Doe v. William Marsh Rice Univ., 67 F.4th 702 (5th Cir. 2023)
12/07/2023Fifth Circuit reverses summary judgment and allows John Doe’s Title IX claim to proceed to trial based on theories of erroneous outcome, selective enforcement, and archaic assumptions.
John Doe, a student athlete on a football scholarship at Rice University, engaged in several consensual, unprotected sexual encounters with Jane Roe before they ended their relationship. Although Doe informed Roe during their relationship that he had a herpes diagnosis, she continued to consent to unprotected sexual activity during their relationship. After they ended their relationship, Roe contacted the University’s Title IX office, alleging that she contracted herpes from Doe and ultimately filed a complaint with the University’s Student Judicial Programs (SJP).
The SJP initiated an investigation, and Doe was placed on interim suspension, prohibiting him from campus without permission. After the investigation, the SJP found Doe in violation of the University’s Code and imposed disciplinary sanctions. Doe appealed the decision, claiming that the university failed to address Roe’s reckless behavior and also that the university engaged in gender bias in their proceedings against him. However, the university’s decision was upheld. Consequently, Doe lost his football scholarship and ultimately was forced to withdraw from the university. Doe filed a lawsuit alleging that the University violated Title IX. Although Doe did not prevail in the district court, on appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit agreed that material factual issues existed and criticized the district court for not considering the evidence in the light most favorable to him.
Specifically, the court identified multiple instances where the university’s due process procedures were inadequate in dealing with Doe’s case. For example, Doe was denied a reasonable opportunity to present his side of the story with legal counsel. He was prohibited from entering campus with only 24 hours’ notice and was barred from athletics, effectively nullifying his football scholarship. Moreover, Doe’s lawyer was not allowed to participate in the process or access the disciplinary file, preventing proper counseling of Doe. Instead, a Title IX “resource navigator” met with both Doe and Roe, potentially creating a conflict of interest. Lastly, a rational jury could find that the university’s procedures exhibited bias against males. Doe was swiftly removed from campus due to the risk of transmitting herpes, but when Doe presented evidence that Roe engaged in similar behavior and openly stated her intent not to inform future partners of her diagnosis, the university took no action.
The court agreed that these “procedural irregularities” whether viewed collectively or individually, raise serious concerns about due process and a potential violation of Title IX.
Additionally, the court examined three key theories—erroneous outcome, selective enforcement, and archaic assumptions—to determine whether gender bias influenced the decision against Doe.
First, under the erroneous outcome theory, a student-plaintiff must demonstrate both an erroneous outcome and a causal connection to gender bias. Doe argued that the University’s investigation and decision-making process exhibited bias favoring Roe, and the court agreed that a question of fact existed. Second, selective enforcement theory contends that the severity of the penalty was influenced by the student's gender. To support this claim, Doe had to demonstrate that the punishment was motivated by gender bias. Lastly, the archaic assumptions theory focuses on the University’s actions based on outdated and biased attitudes about gender roles. Under all three theories, the court found that a material fact issue remained. As such, the court reversed the summary judgment and allowed Doe’s case to proceed.
Regarding Doe’s assertion of breach of contract, however, the court affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the claim. It reasoned that, under Texas law, the University had not created an implied contract with Doe given the University Code’s explicit statement that “[t]he procedures used . . . by SJP are not those used in court cases and are not intended to create contractual rights[.]”