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Suspended athletes facing sexual assault allegations sue University

Separate plaintiffs allege that suspensions constitute breaches of contract

Two varsity athletes who were suspended in fall 2021 due to allegations of sexual assault sued the University in separate lawsuits in December and January. Each suit alleged that suspension without the completion of a full Title IX investigation constituted a breach of contract  and sought injunctive relief through reinstatement and payment for damages of a to-be-determined amount of at least $75,000. 

Stiles v. Brown University was filed in the Rhode Island District Court Dec. 17. An order issued by the court Jan. 25 ruled that Stiles can return to campus and participate in academic and athletic activities pending the conclusion of the University’s investigation.

The second case, Smith v. Brown University, was filed in the Rhode Island District Court Jan. 14. The two parties agreed to dismiss the lawsuit Jan. 24.

The plaintiffs in each case remained anonymous — going by the pseudonyms John Stiles and David Smith. Jane Roe is used as a generic stand-in name for the accusers in both cases and does not indicate a connection between the two cases.  

Stiles v. Brown

Stiles is a senior at the University and a member of the men’s lacrosse team. Jane Roe, the accuser in the Title IX case but not a party to the lawsuit, alleged that Stiles sexually assaulted her Oct. 30. She filed a formal Title IX complaint Nov. 18, and the University suspended Stiles the next day. After Stiles appealed the ruling Nov. 30 to Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes, the University changed Stiles’ suspension to a remote learning requirement and campus removal, a change about which he was informed Dec. 7, according to the complaint. His suspension resumed Jan. 7 for the spring semester. 

Stiles and his attorney, J. Richard Ratcliffe, claimed in the suit that Roe filed her Title IX complaint “with the express purpose to have the Respondent (John) expelled from Brown University without conferral of his bachelor’s degree.” Stiles sought the ability to return to campus to graduate on time come May, should Jane’s complaint prove unfounded.

The University’s Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Complaint Procedure outlines the University’s policies for handling a complaint once one has been filed, a process that “includes procedural protections that ensure nondiscrimination, adequate notice and meaningful opportunities to participate,” according to the policy. The policy further “makes the presumption that reports and formal complaints are made in good faith and presumes that the Respondent is not responsible for the alleged Prohibited conduct until a determination is made at the conclusion of this procedure.” The policy also allows for emergency removal of students from campus when “there is reasonable cause to believe that the Prohibited Conduct is likely to continue and/or the Respondent poses a significant threat of harm to the health, safety and welfare of others or the University community,” as determined by a Threat Assessment Team. 

In Brown’s objection to the motion, the University’s lawyers referred to this policy as reason for Stiles’ suspension prior to the completion of an investigation.

The complaint alleges that Stiles was denied the protections afforded by the University’s investigation procedures, constituting a breach of contract “by denying him his right to be presumed not responsible, denying him meaningful participation in an important phase of the Title IX process, imposing grave interim measures without ‘reasonable cause,’ failing to consider the significant and unreasonable burden a postponement of John’s graduation date will cause and failing to provide him adequate academic support to allow him to continue his studies while this matter is Pending.”

“Brown’s precipitous, irregular and arbitrary actions breached the Student Conduct Procedures and Sexual Misconduct Procedure, the guarantees of due process and fundamental fairness and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” the complaint continues. 

On Jan. 25, a ruling from U.S. District Judge Mary S. McElroy announced that the University must reinstate Stiles until the investigation concludes or a more thorough threat assessment warrants removal.

In her ruling, McElroy supported multiple of Stiles’ contentions regarding the suspension. She found that “the plaintiff has made a sufficient showing” that the University failed to meet the expectations of its conduct procedures. She further affirmed that Stiles met the standard for demonstrating that irreparable harm would be caused by his suspension. “It is not speculative to presume that such a notation on his permanent record will have lasting, negative ramifications,” she wrote.

McElroy found that Brown was able to adequately protect the accuser “by the fact that a no-contact order is in place between the plaintiff and her.”

In response to Stiles’ complaint, the University made multiple court filings, including a memorandum opposing his request for injunctive relief and one opposing his request for the case to proceed under a pseudonym. 

Brown contends that its conduct, including the immediate suspension of Stiles, did not constitute a breach of contract. “The (Threat Assessment) Team concluded that the significant violence and force underlying the alleged conduct posed a risk to the University community, justifying Plaintiff’s emergency interim suspension as an appropriate interim measure, pending the resolution of the formal complaint against him by the Title IX Office,” the University’s Attorney Steven M. Richard wrote in the memorandum. Richard added that neither the possibility of a delayed graduation nor the possibility of being unable to play a varsity sport constitutes irreparable harm and, consequently, he is not entitled to monetary compensation for damages.

In a separate memorandum, Richard lambasted Stiles’ request for anonymity in light of the fact that the initial complaint included identifying information about Roe that was later redacted. “Plaintiff’s method of pleading (which is seemingly retaliatory in its tone and content) should not be condoned and rewarded by allowing him to shield himself as an anonymous litigant seeking redress from the Court (both injunctive relief and monetary damages), while he has purposefully elected to deny the non-party, complaining student’s right to anonymity in this litigation,” Richard wrote. “Purporting that he seeks confidentiality to protect his reputation, Plaintiff has done the exact opposite to the non-party complaining witness who can be easily traced in the pleadings.”

Ratcliffe and Stiles “didn’t believe that (the information included) was such that (Roe) would have been readily identifiable and (they) had to put information regarding the incident,” Ratcliffe told The Herald. He declined to specifically address Richard’s comments or other specifics of the case. 

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The University will not challenge the order and stands by its investigative process, University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “The University has reviewed the court’s Jan. 25 decision and will comply with the order,” he wrote. “In both (Stiles and Smith), the University will continue its prompt and equitable investigation of the complaints alleging sexual misconduct under its policies and procedures, which are grounded in fairness and support for both complainants and respondents.”

Smith v. Brown

David Smith is a junior at the University and a member of an unspecified varsity sports team. The Jane Roe in the Smith case alleged that Smith sexually assaulted her Oct. 30. She filed a complaint with the Title IX office Nov. 12; Smith was made aware of the complaint Nov. 16 and was suspended Nov. 18, according to court filings. He was ultimately allowed to finish the semester remotely following “multiple petitions for limited relief,” according to his complaint.  

The two parties — the University and Smith — agreed to dismiss the litigation Jan. 24. 

Smith’s legal team, which includes attorneys Maria F. Deaton and former Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87, criticized the University’s decision to suspend Smith “prior to conducting any investigation, based solely on unsupportable, untrue accusations of sexual misconduct by a female student” in their complaint. They further contend that the suspension will have severe consequences for Smith. “Brown’s heavy-handed and unjustifiable response to that complaint threatens to upend David Smith’s prospects for a promising academic and athletic career at Brown, as well as his prospects for a promising life and career after college,” Deaton and Lynch wrote in the complaint. 

Smith’s attorneys denied the validity of Roe’s allegations. “Her Formal Complaint is a one-and-one-quarter-page unsupported narrative that paints a wildly different, and wholly unbelievable and untrue, account of her interactions with David Smith,” they wrote. 

The complaint claims that the University’s decision to suspend Smith was based on flawed procedures. “The only way that the Threat Assessment Team could have recommended ongoing suspension was by accepting the wholly fantastic, internally flawed and unsupported one-and-a-quarter-page Formal Complaint in its entirety and by completely rejecting the logical and factual five-page Response and six pages of counter-evidence,” Smith’s attorneys wrote. They noted that multiple Title IX administrators are new to their positions or serving in an interim capacity.

Smith’s legal team cites campus movements against sexual violence and pressure from community members as other possible contributing factors influencing the University’s decision. “Brown’s unreasonable position of imposing immediate suspensions against any male, like David, accused of sexual assault is a tacit response to the fact that it is facing extreme pressure and scrutiny regarding its handling of sexual assault accusations within the university community,” they wrote. “At Brown, there is a history of protests and litigation when male students are found not responsible for sexual misconduct allegations, as occurred in 2014 when a male who was accused of spiking a female student’s drink at a party was found not responsible.” 

“Brown’s rushed and unchecked suspension of David Smith is neither a fair nor a reasonable response to the criticism it is facing,” Deaton and Lynch further wrote. “Although the external pressures on Brown warrant the university examining its policies and procedures to ensure better protection for actual victims of sexual assault, those pressures do not warrant throwing the book in the harshest manner possible at a male student who, by any reasonable assessment, poses no threat to the continued health and safety of Jane Roe or the university community.”

Smith’s legal team concludes the complaint by reiterating that, in the plaintiff’s view, the University’s actions constitute a clear breach of contract. 

The University’s attorneys did not file an objection to Smith’s motion to proceed under a pseudonym. But Richard argues that, should the case have reached a trial, the University would have preferred that Smith use his real name. 

In a memorandum opposing the motion for injunctive relief, Richard rejected the plaintiff’s assertion that the University’s handling of the situation was improper.  “Brown applied and followed its policies and procedures in conducting its threat assessment evaluation and, in exercising its institutional authority and professional judgment, concluded that Plaintiff’s interim suspension is warranted,” the memorandum reads. “It is not the Court’s role to pass judgment on whether it agrees with Brown’s determination, nor act as a ‘super appeals court’ to review a decision made in the University’s internal disciplinary processes.” Rather, Richard argued that, had the court found the University’s procedures improper, “the proper remedy would be a remand to Brown to conduct its threat assessment review in accordance with any instruction from the Court.” 

He further rejected claims of “irreparable harm” to Smith. “A majority of federal courts have found that there is no irreparable harm in a delay in the completion of academic course work or an anticipated graduation date, which can be adequately compensated through a monetary damage claim if the plaintiff ultimately prevails in the litigation,” Richard wrote.

Experts address Title IX legal precedent

R. Shep Melnick, a professor at Boston College and author of the 2018 book “The Transformation of Title IX,” said that, in general, the law affords schools legal flexibility in setting their own investigative and disciplinary policies for Title IX cases. Title IX regulations “actually don’t say anything about what the penalty should be,” he told The Herald. “That’s left completely up to the school; there is a list of conduct that constitutes violations of Title IX,” including rape, stalking, assault and harassment, among other violations. 

“The regulations state a lot of minimum requirements,” he added.  “They don’t say that schools can’t go beyond some of those” minimum requirements. 

But Melnick noted that there is historical precedent for courts overturning university decisions in the area of Title IX. “Generally, courts are quite deferential to universities, but in these Title IX cases, it’s been different; universities have lost a surprising number of Title IX cases,” he said. The courts “have been fairly aggressive in overturning rulings of universities, giving monetary damages and requiring major changes in disciplinary procedures.”

Title IX Attorney Stephanie Joseph told The Herald that, in such cases, the extent of judicial intervention would depend largely on the specific facts of the case. “The courts are not going to insert themselves in the decisions of universities, as long as they have some reasonable basis with regard to student discipline,” she said. “That would really depend on the documents that were created during the investigation and discipline process. It’s very much fact intensive, but it could work out (in) many different ways depending on the thoroughness of the university’s documentation of its investigation (and) disciplinary process.”

Joseph noted that, in these sorts of situations, universities are forced to make difficult decisions. They have the option of using a preponderance of the evidence standard — meaning more probable than not — or the more rigorous clear and convincing evidence standard, she explained. They could face increased scrutiny “if they don’t take actions to exclude or isolate people who are accused and it turns out that the allegations are true and further harm is done to others on the university campus,” she said. “It’s a delicate dance, for sure.” 

Correction: A previous version of this story contained an image of the Rhode Island Supreme and Superior Courts rather than the Rhode Island District Court. The Herald regrets the error.



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