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Doe v. Coastal Carolina University

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

January 9, 2019

John Doe, Plaintiff,
v.
Coastal Carolina University, Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. Bryan Harwell United States District Judge

         This is a Title IX and gender discrimination action arising out of Plaintiff John Doe's permanent dismissal from Coastal Carolina University. This matter is before the Court on Defendant Coastal Carolina University's motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See ECF No. 6. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendant's motion, granting it as to the state law claims on the basis of Eleventh Amendment immunity but denying it as to the Title IX and gender discrimination claims.[1]

         Factual Allegations

          The complaint and attachments thereto allege and describe the following. John Doe (“Plaintiff”) and Jane Doe (“Jane Doe”) were students at Coastal Carolina University (“CCU” or “Defendant”) during the 2016-2017 school year. Compl. at ¶¶ 1, 3, 43 [ECF No. 1]. Plaintiff was a male, freshman student in good standing and a member of the CCU football team. Id. at ¶ 8. Jane Doe was a female student, a member of the CCU cheerleading team, and an acquaintance of Plaintiff. Id. at ¶¶ 9-10. On August 27, 2016, after attending an off-campus pool party and consuming alcohol, Plaintiff and Jane Doe had consensual sex in Jane Doe's apartment. Id. at ¶¶ 47-56. Later that evening, several officers with the City of Conway Police Department (“Conway PD”) were dispatched to Conway Medical Center to respond to a complaint by Jane Doe that she was sexually assaulted earlier that day. Id. at ¶ 57; see ECF No. 1-1 at 3. The responding officers determined that a sexual assault had occurred, and the police report names two suspects: Plaintiff and another male CCU student (“Roe”) who had been in Jane Doe's apartment after Plaintiff's encounter with her. Compl. at ¶ 57; see ECF No. 1-1 at 3-6.

         Subsequently, on October 14, 2016, after investigating Jane Doe's complaint, Conway PD officers presented their findings to a state prosecutor who reviewed the case and determined there was sufficient evidence to charge Roe with criminal sexual conduct in the third degree in violation of S.C. Code § 16-3-654 but insufficient evidence to proceed with a charge against Plaintiff. Compl. at ¶ 62; ECF No. 1-1 at 2; ECF No. 1-2 at 2. Upon learning of Jane Doe's sexual assault allegations against Plaintiff, Defendant notified him that he was being formally charged with violating Defendant's Code of Student Conduct (the “Student Code”), specifically, its Sexual Misconduct Policy. Compl. at ¶¶ 44, 64. Pursuant to the Student Code, Defendant assigned a Title IX investigator to examine the allegations, who, in Plaintiff's case, was Defendant's Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Rights and Responsibilities, Travis Overton (“Overton”). Id. at ¶¶ 15, 45. The Student Code requires an investigator to receive appropriate training and maintain complete impartiality during the course of an investigation. Id. at ¶ 45.

         Defendant convened a panel of its Student Conduct Board to determine if Plaintiff violated the Student Code with his alleged sexual misconduct. Id. at ¶ 14. On or about November 29, 2016, Defendant notified Plaintiff and Jane Doe that a Student Conduct Board hearing was scheduled for December 6, 2016, where Plaintiff would have the opportunity to respond to his alleged violation of the Student Code. Id. at ¶ 16; ECF No. 1-3. On December 6, after reviewing documents and hearing testimony from witnesses, including Plaintiff and Jane Doe, the panel found in Plaintiff's favor, determining the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he violated the Student Code. Compl. at ¶ 20.

         On December 15, 2016, Jane Doe appealed the panel's decision. Id. at ¶ 23. However, Jane Doe's appeal did not conform to the procedures set forth in Defendant's Student Conduct Handbook, which require an appeal to be submitted in writing within three days of the panel's decision and to enumerate the panel's errors. Id. at ¶¶ 22, 25. Jane Doe's appeal was not in writing, untimely, and failed to list specific errors. Id. at ¶¶ 22-23, 26. Nevertheless, Defendant's Provost and Executive Vice President Ralph Byington (“Byington”) reviewed the appeal and requested a new hearing, the basis of which was to determine whether Defendant followed its disciplinary procedures providing notice of the charges and an opportunity to respond and whether “new information exist[ed] sufficient enough to alter the original decision and why such information was not available at the original hearing.” Id. at ¶ 27 (citing Jan. 5, 2017 Letter [ECF No. 1-7]).

         On March 31, 2017, an appeal panel convened for a second hearing. Id. at ¶ 32. Without hearing any witness testimony, the appeal panel “found a preponderance of evidence to indicate that [Jane Doe] was incapacitated by alcohol consumption, based on the statements provided. [Plaintiff] was familiar with [Jane Doe] from previous interactions and therefore reasonably should have known that [she] was incapacitated and therefore unable to give consent.” Id. at ¶ 32 (citing Apr. 3, 2017 Letter [ECF No. 1-8]). As a result, Plaintiff was permanently dismissed from CCU effective March 31, 2017. [Apr. 3, 2017 Letter].

         Procedural History

         On January 31, 2018, Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against Defendant, styling his causes of action as: (1) violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; (2) violations of Title IX Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) Rules; (3) breach of contract; (4) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (5) promissory estoppel; (6) negligence; and (7) a declaratory judgment. Compl. at ¶¶ 77-146. As relief, Plaintiff seeks unspecified money damages and equitable relief, requesting the Court to reverse the outcome of his erroneous disciplinary proceeding, restore his reputation, expunge his disciplinary record, remove the record of his expulsion from his education file, permanently destroy any record of the complaint against him, readmit him to CCU for the Spring 2018 semester, allow him to withdraw from any courses he may have failed as a result of his expulsion, and find Defendant's rules, regulations, and guidelines unconstitutional as applied. Id. at ¶ 146.

         On May 7, 2018, Defendant filed the instant motion to dismiss. On May 21, 2018, Plaintiff filed a response, and on May 24, 2018, Defendant filed a reply thereto. The matter is now ripe for the Court's consideration.

         Legal Standard

         “A motion filed under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint . . . considered with the assumption that the facts alleged are true[.]” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). The Court measures the legal sufficiency by determining whether the complaint meets the Rule 8 standards for a pleading. Id. Rule 8 requires, in pertinent part, that a claim for relief contain a “statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). “Each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1).

         When reviewing a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must “accept all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and draw all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, the Court need not accept as true allegations that are contradicted by exhibits to the complaint. Veney v. Wyche, 293 F.3d 726, 730 (4th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff's “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “[O]nce a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint.” Id. at 563. A complaint need not assert “detailed factual allegations[;]” however, it must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” will not suffice. Id. at 555 (citations omitted). Furthermore, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim has “facial plausibility” where the pleading “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         Discussion

          Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Mot. to Dismiss at 1 [ECF No. 6]. First, with respect to the Title IX causes of action, Defendant contends that there “are no well-pleaded allegations in the Complaint to demonstrate an anti-male bias in Defendant's decision to permanently dismiss Plaintiff as a student.” Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 9 [ECF No. 6-1]. Second, for the state law causes of action, Defendant asserts sovereign immunity, arguing those claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution. Id. at 19. Third, with respect to the declaratory relief Plaintiff seeks for the alleged Title IX violations, Defendant claims that the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act does not create its own substantive cause of action, so if the Court dismisses the Title IX claims, then it should likewise dismiss this equitable relief. Id. at 22-23. The Court examines each of these contentions in turn.

         I. ...


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