Purdue University brought by a male student who was expelled and lost his Navy ROTC scholarship after the school determined he had sexually assaulted a female student has survived a second motion to dismiss.

Identified only as John Doe, the male student filed the lawsuit in 2017. He claimed Purdue violated his due process rights under the 14th Amendment and violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by reaching the “erroneous outcome,” solely because of his gender, that he had sexually assaulted his former girlfriend.

Along with Purdue University, the plaintiff included Purdue President Mitch Daniels, vice president of ethics and compliance Alysa Christmas Rollock, dean of students Katherine Sermersheim and the Purdue board of trustees as defendants. They successfully petitioned for the case to be dismissed, but the decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana was overturned in June 2019 by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In its ruling in John Doe v. Purdue University, 928 F.3d 652 (7th Cir. 2019), the Chicago appellate court rejected the formulas other circuit courts used to evaluate Title IX claims and offered its own method.

The 7th Circuit’s opinion helped Doe overcome the motion to dismiss on remand and has enabled another male student, also identified as John Doe, to keep his own lawsuit alive against Purdue. In addition, a May 29 opinion from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals used the 7th Circuit’s evaluation process in a similar Title IX lawsuit lodged by a male student. This is the first appellate court to adopt the Chicago panel’s method, according to Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson, who has studied and tracked Title IX lawsuits filed against institutions of higher education.

In using the 7th Circuit’s “straightforward pleading standard,” the 3rd Circuit panel said the standard “hews most closely to the test of Title IX.”

Doe’s case was the first such Title IX lawsuit to reach the 7th Circuit. Complaints have been filed against colleges and universities across the United States primarily by male students claiming their schools found them guilty of sexual misconduct without giving them any chance to review the evidence or rebut the witnesses.

When Doe’s case returned to the Northern Indiana District Court, the defendants lost key arguments in their motion to dismiss.

The district court found Doe has satisfied his claim that the defendants violated procedural due process under the 14th Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for depriving him of his protected liberty interest, which, here, was his freedom to pursue a career in the Navy. Also, the court granted Doe’s request for injunctive relief allowing him to re-enroll at Purdue without any special conditions or obligations and expunging his disciplinary record.

However, the court sided with the defendants in finding Doe lacked standing to seek an injunction that would prohibit Purdue from violating due process and Title IX rights by again investigating and adjudicating the sexual misconduct complaint that sparked this lawsuit.

The second John Doe complaint against Purdue, which recently survived a motion to dismiss, was filed by a male student who was expelled after the school found he engaged in nonconsensual sexual contact with a female student.

In John Doe v. Purdue University et al., 4:19-cv-56, the plaintiff alleged the discipline will likely prevent him from becoming either an attorney or financial professional. He claimed he would have a difficult time enrolling in either a law or graduate school since universities “routinely reject applications of students who disclose sexual misconduct disciplinary findings.” Moreover, he asserted that obtaining the necessary licensing would be “virtually impossible” because he would again have to disclose the disciplinary action.

The Northern Indiana District Court agreed that Doe had successfully argued his due process rights under the 14th Amendment were violated during the disciplinary proceedings.

Pointing to the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Purdue I, the lower court found the plaintiff had demonstrated that his duty to disclose the discipline would prevent him from entering his chosen occupations. Also, his claim of procedural due process violation stands because the defendants prohibited him from accessing the evidence collected in the case against him.

Moreover, the district court held Doe adequately alleged a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiff contended Purdue had “gender biased motivations” against male students, and the court found he raised “a plausible inference that he was discriminated against on the basis of sex.”

At the 3rd Circuit, the panel applied the 7th Circuit’s method to a Title IX lawsuit filed by a male student against the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

The plaintiff in John Doe v. University of the Sciences, 19-2966, was expelled after two female students accused him of violating the school’s sexual misconduct policy.

When examining Title IX claims, the 7th Circuit noted appellate courts have followed methods presented in rulings from the 2nd Circuit and 6th Circuit. In Yusuf v. Vassar College, 35 F.3d 709 (2d Cir. 1994), the Title IX claims were examined using the doctrinal framework that recognized two theories – erroneous outcome and selective enforcement – under which a violation may be alleged. With Doe v. Miami Univ., 882 F.3d 579, 589 (6th Cir. 2018), the 6th Circuit added two more theories of deliberate indifference and archaic assumptions.

However, the 7th Circuit in Purdue I noted those theories simply described the ways in which a plaintiff might show that gender was a motivating factor in a university’s disciplinary decision. So, the Chicago appellate court asked the more direct question of “do the alleged facts, if true, raise a plausible inference that the university discriminated against the student on the basis of sex?”

Judge David Porter wrote for the 3rd Circuit, “We agree with the Seventh Circuit and ‘see no need to superimpose doctrinal tests on the [Title IX] statute.’ Thus, we adopt the Seventh Circuit’s straightforward pleading standard and hold that, to state a claim under Title IX, the alleged facts, if true, must support a plausible inference that a federally-funded college or university discriminated against a person on the basis of sex. Although parties are free to characterize their claims however they wish, this standard hews most closely to the text of Title IX.”

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