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Doe v. Columbia Univ.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 21, 2015

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants

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For John Doe, Plaintiff: Andrew Todd Miltenberg, Kimberly C. Lau, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Nesenoff & Miltenberg, L.L.P., New York, NY.

For Columbia University, Trustees of Columbia University, Defendant: Alan Schoenfeld, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP (NYC), New York, NY.

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OPINION AND ORDER

JESSE M. FURMAN, United States District Judge.

This case touches on issues that have been the subject of increasing public attention and controversy: how colleges and universities address allegations of sexual assault on campus. Plaintiff is a male college student who was suspended from Columbia University after having been found to have engaged in non-consensual sex with a female classmate.[1] As part of what appears to be a growing phenomenon, he brings suit against the school and its Board of Trustees (together, " Columbia" ), alleging that the disciplinary process and his resulting suspension violated federal and state law. Most prominently, he alleges that Columbia's treatment of him violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1961 et seq. (" Title IX" ), which makes it unlawful for a school receiving federal funds, such as Columbia, to discriminate " on the basis of sex." 20 U.S.C. § 1681. The gravamen of Plaintiff's Title IX claim is that, in part because of backlash Columbia confronted because its treatment of men accused of sexual assault was perceived by some to be too lenient, Plaintiff was treated unfairly -- and more harshly -- on the basis of his sex. (Am. Compl. (Docket No. 33) ¶ ¶ 4, 68-78, 139-40).

Columbia now moves, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (the " Complaint" ) for failure to state a claim. Significantly, Columbia's motion does not call upon the Court to wade into the larger public debates about how colleges and universities adjudicate (and, indeed, whether they even should adjudicate) allegations of sexual misconduct on campus. Nor is it the Court's task to revisit Columbia's adjudication by weighing Plaintiff's account of what happened against the account of his accuser; in fact, the Court is required at this stage in the litigation to assume the truth of the factual assertions that Plaintiff makes in the Complaint. Instead, the Court's narrow task is to decide whether the non-conclusory allegations in the Complaint are sufficient to plausibly infer that Columbia's treatment of Plaintiff was motivated in part by his sex. Applying well-established precedent of the Supreme Court and Second Circuit, the Court concludes that the non-conclusory allegations in the Complaint are insufficient. Specifically, ignoring the Complaint's conclusory (and sometimes overwrought) assertions of " anti-male bias" -- as the Court must -- there are no factual allegations in the Complaint that plausibly suggest Columbia acted because of, rather than in spite of, Plaintiff's sex. Plaintiff's subjective belief that he was the victim of sex discrimination, even if firmly held, does not suffice. The same is true of the fact that Columbia's policies with respect to gender-based misconduct complaints may well disproportionately affect male students. Accordingly, and for the reasons stated below, Columbia's motion is granted, and the Complaint is dismissed in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

`Addressing allegations of sexual assault (on campus and elsewhere) can be complicated because the facts are often hotly disputed and come down to a contest of credibility between the accuser and accused. That may well have been the case here, but -- as noted above -- in considering Columbia's motion to dismiss, the Court is required to treat the facts alleged in Plaintiff's

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Complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Thus, the following facts -- taken from the Complaint and documents incorporated by reference therein -- are assumed to be true. See, e.g., Kalnit v. Eichler, 264 F.3d 131, 135 (2d Cir. 2001).

A. Columbia's Gender-Based Misconduct Policies

At all times relevant to this case, Columbia had in place formal policies -- copies of which were provided to Plaintiff upon his acceptance to the school -- defining " Gender-Based Misconduct" and setting forth procedures for handling complaints of such misconduct. (Am. Compl. ¶ 19).[2] Among other things, those policies (the " GBMPS" ) enumerated six types of prohibited sex-based conduct, including " non-consensual sexual intercourse." (Decl. Alan E. Schoenfeld Supp. Defs.' Mot. To Dismiss Pl.'s Am. Compl. (Docket No. 36) (" Schoenfeld Decl." ), Ex. B (" GBMPS" ) at 3). In discussing " non-consensual sexual intercourse," the GBMPS provided that " [c]onsent cannot be procured by the use of physical force, compelling threats, intimidating behavior, or coercion" and that " [i]gnoring the objections of another person or pressuring them is a form of coercion." ( Id. at 4). Among the examples of " gender-based misconduct," the GBMPS included " [p]ressure for a date or a romantic or intimate relationship" and " [p]ressure for or forced sexual activity." ( Id. at 2).

The GBMPS in effect at the time of the events in this case provided that, once Columbia received a complaint of gender-based misconduct, the student against whom the complaint was made (the " respondent" ) would be given notice of the complaint and an opportunity to meet with the Assistant Director for Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct to review the GBMPS. ( Id. at 11-12). A staff member designated by the Assistant Director would then be tasked with conducting an investigation of the incident and drafting a report based on his or her findings. ( Id. at 12). If Columbia determined at that stage that there was " reasonable cause" to believe that a policy violation had occurred, both the student making the complaint (the " complainant" ) and the respondent were to be given a chance to review the investigative report. (GBMPS at 13). If the respondent did not " accept responsibility" for the incident, the school would then convene a hearing panel -- typically comprised of two deans or senior-level administrators and one student chosen from a specially trained pool of panelists (any of whose participation could be challenged by the complainant or the respondent on the ground of a perceived conflict of interest). ( Id. at 12-14). Throughout the investigation and hearing process, both the complainant and the respondent were entitled to have a " supporter" present, but supporters were expressly prohibited from, " in any way, interven[ing] in the meeting/hearing or address[ing] the investigator/hearing panel." ( Id. at 12-13; see Am. Compl. ¶ 22).

Before a hearing, the three-member hearing panel was charged with reviewing the investigative report and any other documentation. (GBMPS at 14). Under the GBMPS, both the complainant and the respondent had an opportunity to give a statement at the hearing and to answer questions posed by the panel. ( Id. ). The panelists were to determine, based on their review of the relevant testimony and documents, which other witnesses (if any)

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'should testify and, while either the complainant or respondent could suggest questions to ask of the other party or of a witness, the panel ultimately had discretion over the questions it elected to pose. ( Id. at 15). If two out of three panel members determined by a preponderance of the evidence that the respondent had committed a policy violation, the case was referred to the Dean of Students, who determined the appropriate sanctions. ( Id. ). Both the complainant and the respondent could then appeal the panel's findings or the sanctions imposed. ( Id. at 16; see Am. Compl. ¶ 21).

B. Plaintiff's Allegations

1. The Sexual Encounter Between Plaintiff and Jane Doe

Plaintiff in this case is a Florida native who, after excelling in high school, was admitted into Columbia's class of 2016. (Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 16-17). Shortly after arriving on Columbia's campus in August 2012, Plaintiff became acquainted with a female first-year student (" Jane Doe" ), who was assigned to the same residence hall floor as Plaintiff. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 26-27). During the first semester of their first year, Jane Doe dated Plaintiff's roommate, and Plaintiff also became close to Jane Doe's roommate. ( Id. ¶ 27). By virtue of their shared social circle, Plaintiff and Jane Doe saw each other " nearly on a daily basis" and often spent time together at social outings on the weekends. ( Id. ¶ 28).

On the night of May 12, 2013, Plaintiff was studying for his statistics final in a lounge on the seventh floor of his residence hall. ( Id. ¶ 29). At approximately 1:00 a.m. ( i.e., technically on May 13, 2013), Jane Doe arrived outside the lounge and began speaking with one of Plaintiff's and Jane Doe's mutual friends. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 29-30). Ten or twenty minutes later, Jane Doe came into the lounge and sat down next to Plaintiff. ( Id. ¶ 31). They then talked until approximately 2:30 a.m., when Plaintiff suggested that they go for a walk outside; Jane Doe agreed. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 31-32). Plaintiff and Jane Doe strolled around the Columbia University neighborhood for approximately one hour, at which point they returned to the lounge where Plaintiff had been studying. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 32-33). As Plaintiff gathered his books, Jane Doe and Plaintiff began to flirt with each other, and they discussed " hooking up" instead of going to bed. ( Id. ¶ 33). Because each of their roommates was asleep at the time -- and Plaintiff's roommate was Jane Doe's ex-boyfriend -- Jane Doe suggested that they go to the bathroom located within her suite rather than to either of their bedrooms. ( Id. ¶ 34).

Plaintiff dropped his bag off in his room, and then the two walked together to Jane Doe's suite. ( Id. ¶ 35). When they reached the bathroom located within Jane Doe's suite, Jane Doe instructed Plaintiff to wait there while she went into her bedroom to find a condom. ( Id. ¶ 35). When Jane Doe came back into the bathroom, she undressed herself in front of Plaintiff, and the two proceeded to have sex. ( Id. ). Afterwards, Jane Doe took a shower, and Plaintiff returned to his room to go to sleep. ( Id. ¶ 36).

In the following weeks, Jane Doe contacted Plaintiff a few times to express concern about how their sexual encounter might appear to others in their social circle, particularly because Jane Doe had dated Plaintiff's roommate. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 37-38). At or about the same time, Jane Doe also spoke about the encounter to Claire Kao, a resident adviser to both her and Plaintiff, who then approached Plaintiff to discuss the evening. Kao told Plaintiff that she had been advised that he had engaged in " consensual sexual intercourse" with Jane Doe on the night of May 12th, and that

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Jane Doe had sought to discuss the encounter with her in confidence, but that she was required by state law to report the incident to Columbia. ( Id. ¶ 39).[3] Despite Kao's statement, no formal report of the incident was filed at that time, and both Plaintiff and Jane ...


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