A college student may proceed with two claims against Saint Joseph’s University over allegations that a school tribunal wrongly found him to have committed sexual assault, a federal judge has ruled.
The plaintiff in the case, Brian Harris, was also allowed to proceed with claims against the woman who accused him, U.S. District Judge L. Felipe Restrepo of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled.
Harris, who was suspended from the university for a year following a hearing in front of a five-member panel at the school that found him “guilty” of sexual assault and disrespecting a fellow student, filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia in July 2013, six months after the suspension and eight months after the incident.
Harris had brought several claims, including breach of contract, defamation and violations of Title IX.
His claim that the school violated Pennsylvania’s Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, his claim of defamation against all of the defendants, and his claim that the female student intentionally interfered with contractual relations were allowed to survive motions to dismiss filed by the defendants.
The female student was granted anonymity by the court and is referred to in court papers under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”
Both Doe and Harris were in their first year at Saint Joseph’s when the incident happened in November 2012, according to court papers.
Following a sexual encounter between the two—Harris maintains that it was consensual and Doe maintains that it was not—Doe reported the incident to the school’s Office of Community Standards. Under terms of the student handbook, which is the operative contract between the school and its students, allegations of sexual misconduct are to be resolved by the community standards board, according to court papers.
The 17-member board—made up of students, faculty and administrators—names a five-member panel to adjudicate the claims.
Harris argued that the university had breached its contract with him, citing to the student handbook in his amended complaint, saying, “The contract between Harris and SJU imposed upon SJU a duty of good faith and fair dealing including, inter alia, a duty to conduct a diligent, unbiased, and meaningful investigation and adjudication; not sham formalities designed to ratify an arbitrary decision already made.”
Restrepo granted the university’s motion to dismiss on that count, but did so without prejudice, which allows Harris to file a second amended complaint.
Harris also alleged negligence on the school’s behalf since, he argued, it had a duty to either hire people who were qualified to investigate and consider claims of sexual assault or train its employees to do so, according to Restrepo’s opinion.
The judge looked to the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s 2007 opinion in Reardon v. Allegheny College to find that Harris’ negligence claims would be barred by the gist-of-the-action doctrine.
There, “Pennsylvania’s Superior Court found that ‘the only duties owed by [the private college] and [the professor] we can discern are rooted in [the student handbook]—not some external and undefined general duty of care. … Indeed, [the handbook] represents the sole basis for the relationship between the parties—[plaintiff] promises to adhere to the Honor Code in exchange for an education at [the college], while [the college, and to a lesser degree, the professor], promises to adhere to the terms of [the handbook] in giving this education in exchange for monetary compensation,’” Restrepo said.
That court dismissed the plaintiff’s negligence claim, as did Restrepo, without prejudice.
The judge let stand Harris’ claim under Pennsylvania’s UTPCPL, which creates a cause of action for those who buy goods or services for personal use and suffer a monetary loss due to the seller’s deceptive or unlawful actions.
“Although SJU contends that plaintiff’s averments are insufficient to make out a claim under Pennsylvania’s UTPCPL, it appears that considering the facts alleged in the complaint and accepting all of those allegations as true … plaintiff has made sufficient allegations to allege a claim for a violation of the UTPCPL at this stage of the proceedings,” Restrepo said.
The judge also let stand Harris’ claim against Doe for intentional interference with contractual relations.
Harris had alleged that “Doe did willfully, maliciously, and improperly interfere with an existing contract between Harris and SJU by repeatedly meeting with SJU agents, servants, and/or employees and leveling false accusations against Harris which resulted in his suspension from SJU.”
Doe had argued that because the university’s internal system had substantiated her claims and found conclusively that Harris had violated community standards, the federal court couldn’t find her to have interfered with the contract between Harris and the school, according to the opinion.
But, Restrepo said in a footnote, she didn’t “cite specific authority or case law to support the proposition that because the contract (the handbook) indicates that SJU’s determination was final for purposes of making an internal administrative determination that community standards were violated, the court is bound by SJU’s findings of fact for purposes of plaintiff’s civil action claims, such as defamation and intentional interference with contractual relations.”
Kenneth Dubrow of the Chartwell Law Offices in Philadelphia represented Harris; James Keller of Saul Ewing represented the university; and Daniel Rucket of Rawle & Henderson represented Doe. None could be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 24-page opinion in Harris v. Saint Joseph’s University, PICS No. 14-0749, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •