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Negligent assault investigation claim dismissed

Judge John Tunheim

Judge John Tunheim

A man who claims that the University of St. Thomas was negligent in its investigation of a sexual misconduct complaint against him has lost his case in U.S. District Court.

The judge found that the school owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care and did not breach that duty.

The plaintiff, known as John Doe was accused of sexual misconduct. He was never charged with a crime but the university, after conducting its Title IX-required investigation, suspended him and removed him from on-campus housing.  He appealed the decision, lost, and transferred to another university and has no plans to re-enroll at St. Thomas.

Doe’s original lawsuit included six causes of action, but five were dismissed by Chief Judge John Tunheim in earlier proceedings — three counts of violation of Title IX, which prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating on the basis of sex, and common law claims for breach of contract and breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. (See “Lawsuit over disciplinary proceeding survives, barely,” Minnesota Lawyer, March 20, 2017.)

Tunheim dismissed the remaining count of negligence in a Feb. 21 order granting summary judgment to the university.  The case is Doe v. University of St. Thomas, case no. 16-1127.

Duty of care

The case is new law. Although the concept of a duty of care is well-established, courts in Minnesota have not applied it to a challenge to a sexual assault investigation by a private college or university, Tunheim observed. “More broadly, using negligence to challenge such investigations is a relatively new and untested legal strategy in Minnesota,” the judge continued.

In the March 2017 order, Tunheim said the court was skeptical that the facts of the case would ultimately establish a duty of care, but gave the plaintiff the go-ahead to develop a record. He changed his mind, noting that there are analogous Minnesota Supreme Court and Court of Appeals cases.

In Abbariao v. Hamline Univ. Sch. of Law, a 1977 Supreme Court opinion, a student challenged his expulsion for poor grades and the court decided that the school did not act arbitrarily. In 2001, in Rollins v. Cardinal Stritch Univ., the Court of Appeals upheld a common law duty not to expel students in an arbitrary manner. “Although not based on negligence, the Court finds the cases sufficiently analogous to support finding a duty of reasonable care [in Doe],” Tunheim wrote.

The judge went on to say that universities are entitled to discretion in dealing with students but unfettered discretion is not appropriate.

“The issue, therefore, is not whether universities have the ability to discipline their students in ways that give rise to severe consequences.  Instead, given the harm that can come from that discipline, and given the unique relationship between student and university, the question is whether a private university must use reasonable care before making disciplinary decisions. The Court today holds that they must.” (Emphasis by court.)

But the definition of reasonable care awaits a fact-specific decision based on individual circumstances, Tunheim continued. “[T]he fact that it may be difficult to establish ‘precise criteria’ by which to judge a defendant’s actions does not mean that the defendant owes others no duty,” he wrote.

Continuing, the court noted that the Minnesota Supreme Court has applied the arbitrary standard to academic violations, not student misconduct. “[W]hen the Supreme Court stated that ‘the requirements imposed by the common law on private universities parallel those imposed by the due process clause on public universities,’ it necessarily implied that something more than the arbitrary standard would apply to university disciplinary actions based on student misconduct. Certainly whether an investigation or decision was arbitrary will factor into a reasonable care analysis. But that a decision was non-arbitrary is insufficient, by itself, to establish reasonable care,” Tunheim wrote.

No breach

But Tunheim continued by finding that the school did not breach the duty of reasonable care. Doe argued that UST did not provide him a fair hearing because the individuals adjudicating and investigating were biased against men accused of sexual assault and also that procedural flaws amounted to a breach of the duty of reasonable care.

But Doe did not establish bias amounting to a breach of duty, Tunheim said. University administrators are entitled to a presumption of honesty and integrity unless actual bias can be proven, the judge continued. Where a plaintiff relies only on his or her belief that administrators acted with bias, the presumption is not overcome, Tunheim continued.

Doe provided no facts to show bias but relied on “bare platitudes” of bias such as indoctrination and a predetermined result, the court said. “Doe does not overcome the presumption of fairness that should be afforded to UST administrators. Instead, Doe would have the Court presume just the opposite, and hold that university training aimed at gaining a greater understanding of sexual violence, and which uses materials backed by research, presumptively biases administrators against accused males.” The Court refused to make such a presumption.

Similarly, Doe did not identify specific violations of policy or Title IX guidance that the school’s alleged improprieties violated or that demonstrated a breach of the duty of care. There were a couple of undesirable contacts among UST staff involved in the case but no breach of duty, Tunheim said.

“[N]o reasonable jury could decide that UST breached its duty of care,” he wrote.

Attorneys for the parties could not be reached for comment prior to deadline.

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