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Doe v. Purdue University

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 28, 2019

John Doe, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Purdue University, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued September 18, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 2:17-cv-00033-PRC Paul R. Cherry, Magistrate Judge.

          Before Sykes, Barrett, and St. Eve, Circuit Judges.

          Barrett, Circuit Judge.

         After finding John Doe guilty of sexual violence against Jane Doe, Purdue University suspended him for an academic year and imposed conditions on his readmission. As a result of that decision, John was expelled from the Navy ROTC program, which terminated both his ROTC scholarship and plan to pursue a career in the Navy.

         John sued the university and several of its officials, asserting two basic claims. First, he argued that they had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by using constitutionally flawed procedures to determine his guilt or innocence. Second, he argued that Purdue had violated Title IX by imposing a punishment infected by sex bias. A magistrate judge dismissed John's suit on the ground that he had failed to state a claim under either theory. We disagree. John has adequately alleged violations of both the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX.


         We are reviewing the magistrate judge's decision to dismiss John's complaint for failing to state a claim. That means that we must recount the facts as he describes them, drawing every inference in his favor. See D.B. ex rel. Kurtis B. v. Kopp, 725 F.3d 681, 682 (7th Cir. 2013). In other words, the story that follows is one-sided because the posture of the case requires it to be. Our task is not to determine what allegations are supported by the evidence but to determine whether John is entitled to relief if everything that he says is true. See McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616 (7th Cir. 2011).

         John and Jane were both students in Purdue's Navy ROTC program. They began dating in the fall of 2015, and between October and December, they had consensual sexual intercourse fifteen to twenty times. Jane's behavior became increasingly erratic over the course of that semester, and she told John that she felt hopeless, hated her life, and was contemplating running away. In December, Jane attempted suicide in front of John, and after that incident, they stopped having sex. They continued dating, however, until January, when John tried to get Jane help by reporting her suicide attempt to two resident assistants and an advisor. Jane was upset at John for reporting her, and she distanced herself from him. Soon thereafter, she began dating someone else.

         For a few months, things were quiet between John and Jane. That changed in April 2016, which was Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During that month, Purdue hosted over a dozen events to promote the reporting of sexual assaults. Many of the events were sponsored by the Center for Advocacy, Response, and Education (CARE), a university center dedicated to supporting victims of sexual violence. CARE promoted the events on its Facebook page, along with posts containing information about sexual assault. One of its posts was an article from The Washington Post titled "Alcohol isn't the cause of campus sexual assault. Men are."

         During the first ten days of April, five students reported sexual assault to the university. Jane was one of them. She alleged that in November 2015, she was sleeping with John in his room when she woke to him groping her over her clothes without her consent. According to Jane, she told John that this was not okay, and John then confessed that he had digitally penetrated her while the two were sleeping in Jane's room earlier that month. Jane told the university that John had engaged in other misconduct as well: she asserted that he had gone through her underwear drawer without her permission, chased her through a hallway while joking about tasering her, gone to her room unannounced after they broke up, and lost his temper in front of her.

         John learned about Jane's accusations in a letter from Katherine Sermersheim, Purdue's Dean of Students and a Title IX coordinator. Sermersheim informed John that the university had elected to pursue Jane's allegations even though Jane had not filed a formal complaint. She outlined the school's disciplinary procedures and explained that two employees who reported to her, Erin Oliver and Jacob Amberger, would investigate the case. She also instructed John not to have any contact with Jane. After he received the letter, John was suspended from the Navy ROTC, banned from all buildings where Jane had classes, and barred from eating in his usual dining hall because Jane also used it.

         John submitted a written response denying all of Jane's allegations. He asserted that he never had sexual contact with Jane while she was sleeping, through digital penetration or otherwise. He said that there was one night in December, after Jane's suicide attempt, when he touched Jane's knee while she was sleeping on a futon and he was on the floor next to her. But he denied groping her or engaging in any of the harassing behavior of which she had accused him. John also recounted evidence that he thought inconsistent with Jane's claim of sexual assault: she texted and talked to him over the holidays, sent his family a package of homemade Christmas cookies, and invited him to her room when they returned to school in January. He also provided details suggesting that Jane was troubled and emotionally unstable, which he thought might explain her false accusations.

         Under Purdue's procedures, John was allowed the assistance of a "supporter" at any meeting with investigators. In late April, John and his supporter met with Oliver and Amberger. As he had in his written response, John steadfastly denied Jane's allegations. He provided the investigators with some of the friendly texts that he thought belied her story, as well as a list of over thirty people who could speak to his integrity.

         When the investigators' report was complete, Sermersheim sent it to a three-person panel of Purdue's Advisory Committee on Equity, which was tasked with making a recommendation to her after reviewing the report and hearing from the parties. Sermersheim called John to appear before the panel, but consistent with Purdue's then-applicable procedures, she neither gave him a copy of the report nor shared its contents with him. Moments before his committee appearance, however, a Navy ROTC representative gave John a few minutes to review a redacted version of the report. To John's distress, he learned that it falsely claimed that he had confessed to Jane's allegations. The investigators' summary of John's testimony also failed to include John's description of Jane's suicide attempt.

         John and his supporter met with the Advisory Committee and Sermersheim, who chaired the meeting, for about thirty minutes. Jane neither appeared before the panel nor submitted a written statement. Instead, Monica Soto Bloom, the director of CARE, wrote the Advisory Committee and Sermersheim a letter summarizing Jane's accusations.

         The meeting did not go well for John. Two members of the panel candidly stated that they had not read the investigative report. The one who apparently had read it asked John accusatory questions that assumed his guilt. Because John had not seen the evidence, he could not address it. He reiterated his innocence and told the panel about some of the friendly texts that Jane had sent him after the alleged assaults. The panel refused John permission to present witnesses, including character witnesses and a roommate who would state that he was present in the room at the time of the alleged assault and that Jane's rendition of events was false.

         A week later, Sermersheim sent John a perfunctory letter informing him that she had found him guilty by a preponderance of the evidence of sexual violence. She suspended John from Purdue for one academic year. In addition, she conditioned John's reentry on his completion of a university-sponsored "bystander intervention training" and his agreement to meet with the Assistant Director of CARE during the first semester of his return.

         John appealed this decision to Alysa Rollock, Purdue's Vice President for Ethics and Compliance, who instructed Sermersheim to identify the factual basis of her determination. Sermersheim sent a revised letter to John adding the following:

Specifically, a preponderance of the evidence supports that:
1. [Jane Doe] had fallen asleep on a futon with you on the floor beside her. She woke up and found that you inappropriately touched her over her clothing and without her consent by placing your hand above her knee, between her legs, and moved it up to her "crotch" areas; and
2. On another occasion, while she was sleeping and without her consent, you inappropriately touched [Jane Doe] by digitally penetrating her vagina.

         As the basis for these findings, Sermersheim offered: "I find by a preponderance of the evidence that [John Doe] is not a credible witness. I find by a preponderance of the evidence that [Jane Doe] is a credible witness." John appealed to Rol- lock again, but this time, Rollock upheld Sermersheim's determination of guilt and accompanying sanctions. A few weeks after his second appeal was denied, John involuntarily resigned from the Navy ROTC, which has a "zero tolerance" policy for sexual harassment.

         John sued Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue University; Rollock, the Vice President for Ethics and Compliance; Sermersheim, the Dean and a Title IX coordinator; and Oliver and Amberger, the investigators, in their individual capacities, seeking monetary relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] He sued these same defendants, along with the members of Purdue's Board of Trustees, in their official capacities, seeking injunctive relief under Ex Parte Young,209 U.S. 123 (1908), to remedy the ...

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