University’s Failure To Abide By Student Handbook Policies During Investigation Results In Breach Of Contract Claim

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Oct 30, 2023

John Doe attended Butler in the fall of 2019 and developed a friendship with a group of eight to ten fellow students (the “friend group”).  Five of the members, including a female student (identified as JF), lived in the same dorm suite (Room 113).  Doe and his friend group frequently spent time together in Room 113.  In early 2021, Doe moved in across the hall from Room 113.

In February 2021, Doe gathered with friends in Room 113, and Doe used JF’s private bathroom while JF was out of town.  JF expressed her discontent with Doe upon her return.

Doe’s suitemate (identified as BP) misinformed the friend group that Doe compulsively monitored their locations, stared out the window of the suite awaiting members of the friend group’s return, and checked Room 113 multiple times a day to see if people were there.  BP also revealed that she was having meetings about Doe with campus security and the dean of students.  After this exchange, Doe requested an emergency room change, stating that he felt he was being persecuted and harassed and living in a toxic environment.

Doe received a response from the School’s Title IX Coordinator.  Doe met with the Title IX Coordinator the next day and Doe learned that JF had filed a claim against him, alleging that Doe stalked her, in violation of Butler’s Sexual Misconduct Policy.  The core of the allegations were that Doe used JF’s bathroom without express permission.

Doe repeatedly requested that Butler dismiss the stalking claim.  Doe claimed that the investigator’s notes were sloppy and littered with typos, incomplete sentences, incorrect pronouns, and incoherent sentences.  The investigator also fully redacted student and witness names, creating an incoherent investigation file.  Despite Doe’s requests for legible copies of the evidence and reasonable time extensions, Butler provided none.  Doe’s only access to the materials was through non-downloadable files online, limiting his ability to examine the evidence and prepare his defense.

Butler’s investigator completed his final report and investigative file, and a hearing was scheduled.  A week prior to the hearing, Doe requested a hearing agenda and witness list, which Butler transmitted less than 48 hours before the hearing.  Ninety minutes prior to the scheduled start time, Butler canceled the hearing in an email, explaining the investigator had quit that morning.

Ultimately, Butler held another hearing, during which the investigation report was not used in determining responsibility.  The outcome found that Doe was not responsible for stalking.

Doe filed suit against Butler, alleging, among other claims, breach of contract.  Butler filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Doe failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The Court concluded that an implied contract existed between Doe and the University by virtue of Doe’s enrollment and payment of tuition and fees, in exchange for which the University made binding promises in its Student Handbook.  The Court determined that in the Student Handbook, Butler made the following contractual promises to Doe:

  • Parties to an investigation will be given access to an appendix of raw materials gathered in the investigation (g., incident reports, documentation submitted by the parties, etc.).
  • The Title IX Coordinator will send notice of the date, time, and location of the hearing, and the name(s) of decision-maker(s) to the parties at least 14 business days prior to the hearing date.
  • In scheduling the hearing, the Title IX Coordinator will accommodate the parties’ and advisors’ schedules to the extent reasonable.
  • The decision-maker will be provided a copy of the Final Investigation Report.

These provisions describe specific actions that Butler explicitly stated it would take in investigating such cases.  The Court concluded that Doe showed enough facts to imply that Butler deviated from its policies by not providing Doe with access to investigative materials, not providing adequate notice of changes to the scheduled hearing time, and permitting the hearing to proceed when the decision-maker did not have a copy of the investigative report.  As a result, the Court denied Butler’s motion to dismiss.

Doe v. Butler Univ. (S.D.Ind. Sep. 29, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 175125.

Note: This case serves as an important reminder for schools that the student handbook, and the policies contained therein, create contractual obligations for them.

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