A federal appeals court ruled Friday to reverse a district judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit against Purdue by a student who claimed he was unfairly suspended from both the University and Navy ROTC after he was discriminated against in a sexual assault accusation.
A former student called John Doe sued Purdue in 2017, after he said he was not given due process in defending himself to the University’s three-person Advisory Committee on Equity. After his case was dismissed by a district judge for failure to state a claim, Doe appealed the November 2017 decision. In September 2018, three Seventh Circuit Appeals Court federal judges heard oral testimony.
The decision says Purdue might well have erred in its process by not interviewing the woman who claimed assault, not allowing Doe to present testimony and possibly discriminating against his gender.
The decision lists several flaws inherent in Purdue’s Title IX-deciding process, including the fact that committee members had not prepared for Doe’s panel hearing; a failure to provide Doe a copy of the investigatory report of the alleged assault; and a possible inclination to believe the victim’s rendition of events because she is a woman.
The alleged incident happened while John Doe and the victim, known as Jane Doe, were dating. Both students were in Purdue’s NROTC program. They started dating in the fall of 2015 and ended their relationship around January the next year, according to court documents.
In April 2016 — also Sexual Assault Awareness Month — Jane reported an incident of sexual assault to the University. She alleged that in November 2015, she had woken up to John groping her over her clothes without consent. Jane claimed that John also confessed to digitally penetrating her in her sleep earlier that month.
The appeals court ruling noted that John learned of the accusations through a letter from Purdue’s dean of students and Title IX coordinator, Katherine Sermersheim. The letter also said the University would pursue Jane’s allegation, even without Jane filing a formal complaint.
John submitted his own letter denying all allegations and including details that suggested Jane’s unstable mental health, including the allegation that Jane attempted suicide in December in front of him, which he reported later.
Purdue’s investigatory team report was sent by Sermersheim to a three-person panel of Purdue’s Advisory Committee on Equity, according to the court records.
Throughout the investigation, Jane was represented through CARE and did not appear before the panel or submit a written statement. Instead, the director of CARE, Monica Soto Bloom, wrote the committee and Sermersheim a summary of Jane’s accusations.
Court documents from the Seventh Circuit indicate the several problems apparent, if true, in Purdue’s panel’s decision-making on the purported sexual assault.
Before facing the three-person panel, John Doe was not provided with a copy of the investigatory report on the alleged incident. Right before Doe appeared before the committee, an NROTC member allowed Doe to review a redacted version.
Doe allegedly found that the report “falsely claimed that he had confessed to Jane’s allegations” and “failed to include John’s description of Jane’s suicide attempt,” according to court documents.
While meeting with the panel, two members “candidly stated that they had not read the investigative report.” The third member allegedly asked accusing questions of Doe that already assumed his guilt.
In testifying, John Doe repeated his innocence, though could not address the evidence shown in the investigatory report as he had not seen it. Further, Doe was not allowed to present witnesses, including 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,” the court decision states.
The appeals court judges decided John Doe might have been discriminated against because immediately upon entering the panel hearing, his recount of events was apparently worth less than Jane Doe’s. This happened despite the fact that she didn’t provide written testimony nor ever spoke with the panel or Sermersheim.
Sermershiem believing Jane’s version of events without ever hearing from her “is perplexing,” the decision states, considering that “Jane did not even submit a statement in her own words to the Advisory Committee.”
The appeals court decided that the panelists apparently made up their minds on the allegations before speaking with John, without reading the investigative report or hearing from John’s witnesses.
The judges noted the fact that the same month John testified, CARE’s Facebook page posted an article from “The Washington Post” titled “Alcohol isn’t the cause of campus sexual assault: Men are.”
The court found it plausible that John was “denied an educational benefit on the basis of his sex” and should have the chance to prove that in district court.
In addition to naming the University as a defendant, John also sued Sermersheim; Purdue President Mitch Daniels; the vice president for ethics and compliance, Alysa Rollock; and investigators Erin Oliver and Jacob Amberger. The appellate court dismissed them as defendants.