CONCORD — A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that the latest wrongful expulsion lawsuit brought by a male student against Dartmouth College can move forward in part, but the judge appeared skeptical of the student’s remaining arguments.
The case stems from Dartmouth’s annual Green Key weekend celebration in 2018. A female student, referred to in the complaint as Sally Smith, accused the male former student, called John Doe, of sexually assaulting her while spending the night in her room. The college expelled Doe after an investigation concluded that Doe did sexually assault Smith.
Doe’s attorneys claim that Dartmouth failed to meet its contractual obligation to provide a fair and impartial investigation because the school refused to let the student submit a polygraph test into evidence and failed to properly scrutinize the credibility of his accuser, among other issues.
Judge Joseph Laplante dismissed the claims that Dartmouth violated Title IX by discriminating against Doe based on his gender. He allowed the case to move forward to the discovery phase on the basis of the breach of contract claims, but repeatedly questioned the lawsuit’s merits during Wednesday’s lengthy motion to dismiss hearing.
“I do think the plaintiff has stated a claim for a breach of contract, although I’m not going to say it’s a strong case,” Laplante said after announcing his decision.
The case is at least the third lawsuit filed by a male former student against Dartmouth in a one-year period alleging that the school mishandled its disciplinary process and discriminated against the accused student based on his gender.
It comes as the Ivy League institution, and the higher education community in general, is grappling with a wide array of questions about the proper handling of sexual assault cases.
Dartmouth currently faces three open investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding assault and harassment cases on its campus. The cases date to 2013, 2015, and 2017.
It is also in the midst of a $70 million lawsuit brought by seven current and former female students who allege — and the college has admitted, in part — that three professors sexually harassed and abused them for years.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education could soon implement new rules governing how colleges adjudicate sexual assault claims.
The rules, announced last November by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, would require that school investigations include a live hearing during which the accused student can cross-examine the accuser. They would also restrict the kinds of cases schools can investigate.
Groups like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities oppose the changes, arguing that they would force colleges to create quasi-judicial systems.
The actual judicial system has seen an increase in the number of so-called John Doe cases filed under pseudonyms by male students who claim their investigations weren’t handled fairly.
But many judges, while willing to hear arguments that a college’s investigative process violated its own policies or federal law, are hesitant to second-guess school investigators’ decisions absent procedural errors.
“The courts should not be appellate courts for university disciplinary proceedings,” Laplante said Wednesday, adding “I don’t want this court to be in that business.”