TRO Against Brown University’s Interim Suspension of Student for Alleged Sexual Assault

You can see the decision of Judge Mary McElroy, D.R.I. last week. In Stiles against Brown Univ.:

He is a Brown Senior and an active member of the varsity crosse team. Jane Roe, a student at Brown, filed a Title IX complaint on Brown’s behalf on November 18 2021. Jane Roe had accused the plaintiff of sexually assaulting her after an incident occurred October 30, 2021. Brown Threat Assessment Team met that day to assess whether the Prohibited Behavior is likely to continue. [plaintiff]There is a serious threat to the safety and health of the community and others. A rubric was created by the Threat Assessment Team to ask questions about the allegations and potential threats to the community. Although most questions were answered negatively, the Threat Assessment Team suggested an interim suspension due to the severity of the alleged behavior.

John submitted his Title IX response and appealed the interim suspension to Eric Estes, Vice President Eric’s president. John appealed to Vice President Eric Estes on November 30, 2021. He allowed John to finish the semester remotely. Brown’s Threat Assessment Team was remanded to consider John’s request for suspension for Spring Semester. This decision is based upon John’s Response to the Title IX lawsuit. On December 10, 2021, the Threat Assessment Team affirmed its conclusion that the plaintiff’s “Prohibited Conduct was likely to continue” as well as Mr. Estes’ decision that the plaintiff should be suspended beginning on January 7, 2022, pending an investigation and resolution of the Title IX complaint….

The relationship between a student and a private university is fundamentally contractual. The university’s student handbook usually contains the relevant language. The terms in a student handbook are often interpreted by courts “in accordance to the parties’ reasonable expectations”, giving them the meaning the university should reasonably expect students to accept. …

Brown’s student conduct procedures and sexual misconduct procedure are the contract. Here, the Student Conduct procedures allow plaintiffs to not be held responsible for any violations of the law unless they are found by the student conduct hearing. They also give the right to an “occasion to provide a response.” John is also guaranteed “meaningful chances to take part” in Title IX by the Sexual Misconduct Procedure. It includes all phases of the process that could affect John’s rights such as access to school, continuing education or participation in school-sponsored activities.

In the case of sexual misconduct, “interim actions” can be taken to remove the respondent from campus or suspend him/her pending the resolution of the complaint.

The facts show that the Threat Assessment Team did not provide any evidence that the plaintiff was responsible for his alleged misconduct as required under contract. The Threat Assessment Team instead focused on his unproven accusations and took him off campus. It did not investigate those claims. The plaintiff therefore is likely to succeed on his claim that Brown could not fairly determine if there were “reasonable cause to believe” that the plaintiff would likely continue his alleged prohibited conduct or otherwise be a threat to the university community….

Without an injunction, the plaintiff must meet his burden of proving irreparable harm. According to the plaintiff’s transcript, he has been suspended from school for the spring 2022 semester. This is not speculation. It’s possible that such an annotation on his permanent record could have negative and lasting ramifications. Univ. Conn. (D. Conn. January 23, 2020). (Finding irreparable injury where student would also have to explain suspension on UCONN transcript and that a true explanation would severely hinder his prospects.” Doe v. Middlebury Coll.(D.Vt. September 16, 2015). (Finding irreparable injury where the student would have to “explain, for the rest of his professional career, why his education either ended prior to completion, or contains a gap.” King v. DePauw Univ. (S.D. Ind. Aug. 22, 2014) (finding irreparable harm where plaintiff would “forever have either a gap or a senior-year transfer on his record,” noting the inevitability of questions by future employers or graduate schools for which “any explanation is unlikely to fully erase the stigma”)….

The plaintiff is the beneficiary of the balance of the equity. Brown has an interest in protecting the plaintiff’s accuser. However, although there is a no-contact agreement between her and Brown, he hasn’t contacted her since it was signed. She responded to a message she sent him via text. Indeed, the plaintiff was on the campus for nearly three weeks without incident between the alleged assault and the date of the suspension….

Brown University will not deny the plaintiff its contractual rights under Student Conduct and Sexual Misconduct procedures. It can suspend him from campus until Jane Roe’s Title IX suit is settled.