Federal judge blocks UNC from revealing Jacob Doe’s real name in sex assault case

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  • A federal judge has issued an order blocking the University of North Carolina from revealing the real name of Jacob Doe, an expelled student suing the university in connection with its investigation of sexual assault charges against him.
  • Doe had sought an injunction in October after the university informed him about a public records request that could have led to his name being revealed.
  • US District Judge Martin Reidinger's order applies to the university and its employees. The order does not apply to students, media outlets, or other "third parties."

A federal judge has issued an injunction blocking the University of North Carolina from revealing the real name of Jacob Doe, an expelled student challenging the university’s handling of sexual assault charges against him.

US District Judge Martin Reidinger’s injunction order Tuesday scaled back Doe’s initial request. The order applies to the university and its employees but does not extend to students, media outlets, or other “third parties.”

Doe had filed a motion on Oct. 6 seeking protection from having his name released. The university had notified him three days earlier of a public records request that could have resulted in the release of disciplinary records including Doe’s real name.

The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and Freedom of the Press Foundation had filed paperwork opposing Doe’s request.

“A plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction must demonstrate that (1) he is likely to succeed on the merits, (2) he is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent injunctive relief, (3) the balance of the equities tips in his favor, and (4) the injunction would be in the public interest,” Reidinger wrote Tuesday.

UNC and individual defendants “do not contest” Doe’s arguments relating to “the likelihood of irreparable harm, the balance of equities, and the public interest,” the judge added.

“[T]he Plaintiff has shown the likelihood of irreparable injury if the preliminary injunction is not granted, while the Defendants have not shown any potential harm to them if it is granted,” Reidinger wrote. “On this factor alone the equities tip heavily in the Plaintiff’s favor, and public interest would be served by preserving the status quo as the Plaintiff seeks.”

“The sole focus of the Defendants’ argument is that the Plaintiff is not entitled to the requested relief because he has failed to show that he is likely to succeed on the merits of his Title IX claim,” the judge added.

Reidinger focused on the “unique circumstances” of Doe’s request. “The Plaintiff is not seeking a preliminary grant of the relief that would flow from a successful prosecution of his Title IX claim, such as temporary reinstatement to the University during the pendency of this litigation,” the judge explained. “Rather, he is only seeking to maintain the status quo and to prevent the disclosure of his identity and details regarding the University’s allegedly flawed investigation into his conduct until the underlying claims can be fully litigated.”

The judge noted Doe’s key argument against the university. “[T]he Plaintiff has presented evidence suggesting that the investigation involved significant procedural irregularities, some of which violated UNC-CH’s own Title IX policy,” Reidinger wrote. “While these procedural deficiencies ‘may appear insignificant in isolation, taken together they warrant concern that Doe was denied a full and fair hearing.’”

“The Plaintiff further has presented evidence that UNC-CH lacked sufficient evidence to find him responsible for sexual misconduct, and that the evidence that UNC-CH did have was unreliable,” Reidinger added. “This evidence, when coupled with procedural irregularities, cast significant doubt on the accuracy of UNC-CH’s determination that the Plaintiff engaged in sexual misconduct. The Defendants have not produced any evidence at this stage to the contrary.”

Doe claims to be the victim of gender bias. His complaint “establishes that UNC-CH has faced significant public pressure over its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, has been found to have violated Title IX by the Department of Education, and has responded by changing its policies and creating new staff positions,” Reidinger wrote.

The university’s response to “public pressure,” along with actions of specific defendants in Doe’s investigation, led Reidinger to conclude: “This evidence is sufficient for a factfinder to determine that UNC-CH reached an erroneous outcome in the Plaintiff’s matter because of gender bias. Accordingly, this Court concludes that the Plaintiff’s evidence is sufficient to show a likelihood of success on the merits of at least a portion of his Title IX claim.”

Reidinger rejected Doe’s attempt to apply the injunction beyond university employees and officers. “[T]he Plaintiff seeks to enjoin students at UNC-CH, third parties, and media outlets from disclosing information pertaining to the Plaintiff’s disciplinary proceedings. These individuals and entities cannot be classified as parties; the officers, agents, servants, employees, or attorneys of parties; or as other persons who are in active concert or participation with the parties,” the judge explained.

“Additionally, by its terms, North Carolina’s Public Records Act applies only to ‘agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions[.],” Reidinger added. “As such, this Court will limit its injunction to the University of North Carolina System, UNC-CH, the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, including their agents, servants, employees, attorneys, and other persons who are in active concert with those aforementioned, which would include all of the Defendants named herein.”

Doe’s suit claims UNC violated Title IX, as well as his civil rights under a federal law known as §1983. He also claims “breach of contract, negligent hiring, tortious interference with contract, and violation of North Carolina’s Constitution.”

The 192-page lawsuit alleges that Doe was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021 “when he became the subject of a targeted campaign to destroy his reputation, his education, and his connections to the UNC community,” according to the complaint filed in US District Court in February.

Doe alleges that four female UNC students engaged in a “premeditated and coordinated” campaign against him. One of the accusers “admitted that her actions in organizing the complaints against Plaintiff were intended to ostracize him from his friends, to have him excluded from his fraternity, and to have him lose his prestigious scholarship at UNC,” according to the complaint. Doe was a Morehead-Cain scholar at Chapel Hill.

“Plaintiff has been shunned and cancelled by most, if not all, of his friends and peers at UNC, his reputation has been permanently destroyed, his scholarship was revoked, he was excluded from his fraternity and his apartment and, most critically, he has been permanently expelled from the entire University of North Carolina System,” Doe’s lawyers wrote.

Doe says he was found “not responsible for any policy violations” related to two of the complaining students. He was found “not responsible for most of the charges” involving a third student. Yet “the reporting parties succeeded in what they set out to do.” Doe “has suffered immense, compounding, and irreparable harm since the University accepted the complaints, without question, in the spring of 2021.”

“The University permitted the reporting parties to weaponize UNC’s Title IX process,” according to the complaint. Doe blames university investigators, the school’s Title IX Coordinator, the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, the Emergency Evaluation and Action Committee, and hearing panel chairs and members. They “not only failed to ensure that the investigatory and adjudicatory processes were fair and objective, but rather contributed to the defective, prejudicial, and arbitrarily inequitable processes that were replete with gender bias against Plaintiff.”

The university expelled Doe. It barred him permanently in spring 2022 from reapplying to the Chapel Hill campus or applying to any other UNC campus, “derailing his educational goals and career aspirations, and permanently tarnishing his name and reputation,” according to Doe’s lawsuit.

“As a result of the Defendants’ unlawful, unfair, gender-biased, and improper conduct, Plaintiff was subjected to disciplinary processes that failed to comport with the University’s promises to Plaintiff as an enrolled student, the tenets of Title IX, and principles of good faith and fundamental fairness,” according to Doe’s complaint.