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Doe v. Middlebury College

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 16, 2015

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE, Defendant.

RULING ON EMERGENCY MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION (DOC. 4)

HON. J. GARVAN MURTHA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff John Doe[1] (Plaintiff) moves for a preliminary injunction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(a) against Defendant Middlebury College (“Middlebury” or Defendant). (Doc. 4.) He requests Middlebury be enjoined from expelling him and from preventing him from attending courses for the fall 2015 semester. This breach of contract action[2] was filed August 28, 2015, based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1332[3], and arises out of Middlebury’s handling of a complaint of sexual misconduct against Plaintiff. (Doc. 1 (Compl.).) Plaintiff asserts Middlebury’s investigation and decision were biased, unfair, and discriminatory and in violation of Middlebury’s policies. Defendant opposes the motion for preliminary injunction. (Doc. 15.) Plaintiff filed a reply. (Doc. 20.) Having considered the parties’ memoranda and arguments presented at the September 15, 2015 hearing, for the following reasons, the motion is granted.

II. Background[4]

Plaintiff enrolled as a freshman at Middlebury College for the spring 2013 semester. In November 2014, while on a study abroad program with the School for International Training (“SIT”), Plaintiff was accused of sexual misconduct. The complainant was also a participant in the program but was and is not a Middlebury College student. Under its policies, SIT investigated the complaint and held a hearing, after which Plaintiff was exonerated in December 2014. SIT kept Middlebury informed regarding the complaint, investigation, hearing, and outcome. Middlebury allowed Plaintiff to return to campus and classes in January 2015.

Plaintiff alleges that as a result of pressure from the complainant and administrators at her college--including notice that the complainant was dissatisfied with SIT’s process and intended to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights--Middlebury decided to conduct its own investigation and de novo consideration of the complaint. On January 23, 2015, Plaintiff was informed Middlebury administrators had decided to conduct an investigation of the allegations under the authority of the Scope of Oversight section of the Sexual Misconduct, Domestic Violence, Dating Violence and Stalking (“SMDVS”) policy referring to conduct that occurs off-campus but may represent a threat to the safety of the Middlebury community. Plaintiff asserts this action--undertaking a second de novo investigation and determination of the sexual assault allegation--was not authorized because Middlebury’s policies pertaining to study-abroad programs and its agreements with Plaintiff prior to his participation indicated Plaintiff would be subject to the policies and discipline of the host institution, in this case SIT.

Middlebury hired a lawyer who took approximately five months to complete her investigation.[5] A Middlebury human resources officer (“HRO”) met with Plaintiff and made findings based on the lawyer’s report, concluding Plaintiff violated Middlebury’s SMDVS policy. No hearing was held. Plaintiff was provided the investigation report and findings and decision in July 2015. On July 24, 2015, Middlebury’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of the College issued a sanction expelling Plaintiff. Plaintiff’s July 28 appeal to the Vice President for Academic Affairs was denied on August 4. On August 11, Plaintiff submitted a final appeal to the Middlebury College President and met with her on August 24. On August 26, the President denied Plaintiff’s final administrative appeal. Plaintiff filed this action on August 28, 2015.

The fall semester begins September 16, 2015. Plaintiff had access to his Middlebury email and student record accounts as of September 11. He notes his account listed his enrollment as “active, ” showing he was enrolled in courses and listing his room assignment for the fall 2015 semester. On September 1, Plaintiff received an email from Middlebury’s Office of Financial Aid reiterating their request for information for his financial aid application and, on September 9, he received an invoice requesting his tuition payment for the fall 2015 semester.[6] (Doc. 20 at 5.)

Plaintiff expected to graduate from Middlebury in 2016. In the summer of 2015, he completed an internship, normally offered to rising college seniors, that resulted in an offer for a job to begin in July 2016. The job offer, contingent upon his graduation from Middlebury, is for a position with an $85, 000 per year salary, and includes a $10, 000 signing bonus and $5, 000 relocation stipend.

III. Legal Standard

Preliminary injunctive relief is “an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.” Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 129 S.Ct. 365, 376 (2008); see also Sussman v. Crawford, 488 F.3d 136, 139 (2d Cir. 2007) (describing preliminary injunction as “extraordinary and drastic remedy”). The decision to either grant or withhold equitable relief “rests in the sound discretion of the court.” Petrol. Expl., Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of Ky., 304 U.S. 209, 218 (1938).

A court may enter a preliminary injunction when the moving party can establish “(1) irreparable harm and (2) either (a) a likelihood of success on the merits, or (b) sufficiently serious questions going to the merits of its claims to make them fair ground for litigation, plus a balance of the hardships tipping decidedly in favor of the moving party.” Oneida Nation of N.Y. v. Cuomo, 645 F.3d 154, 164 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).[7]Additionally, the moving party must show that a preliminary injunction is in the public interest. Id.; see also Winter, 129 S.Ct. at 374 (the moving party “must establish that he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.”).

IV. Discussion

A. Irreparable ...


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