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September 14, 2017

Court Keeps Intact Claims of Bias Against University of Pennsylvania Sex Assault Tribunals

A federal judge has denied the University of Pennsylvania's efforts to dismiss a lawsuit claiming its disciplinary proceedings have a gender bias.


U.S. District Judge John Padova of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Wednesday trimmed numerous claims from the lawsuit Doe v. Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, but allowed the plaintiff to proceed on allegations that the university failed to adequately train investigators handling the disciplinary case, or provide a disciplinary process "free of gender bias or discrimination."


The case was lodged last year by a black male student who was expelled, but later sanctioned with a two-year suspension after a white woman alleged he had raped her.


The suit raised seven claims, including breach of contract, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of Title IX, IV and the Civil Rights Act.


Padova determined that, although the plaintiff's allegations failed to support four of the asserted causes of action, including the claims that the process was racially biased, the judge said the plaintiff had provided enough support to allow the claims to proceed through discovery on three of the claims, including the allegation that the school violated Title IX.


"Taken together and read in a light most favorable to plaintiff, the complaint's allegations regarding training materials and possible pro-complainant bias on the part of the university officials set forth sufficient circumstances suggesting inherent and impermissible gender bias to support a plausible claim that defendant violated Title IX under an erroneous outcome theory," Padova said.

Conrad O'Brien attorney Patricia M. Hamill, who is representing Doe, said in an emailed statement, "We are pleased that the court rejected Penn's attempt to have this case dismissed. Our client looks forward to his day in court."


According to Padova, the plaintiff, who has been identified in court papers as John Doe, and the alleged victim, who has been referred to as Jane Roe, had been introduced by a mutual friend at a bar in June 2016, and had sex later that night. Padova said Roe spent the night. The next day, according to Padova, Roe told her roommate she had been raped. Roe then told the university and the Philadelphia Police Department.


Penn's investigative team issued a draft report in August 2016, saying Roe had not given consent, and Doe should be expelled.


Doe objected, saying the sexual encounter was consensual. He contend further he had not been given proper notice about the allegations, and that the investigators failed to acknowledge inconsistencies between what Roe told police versus what she told school investigators, Roe's motive for allegedly fabricating the rape allegation, and text messages between Roe and her roommate that Doe claimed undermined Roe's allegation.


Two days later, the investigation team issued its final report, which included new information that had not been included in the earlier proceedings. The case then proceeded before a hearing panel, which, according to Padova, was composed of professors affiliated with the school's Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Program, who all had a relationship with Roe's adviser.

A panel of three voted to expel Doe. On appeal before a disciplinary officer, the expulsion was reduced to a two-year suspension with no guarantee of readmission.


In his case before the district court, Doe contended that the investigation suffered from several omissions including failure to interview several potential witnesses, ask Roe about text messages and obtain video recordings of their meeting or walk on the way to his apartment.


Doe also said materials used to train investigators "encourage[d] the employees to believe the accuser and presume the accused's guilt."


Amy Piccola of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, who is representing the university, did not return a call for comment.


Reprinted with permission from the September 14, 2017 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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