Since my last due process legal update in December, more than a dozen new lawsuits have been filed by students accused of sexual misconduct against their college or university. These students allege they were discriminated against and denied due process in campus proceedings, and more complaints are in the works.
There have also been a number of new rulings in the many ongoing accused-student lawsuits, enough that I am going to break this update up into two installments. Today, I’ll talk about two of this month’s decisions in which federal judges denied accused students’ requests for preliminary injunctions in their cases.
Montague v. Yale University
As part of his lawsuit against Yale, Montague — like many plaintiffs in these cases — asked the court for a preliminary injunction preventing Yale from enforcing his expulsion until his case was decided. To be awarded a preliminary injunction, a party must show both that they would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction and that they have a likelihood of success on the merits of their case.
Montague argued that the injunction was necessary because “neither money damages nor eventual reinstatement can turn back time, or erase the toxic stain of a finding of sexual misconduct.” But the judge disagreed, holding that “the harms Montague alleges are quantifiable and can be adequately remedied by money damages,” making an injunction unnecessary. The court was also swayed by the fact that Montague waited more than 4 months after filing his complaint to request the injunction, writing that “[i]f Montague believed he was facing irreparable harm from his expulsion, he should have filed the … motion earlier.”
On the latter argument, the judge certainly has a point: Injunctions are typically sought very early in the course of litigation, precisely because quick action is typically necessary to avoid irreparable harm. But I disagree with the judge’s conclusion that the reputational harm of a sexual misconduct finding can be adequately remedied by money damages.
Obviously, if someone has actually committed sexual misconduct, that reputational harm is well-deserved. But it troubles me that the judge did not even reach the second prong of the preliminary injunction analysis, the question of whether Montague has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of his claim that he was erroneously found responsible for sexual misconduct. I think the harms here are severe and irreparable enough that if the judge actually felt Montague had a strong claim that Yale should not have found him responsible for sexual misconduct, the judge should have granted the injunction. Which means, to me, that he should have analyzed that prong of the inquiry before denying Montague’s motion.
Doe v. University of Chicago
A week before the Montague ruling, another federal judge denied an accused student plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction, this time in a case at the University of Chicago. Both the plaintiff and his accuser are referred to in the lawsuit by pseudonyms, John Doe and Jane Doe, which I will use in describing the case.
In December of 2014, Jane Doe claimed on her personal blog that John Doe had sexually assaulted her. In the spring of 2016, upon learning that John was directing a theater program at the university, Jane began tweeting about John, again saying that he had sexually assaulted her. This led John to complain to the university about alleged “online sexual harassment.” The university found Jane had not committed any policy violation. Subsequently, an attorney retained by John sent Jane a cease-and-desist letter demanding she remove the tweets in question, which John alleged were defamatory.
Jane did not delete the tweets, and instead filed a complaint with the university alleging that John had sexually assaulted her in September 2013. John filed a second complaint with the university, alleging that Jane’s complaint was retaliatory. When John learned that the university would be investigating Jane’s complaint, he filed suit in federal district court and asked the court to halt the disciplinary process until his claims could be resolved.
As I noted above, in ruling on a request for a preliminary injunction, a court will look first at whether the party will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of an injunction, and second, at whether the party has a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of his or her claim.
In this case, the judge evaluated both prongs of the inquiry and concluded both that an injunction was not necessary to prevent irreparable harm and that John Doe was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims against the University of Chicago.
On the question of irreparable harm, the court noted that although John Doe alleged that the university’s disciplinary process was causing him psychological harm, “[t]he University’s conduct is not the sole cause of John’s current mental health problems.” In fact, the court held that,
[b]ecause John’s current psychological problems pre-date and are not wholly caused the University’s disciplinary process, see Pl.’s Reply Br. at 1-2 (acknowledging that Jane Doe’s accusations themselves are another source of “ongoing stress” to John Doe), the Court cannot find that granting the injunction will alleviate the psychological harm. After all, an injunction will not do away with Jane Doe’s accusation, nor will it permanently halt the University’s disciplinary proceeding. Instead it will postpone final resolution of the matter, which may actually aggravate John Doe’s mental health issues.
Moreover, the court held that “to the extent that the University’s communications with John are causing him psychological harm (as he alleges they are), the various letters and emails submitted to the Court by the parties reveal that many of John’s reactions to the University’s communications have been unreasonable.”
The court also held that John was unlikely to succeed on the merits of his claims, which include a Title IX retaliation claim as well as various state law claims.
Although these decisions are certainly not favorable to these two plaintiffs, a preliminary injunction is, as the judge in the Montague case noted (citing the Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Monsanto Co. v. Geertson Seed Farms), “a drastic and extraordinary remedy, which should not be granted as a matter of course.” So the denial of an injunction is not necessarily indicative of how the court will rule on the plaintiff’s claims — particularly in the Montague case, where the judge did not even reach the question of likelihood of success on the merits.
In addition to the Yale and Chicago rulings, there have also been several recent decisions more favorable to accused students, which I will discuss in tomorrow’s installment. Stay tuned!