Princeton Dodges Doe’s TRO – Takeaways from Doe v. Princeton

By: Michael Henry, J.D., Partner, TNG Consulting

JOHN DOE V. PRINCETON UNIVERSITY U.S. Dist. Ct., Dist. NJ (April 21, 2020)

Procedural History:

On April 15, 2020, Plaintiff John Doe filed a motion in the District Court of New Jersey for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) and Preliminary Injunction, seeking to enjoin (i.e., prevent) Princeton University from enforcing its decision to expel Doe after Princeton found him in violation of its policies prohibiting intimate partner violence. The court ultimately denied the motion for TRO and injunction, leaving Princeton’s expulsion of John Doe intact.

Summary of Facts:

  • Doe and the Complainant (Jane Roe) were both students at Princeton, starting their senior year in August 2019. They first met in the Fall of 2016, began dating, and their relationship quickly turned intense and volatile. This extended to their sexual interactions, which could be described as BDSM.
  • During Roe’s sophomore year, she began struggling academically, ultimately receiving a notice from Princeton stating that her academic standing was so poor that she needed to take a “gap year” or risk expulsion. Roe took the gap year in the fall of 2018.
  • In May 2019, Doe began a summer internship in New York while Roe began a summer semester abroad. On or about June 10, 2019, Roe informed Doe she had cheated on him with multiple people while abroad and Doe decided to end the relationship. Shortly after the breakup, Roe learned from a friend that Doe had cheated on her during her gap year in the Fall of 2018, and confronted Doe on or about July 6, 2019.
  • Roe then began to tell others she had initiated the breakup with Doe because he was physically abusive and began posting on social media, insinuating that Doe had abused her and mentioning him by name.
  • On August 30, 2019, Roe told Doe she was meeting with Princeton’s SHARE Office, a center providing resources and counseling for sexual harassment and assault, to “figure out [her] options moving forward.” On the first night back at Princeton for the Fall 2019 semester, Roe threatened Doe by saying, “take a year off and nothing will happen to you.”
  • Meanwhile, Roe continued to contact Doe, directly seeking his attention. After mostly ignoring the communications, Doe finally told Roe that they would never date again, to which she responded, “you’re going to regret this. You’re going to feel bad.”
  • Roe first reported to Princeton’s Title IX Office in September 2019, and while Roe said she did not want to take further action, the Office Director, Ms. Crotty, informed her that Princeton wanted to move forward and issued a No Communication Order (NCO).
  • On November 11, 2019, Doe received formal notice of investigation regarding alleged Intimate Relationship Violence. Additionally, the letter advised Doe that he was barred from campus during the pendency of the investigation.
  • Princeton appointed a three-member Panel to both investigate and adjudicate the allegations. During the investigation, Doe alleged that Roe had also engaged in several instances of violence toward him, counterclaims the Panel incorporated and investigated as part of the same resolution process.
  • On February 18, 2020, the Panel issued its conclusions in a comprehensive report, finding sufficient evidence to substantiate all five incidents of abuse alleged by Roe, but finding insufficient evidence to support any incident alleged by Doe.
  • The court also noted that, seven days after the issuance of the report and two days prior to Doe’s expulsion, Roe tweeted, “my life is good again … worked out boy problems that were never real problems just things I created.”
  • Two days later, on February, 27, 2020, Princeton informed Doe of his expulsion.

Findings and Significant Issues:

  • In assessing the narrow issue of whether a TRO and Preliminary Injunction was appropriate in this case, the court used an established 4-prong analysis. The court emphasized that the first two prongs were the most crucial, those being that a movant must show “(1) a reasonable probability of eventual success in the litigation, and (2) that it will be irreparably injured […] if relief is not granted.”
  • Doe’s claims were based on three causes of action often seen in Title IX litigation:
    (1) Erroneous Outcome, (2) Title IX Selective Enforcement, and (3) Breach of Contract. Accordingly, the court’s analysis focused on whether Doe was likely to succeed under any of those legal theories and, secondarily, whether the expulsion from Princeton constituted irreparable injury.
  • For an Erroneous Outcome claim, a plaintiff is required to show both (1) particular facts sufficient to cast articulable doubt on the outcome and (2) a causal connection between the flawed outcome and gender bias, with the second prong often being the more difficult to prove. Indeed here, despite contending that Roe was treated differently because her statements were found to be credible and Doe’s were not, the court found that Doe failed to identify sufficient evidence of gender bias and was thus unlikely to succeed on this claim.
  • For the Selective Enforcement claim, a male plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) females in sufficiently similar circumstances were treated more favorable by the school and (2) that the school’s actions were motivated his gender. The court found Doe’s assertions here unpersuasive and unlikely to succeed, pointing specifically to the fact that Princeton opened an investigation into and initiated proceedings against both Doe and Roe, and that both were afforded the same procedural rights.
  • For the Breach of Contract claim, Doe needed to show “(1) the existence of a valid contract, (2) defective performance, and (3) damages.” The court again found that Doe was unlikely to succeed, stating that Princeton adhered to its own, fundamentally fair policies and procedures, and the decision was based on sufficient evidence.
  • While the court concluded that Doe was unlikely to succeed on any of his claims, thus failing the first prong, it went on to say that his claims also failed the second prong for irreparable harm, stating, “the harms Plaintiff alleges are quantifiable and can be adequately remedied by money damages.”
  • Finding that none of Doe’s claims were likely to succeed, and that his expulsion from Princeton did not itself subject him to irreparable harm, the court denied Doe’s motion for a TRO and Preliminary Injunction.

Key Takeaways:

  • This case is not devoid of some eyebrow-raising facts. Roe’s comments, publicly and to Doe, certainly seem to raise some evidentiary doubts. But when Doe argued that the Panel failed to consider Roe’s motivation to lie, the court responded that the Panel’s “well-reasoned and thorough report demonstrates the Panel considered all available evidence and made reasonable credibility determinations based on that evidence.” This serves as yet another example of the value in a thorough rationale for a decision. The subjective assessment of credibility is always going to be a tough thing for courts to second-guess, and the discretion courts extend to such internal assessments is reflected in this outcome.
  • One of Doe’s arguments was that the advisor appointed to him by Princeton, the Director of Student Life, was conflicted and should’ve recused himself. While the court ultimately found this unpersuasive, noting that Doe also had the assistance of counsel and that the alleged conflict was immaterial, the take-away is that conflicts of interest do come up in litigation and prompt the need for proactive and meticulous vetting.
  • Another of Doe’s contentions was that Princeton levied a punishment of expulsion without any explanation. This issue was ultimately cured by Doe’s own admission in his brief, namely that Princeton had expelled another student for “multiple separate acts of violence against their dating partner.” For the court, this put Princeton’s decision to expel clearly in line with its prior decisions, the take-away being the importance of consistency in sanctioning.
  • Lastly, counterclaims within resolution processes can be tricky and this was certainly an argument raised here. Had Princeton failed to thoroughly investigate and adjudicate Doe’s counterclaims pursuant to the same policies and procedures, Doe’s disparate treatment arguments could have proven persuasive, though courts are divided on whether intra-case comparators are sufficient to demonstrate proof of selective enforcement.