Purdue denied judgment, new trial in Title IX case related to ‘malicious’ sexual assault reports

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A federal magistrate judge has denied Purdue University’s motion for judgment or a new trial following a jury verdict in favor of a former student who accused the school of violating her Title IX rights for reporting a sexual assault. The school has also been ordered to pay roughly $125,000 in costs and fees.

In a string of orders issued March 31, the judge also ordered Purdue to remove references to disciplinary actions against the defendant.

The case began when two female students filed a complaint against the university and administrators, alleging they were wrongfully expelled, with their expulsions later being reduced to suspensions, after reporting they were assaulted by male students in unrelated incidents in 2017.

The plaintiffs separately reported the incidents to Purdue, and according to court documents, the university investigated and found Mary Doe had “fabricated” her allegation while Nancy Roe had “reported [her] assault maliciously.”

The women alleged Purdue “has implemented a policy … wherein women who cannot prove their claims to the satisfaction of Purdue decisionmakers face discipline up to expulsion at Purdue,” and asserted they both were wrongfully suspended.

After a motion to dismiss was granted in part, the remaining counts alleged violations of Title IX, retaliation under Title IX, deprivation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against individual defendants in their official capacities, and individual § 1983 liability.

The parties both filed forms of consent to have the case assigned to a magistrate judge with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana to conduct all further proceedings and to order the entry of a final judgment in this case. Magistrate Judge John Martin issued the March 31 orders.

In the Roe case, Purdue investigators found the then-sophomore, who had a boyfriend, made a false statement after concluding she “initiated the conduct and stated on (a) recording that she not only enjoyed it but wanted to engage in sexual conduct with [Male Student B] in the future. Her consent was affirmative and clear, and there would be no reasonable cause for [Male Student B] to have questioned whether she was consenting to the conduct.”

Roe argued she didn’t consent to sex because she was intoxicated. Also, she said she was unaware that her reporting of the encounter was being considered for disciplinary action against her, and that she was denied the opportunity to fully present her position on that issue.

Roe was initially expelled but later suspended for two years after an appeal.

The Doe case started when she reported to her resident assistant and the Purdue University Police Department that she felt threatened by Male Student A, with whom she had a consensual sexual relationship with prior to an incident on campus. Doe later reported there was a physical altercation with Male Student A, who also had a protective order against him restricting him from being on Purdue’s campus.

Like Roe, Doe was initially expelled but later suspended for two years.

Doe settled with Purdue in August 2022 while Roe’s case proceeded to a jury trial.

A five-day jury trial resulted in a verdict in favor of Roe against Purdue, with a damages award of $10,000, as well as a verdict against individual defendants Alysa Rollock and Katherine Sermersheim — Purdue’s vice president for ethics and compliance and associate vice provost and dean of students, respectively — with no damages awarded.

The defendants filed a notice of appeal in October 2022.

The defendants renewed a motion for judgment after the jury verdict, but the court ruled that Roe presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find Purdue violated Title IX, and that Roe was denied reasonable notice and an opportunity to be heard on the allegations of her misconduct.

“The Court further concluded that a reasonable jury could also find that the individual defendants may have acted maliciously and/or with reckless disregard for Roe’s rights,” the order states.

As an alternative to judgment, the defendants requested a new trial, arguing the jury’s verdicts were “inconsistent and irreconcilable.” They argued the jury’s finding that Purdue violated Title IX and awarding Roe damages while also finding the individual defendants violated Roe’s due process rights but not awarding damages were inherently irreconcilable.

The court disagreed, noting that the jury could have believed its award of $10,000 was reasonably related to Roe’s claimed damages and that the finding against the individual defendants served the public purpose of Title IX. The order states the defendants waived their right to object by not objecting before the jury disbanded.

Additionally, the defendants argued jurors were confused by part of the jury instruction, but the court disagreed there, too, finding they didn’t meet their burden of showing the jury’s verdict was unsupported by the evidence.

The defendants also sought to “correct a clerical mistake,” arguing the court should conform the judgment to show the individual defendants as prevailing parties because there were no damages awarded.

The court disagreed.

“Defendants are not seeking correction of a clerical error but rather are requesting a wholly different verdict form and verdict,” according to the order.

Purdue was also ordered to pay $10,710 in costs and $124,860 in attorney fees.

Roe had requested almost $14,000 in costs and about $201,000 in attorney fees. The defendants said she wasn’t entitled to attorney fees and costs, arguing in part that Roe’s attorneys were paid for their work on behalf of the two plaintiffs and, therefore, their claim for fees is barred by Doe’s settlement, and that the number of hours billed was not reasonable.

The court agreed with some of those arguments, including that Doe’s settlement acted as a release of the joint fees.

Purdue further argued the fees should be reduced because Roe received a jury award equal to 6% of the damages she originally set forth. Roe countered that much of what she wanted was an opportunity to be heard and that relief meant she was successful.

“The Court cannot say that Roe was not successful in obtaining her desired result and will not reduce her award for lack of success,” the order states.

But the court lowered costs awarded because Roe didn’t cite authority for her position that a party’s expenses to attend her deposition, settlement or mediation conferences, or trial were recoverable.

The individual defendants also filed a bill of costs, arguing they were the prevailing parties, but the court maintained again that the jury entered a verdict in favor of Roe and against them, despite not awarding damages.

Finally, the court ordered Purdue to remove references to any disciplinary actions “to the extent it is able to do so,” and to attach a copy of the jury verdict to Roe’s transcript every time it’s provided to a third party.

Purdue argued it isn’t able to alter “historical records,” but the court noted Purdue offered to do so in a settlement offer it made to Roe.

“However, regardless of whether that remedy is available, the remedy of requiring Purdue to attach a copy of the jury verdict to Roe’s transcript does not alter a historical record and should also be within Purdue’s ability,” the order states.

The case is Mary Doe and Nancy Roe v. Purdue University, et al., 4:18-CV-89.

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