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Doe v. Brown University

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

August 27, 2018

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
BROWN UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN J. MCCONNELL, JR., UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         John Doe[1] ("John") was a student at Brown University who was accused of sexual assault by a female classmate. He alleges in his twelve-count Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 21) that Brown's student conduct hearing and events in its aftermath were motivated by discriminatory animus, and that Brown violated certain contractual obligations. The immediate issue here is Brown's Motion to Dismiss based on pleading issues and statutes of limitations. ECF No. 22. The Court begins with a recitation of the necessary plausible facts as pleaded by John in the light most favorable to him, the nonmovant plaintiff, followed by an analysis of the legal issues raised in the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Allegations

         John was a freshman at Brown in the fall of 2013. He is an African-American male and was a member of a Brown varsity sports team. In September 2013, he went to a local bar and met a fellow Brunonian, sophomore Jane Doe ("Jane").[2] Jane is white and a member of a sorority at Brown. At the bar, both John and Jane consumed alcohol, although they were both under the legal drinking age. They went outside, sat at a picnic table where they "flirted" with each other, and then headed into an alley and began kissing. In the back alley, they engaged in some "kinky" behavior. Jane bit John's lip and choked him. She pushed him against the wall and held him there. John had to defend himself against Jane's advances. Jane restrained John and tried to keep him from leaving. She was the more aggressive one and at one point told John, "I make the rules." Two and a half months later, in December 2013, Jane filed a written complaint with Brown against John. Brown charged John with a Level 1 offense, sexual misconduct (a nonconsensual contact involving violence or intimidation); a Level 3 offense, sexual misconduct (a nonconsensual contact); and underage drinking. John subsequently complained to Brown about his encounter with Jane, but Brown brought no charges against her.

         A Student Conduct Board hearing took place in February 2014. Brown treated John and Jane differently at the hearing. Brown allowed Jane to amend her initial statement without having first submitted it to the Student Conduct Board at least twenty-four hours in advance. John had no opportunity to prepare a defense to this "new" statement of allegations, nor did Brown allow John to question Jane about changes in her statement. Brown allowed Jane to allege and argue conclusory statements based on "racist and/or misandristic" stereotypes, but prohibited John from making conclusory statements. Brown prohibited John from asking Jane about her intentions when she bit John's lip, choked him, and pinned him against the wall. Brown allowed Jane to accuse John's coach of "creating a misogynistic and hyper masculine environment." Jane's story was inconsistent from her original statement and from statements she made to friends after the incident. Brown prohibited John from asserting his claims that Jane had assaulted him and engaged in coercive, nonconsensual sexual touching and underage drinking.

         The Student Conduct Board found John "not responsible" for offenses involving "violent physical force, penetration, or injury" but "responsible" for "nonconsensual contact and underage drinking." The Board issued a protective order so that John and Jane were not to have contact.[3] The Board also imposed a sanction of a one-year deferred suspension against John. Jane appealed the sanction arguing that Brown should have expelled John. Brown denied her appeal.

         Throughout the investigation and afterwards, Jane breached confidentiality restrictions by discussing the proceedings with others. She told others that John was a sexual predator and a danger to the Brown community. John complained of this breach of confidentiality to Dean Maria Suarez, but Brown took no action against Jane.

         At the end of the semester, just before exams in May 2014, John received two letters from Brown administrators: one alleging that he may have committed sexual misconduct involving another Brown student, Sally Roe, [4] and the other informing him that "effective immediately [he] was separated and barred from the Brown University campus on an interim basis." Brown conducted no pre-charge investigation. The day before Brown sent the letters to John, Dean Suarez called John's coach and said, "We got your boy now. He is out of here."

         John sought counsel from Deans Yolanda Castillo-Appollonio and Suarez.[5]Dean Suarez informed him that, unless he could prove he was not present, he would "pretty much" be found guilty and expelled since he already was serving a deferred suspension.

         Brown allowed John to remain on campus only until 5 p.m. following his last exam. Because of the stress of the accusations, John failed two exams resulting in Brown placing him on academic warning. He returned home for the summer.

         During the summer of 2014, John and his parents asked Brown several times to clarify the new charges. John's only memory of Sally is that he met her at a party in October 2013, and that they "made out" in a dorm bathroom. John and his parents wanted to know why Brown would have immediately removed him from campus for an incident that allegedly occurred six months beforehand. In August 2014, Brown informed John that the investigation had concluded and he was free to return to campus and continue his studies. Brown offered no further explanation.

         John returned to Brown in September 2014 for his sophomore year. The incidents the previous school year had caused him to become depressed. After a non-sexual encounter one evening in October with a female classmate, self-doubt overcame John. He started to scream and "threw himself into an oncoming, moving vehicle. He landed on the windshield, cracking it, and started thrashing and screaming, beating his arms and crying." John suffered bruises and lacerations and was hospitalized.

         John was discharged four days later! that day, Dean Suarez "summoned John and his mother to an 'urgent' meeting" and informed John that if he did not leave the University, he could expect to face hearings on "several matters," including for damage to the vehicle sustained by his attempt at self-harm, which would be brought up as a vandalism charge. She also told him that there was an allegation that he had violated his no-contact order with Jane, and that the University could revive the allegations involving Sally. Within the week, John left campus.

         When John first applied to return to Brown for the fall 2015 semester, Brown denied his application claiming John's severe emotion distress required a lengthier period of "sustained stability." When John appealed, Brown granted the appeal and allowed him to return.

         The 2015-16 academic year was rather uneventful as far as our story goes, Jane was on leave from Brown for the academic year. Yet John did find out more about Sally and the allegations she had made against him. Sally informed John that Jane had a "major role" in her complaint against him. She said that Dean Suarez and Vice President Margaret Klawunn had summoned her to their office and interviewed her about whether she had ever interacted with John. They asked her a series of leading questions about her encounter with John. Sally also told John that after she joined Jane's sorority, they shared stories about men, at which time they learned they both knew John. Jane told Brown officials she could produce another "victim" of John's. According to Sally, Brown officials generated the claim against John, as Sally herself never felt anything "bad" had happened between them him and never filed a complaint against him. Sally apologized to John for the grief she had caused him.

         When Jane came back to campus for the 2016-17 academic year, Brown again imposed a no-contact order between John and Jane.

         John and his family assert that John was targeted because of his gender, race, and racial stereotypes about black athletes.

         B. Procedural History

         John filed his complaint on May 4, 2017, against Brown University.[6] ECF No. 1-1, He filed an amended complaint on September 29, 2017 (ECF No. 11) which Brown moved to dismiss (ECF No. 12). The Court denied the motion to dismiss without prejudice and granted John leave to file a Second Amended Complaint, which he did on December 11, 2017. ECF No. 21; Text Order, Dec. 11, 2017.

         The Second Amended Complaint asserts twelve Counts:

         Counts I through IV: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq, (hostile education environment/sexual harassment, erroneous outcome, and selective enforcement). ECF No. 21 at 31-42. Title IX reads:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance ....

         Count V: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq. (racial discrimination). ECF No. 21 at 42-45. Title VI reads:

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

         Counts VI through VIII: Rhode Island Civil Rights Act C'RICRA"), R.I. Gen. Laws § 42-112-1 (gender discrimination, racial discrimination, and disability discrimination). ECF No. 21 at 45-54, Counts IX-XI: Rhode Island state common law (intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing). Id. at 55-63.

         Count XIL42 U.S.C. § 1981 (unequal rights under the law by racial discrimination). ECF No. 21 at 63-65. Section 1981(a) reads:

All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.

         Brown has again moved to dismiss the complaint (ECF No. 22), to which John objects (ECF No. 24), and Brown replies (ECF No. 26). The Court held a hearing on the motion.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."' Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The Court must accept a plaintiffs allegations as true and construe them in the light most favorable to him. Gargano v. Liberty Int'l Underwriters, Inc., 572 F.3d 45, 48 (1st Cir. 2009). "A Rule 12(b)(6) motion will be granted only if, when viewed in this manner, the pleading shows no set of facts which could entitle plaintiff to relief." Gooley v. Mobil Oil Corp., 851 F.2d 513, 514 (1st Cir. 1988) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-48 (1957)).

         When a defendant raises a statute of limitations defense in its motion to dismiss, dismissal "is entirely appropriate when the pleader's allegations leave no doubt that an asserted claim is time-barred." LaChapelle v. Berkshire Life Ins. Co., 142 F.3d 507, 509 (1st Cir. 1998).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In moving to dismiss, Brown raises two main arguments '• that the statute of limitations bars some claims and that many claims are implausible and thus warrant dismissal. The Court addresses each, and the related issues they present, in turn.

         A. Statute of Limitations

         Brown asserts that five of the six federal claims-the Title IX and Title VI claims in Counts I through V-are barred by a three-year statute of limitations.[7]Therefore, Brown argues, the Court must exclude John's allegations that predate May 4, 2014, from those Counts. This would exclude all the allegations involving Jane that took place during the 2013-14 academic year.

         John, on the other hand, asserts that the continuing violation doctrine as enunciated by the Supreme Court in National Railroad Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101 (2002), applies and that none of his allegations against Brown are time-barred. The First Circuit has defined this doctrine as "an equitable exception that allows . . . damages for otherwise time-barred allegations if they are deemed part of an ongoing series of discriminatory acts and. there is some violation within the statute of limitations period that anchors the earlier claims." Loubriel v. Fondo del Seguro del Estado, 694 F.3d 139, 144 (1st Cir. 2012) (quoting O'Rourke v. City of Providence, 235 F.3d 713, 730 (1st Cir. 2001)).

         1. Continuing Violation Doctrine - Applicability

         The first question is whether the continuing violation doctrine applies to Title IX and Title VI. This appears to be an open question in our circuit, but two other circuits suggest that it does apply. Papelino v. Albany Coll. of Pharmacy of Union Univ., 633 F.3d 81, 91 (2d Cir. 2011) (applying doctrine to Title IX); Stanley v. Trs. of Cal State Univ., 433 F.3d 1129, 1136-37 (9th Cir. 2006) (same).

         The Supreme Court's decision in Morgan involved discrete claims of retaliation and discrimination, as well as hostile environment claims, all under Title VII. 536 U.S. at 105. The Court held that "discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges." Id. at 113. That said, the Court distinguished between discrete acts and claims based on a hostile environment. Id. at 115. When there is a hostile environment, an unlawful practice "cannot be said to occur on any particular day. It occurs over a series of days or perhaps years and, in direct contrast to discrete acts, a single act, . . may not be actionable on its own." Id. Hostile environment claims are "based on the cumulative effect of individual acts." Id. The Court therefore explained, "[i]t does not matter, for purposes of the statute [of limitations], that some of the component acts . . . fall outside the statutory time period. Provided that an act contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, the entire time period of the hostile environment may be considered . . . ." Id. at 117.

         Although Brown argues that this logic does not apply here, the First Circuit looks to Title VII for guidance in interpreting Title IX. See Frazier v. Fairhaven Sch. Comm., 276 F.3d 52, 65 (1st Cir. 2002) ("We have not previously considered a Title IX claim of sexual harassment involving a plaintiff and defendant of the same gender. For guidance, we turn to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."); see also Wills v. Brown Univ., 184 F.3d 20, 25 n.3 (1st Cir. 1999) (recognizing that some aspects of Titles VII and IX are to be construed in pari material) Lipsett v. Univ. of P.R, 864 F.2d 881, 896-98 (1st Cir. 1988) (applying Title VII sexual harassment legal framework to similar Title IX allegations). Furthermore, the differences between Title IX and Title VI vis-vis Title VII, highlighted by Brown (ECF No. 26 at 4), do not suffice to cause the Court to change course.

         This Court therefore concludes that the doctrine announced in Morgan can apply to Title IX claims where there is a continuing violation. By extension, this applies to Title VI as well. See Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist, 524 U.S. 274, 286 (1998) (noting that Title IX < 'was modeled after Title VI . . . which is parallel to Title IX except that it prohibits race discrimination, not sex discrimination, and applies in all programs receiving federal funds, not only in education programs"). 2. Continuing Violation Doctrine - Application The next question is whether the continuing violation doctrine applies to John's Title IX and Title VI claims. At first blush, Brown's two investigations into John appear to be discrete, separable events with independent beginnings and ends. That said, the Court believes that the facts, as pleaded, tell the tale of a singular ongoing and evolving interaction between John and Brown, motivated by discriminatory animus, which gives rise to certain of his claims, John first learned of Brown's investigation of the Sally incident on May 7, 2014, a date within the three-year "anchor" period. See Loubriel, 694 F.3d at 144. This second investigation-from its inception to its consequences for John to its ultimate conclusion-is linked to the first investigation involving John and Jane. As pleaded, the initial investigation, though seemingly outside the statute of limitations, is the source of the discrimination faced by John during the second investigation.

         John alleges that, after the first investigation, Brown administrators had "a clear agenda in going after John" and "wanted John removed from Brown permanently." This is borne out by what Sally later told John: that she never complained to Brown about their encounter! that the complaint had originated with Jane, who told Brown she could produce another "victim" of John's; and that Brown asked Sally leading questions in interviewing her to generate a claim against John. The administrators also made comment such ...


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