Federal judge denies injunctive relief to USI student suspended for sexual assault

A University of Southern Indiana student who was suspended for three semesters for sexual assault has failed in his bid to obtain a court order allowing him to return to the Evansville university immediately.

Chief Judge Tanya Walton Pratt on Tuesday denied injunctive relief to the male student known as John Doe in John Doe v. University of Southern Indiana, 3:21-cv-00144.

Doe sued USI in September 2021 after he was suspended from the school for three semesters beginning in the fall 2021 semester.

His suspension relates to an interaction with a female student, known in court documents as Jane Doe, in November 2020, when they were both freshmen.

John and Jane had become “best friends” during their first semester at USI and frequently spent time together. They were together with a group of friends on the night of Nov. 13, 2020, and the early-morning hours of the following day.

During that time, a group of students including John and Jane were socializing in Jane’s dorm. Jane was drinking, but John maintained he was not.

The incident in question occurred sometime after 2 a.m. on Nov. 14. John claimed he helped put a drunken Jane to bed, then joined the others in a common room, while Jane claimed John joined her in bed and “proceeded to touch her breasts and finger her vagina without her consent.”

The two continued to communicate frequently after that day, but in February 2021, Jane had a panic attack and told her friends that John had “fingered her” without her consent. Jane’s roommate called USI’s Public Safety Office, and Jane subsequently submitted a written complaint to USI’s Title IX Office alleging John had sexually assaulted her.

John received notice of the complaint that March, and a hearing took place on Aug. 4, 2021. The hearing panel consisted of three individuals from Grand River Solutions, a California-based independent firm that specializes in Title IX services.

The panel heard testimony from John, Jane and two witnesses, then issued a written determination on Aug. 25, 2021, finding John responsible for committing sexual assault. His sanction was a suspension effective in the fall of 2021 and lifted in the spring of 2023. John was also ordered to complete Title IX sexual harassment education following his return from suspension.

John filed an appeal, which was reviewed by Indianapolis attorney Christopher Bayh of Barnes & Thornburg LLP. Bayh upheld the hearing panel’s decision, prompting John’s lawsuit.

In moving for a preliminary injunction, John alleged 12 violations of procedure that violated his Title IX rights. Among his allegations were that the school changed its definition of rape during the investigation of Jane’s claims, that the school was facing internal and external pressure to better address Title IX allegations, and that, generally, the individuals involved in the Title IX process demonstrated an anti-male bias.

USI, however, argued John had presented no evidence of anti-male bias. The school pointed to what it described as John’s change of strategy during the hearing.

“At the hearing John admitted for the first time that he did, in fact, touch Jane in the ways she alleged, but only with her consent and only on a different occasion when she was sober,” according to Pratt’s order. “Further, John testified that he believed that Jane’s allegation was not intentionally false, but rather she was just confused, which Jane later denied. USI argues that John’s allegation of anti-male bias did not occur until after he received the panel ruling and ‘learned how badly his ‘confusion’ argument had impeached his credibility.’”

In denying injunctive relief, Pratt agreed with USI that John did not present any evidence of anti-male bias.

John “argued that because of ‘public pressure,’ USI made him the male sacrificial lamb and intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence concerning credibility,” the chief judge wrote. “But John has produced no evidence to support his assertion that USI’s erroneous decision was based on male gender bias.”

Further, “even if John is correct regarding the numerous policy violations made by USI, he has failed to demonstrate that the cause of any of these irregularities originated from an individual’s animosity towards his male sex,” Pratt continued. “Instead, most of John’s arguments appear to show his disagreement with the weighing of evidence and credibility determinations made by the panel and appellate hearing officer. No evidence of statements or conduct demonstrating gender bias or discrimination have been presented.

“John’s numerous complaints about USI’s Title IX grievance process, at most, amount to a claim that USI favors complainants over respondents. Most courts, however, that have addressed the issue of whether anti-male bias can be reasonably inferred from evidence of a school’s anti-respondent bias ‘have concluded that evidence of a school’s anti-respondent bias does not create a reasonable inference of anti-male bias,’” Pratt wrote, citing cases including Doe v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 1:21-cv-00973 (S.D. Ind. July 15, 2021).

Finally, the court determined there was no actual or likely irreparable harm to John, as USI transcripts do not display disciplinary status, and John will be allowed to continue his education at USI after his suspension.

Pratt’s order also granted a motion to supplement, allowing evidence showing that Jane was not currently enrolled at USI for the spring 2022 semester and that she was transferring to the University of Kansas.

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