Harnois v. University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, No. 19-10705-RGS (D.Mass. Oct. 28, 2019)
10/30/2019John Harnois, a former graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, brought suit against UMass Dartmouth and a number of its employees for the alleged mishandling of a Title IX investigation, which saw Harnois sanctioned despite insufficient evidence to support the charges against him. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, the Court granted the motion in part and denied in part.
For his Title IX claims, Harnois alleged selective enforcement, erroneous outcome, deliberate indifference/hostile environment harassment, and retaliation. To make out a selective enforcement claim, Harnois was required to allege sufficient facts to support a reasonable inference that “the severity of the penalty and/or the decision to initiate the proceeding was affected by [Harnois’s] gender.” The Court held that Harnois met his burden by alleging that UMass Dartmouth officials threatened to get rid of “[his] kind with a Title IX investigation” if Harnois did not leave on his own. UMass Dartmouth officials are also alleged to have expressed the view that “sexual assaults are perpetrated [exclusively] by men.” This, coupled with the threat of losing federal funding from an ongoing DoE investigation into possible Title IX violations at the University of Massachusetts, was sufficient to state a claim for selective enforcement.
For erroneous outcome, Harnois needed to cast some articulable doubt on the accuracy of the Title IX outcome, and show gender bias was a motivating factor. Here, Harnois alleged procedural flaws which included “the official solicitation of baseless complaints from Harnois’s female fellow students.” UMass Dartmouth was also alleged to have stated that they aim to assume the accuracy of what the victim is saying. Furthermore, Harnois was allegedly sanctioned without any finding of a disciplinary violation. Therefore, the erroneous outcome claim survived the motion to dismiss.
In order to support a procedural due process claim, Harnois “must allege first that [he] has a property interest as defined by state law, and, second, that [UMass Dartmouth], acting under color of state law, deprived [him] of that property interest without constitutionally adequate process.” Here, Harnois alleged that he was not given adequate notice and opportunity to be heard. UMass Dartmouth never elaborated on the allegations against Harnois, and refused to provide him with a copy of the investigation report. Additionally, Harnois was on interim suspension throughout the investigation without any exigency to justify such suspension. Furthermore, despite determining there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of responsibility, UMass Dartmouth allegedly sanctioned Harnois and gave him no opportunity to appeal those sanctions. For these reasons, Harnois’s procedural due process claim could move forward.
Harnois was also successful in pleading his Title IX retaliation, deliberate indifference, First Amendment retaliation, and Massachusetts Civil Rights Act claims. Lastly, Harnois’s defamation claims against some of the individual defendants were allowed to proceed based on false statements made in a written letter to the UMass Dartmouth community, and to another university Harnois was seeking admission to.