UNC wants sex assault case moved to different federal judicial district

(CJ photo by Maya Reagan)

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  • The University of North Carolina System is asking a federal judge to move a sex assault lawsuit to a courtroom closer to Chapel Hill. A motion filed Monday would shift the case from the state's Western District to the Middle District.
  • An expelled student identified as Jacob Doe argues that UNC Chapel Hill botched a sexual assault investigation against him in 2021. University officials are contesting Doe's claims.
  • A July 13 order in the case confirmed that court proceedings will move forward with Doe and his accusers identified by pseudonyms.

The University of North Carolina System is asking a federal judge to move a sexual assault lawsuit from the state’s Western District to the Middle District. The plaintiff in the case is an expelled student who argues the university botched its investigation of assault allegations against him.

The Western District covers 32 counties, including the cities of Charlotte, Asheville, Hickory, and Statesville. The Middle District covers 24 counties, including Orange and all surrounding counties. The plaintiff known as Jacob Doe attended UNC’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill, located in southeastern Orange County.

“In Spring 2021, Jacob Doe was expelled from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC-CH”) following several allegations of sexual misconduct. In his 192-page Complaint, Plaintiff complains that the process set by federal law and implemented in Chapel Hill through UNC-CH’s policies was biased against him,” wrote lawyers representing UNC.

“Despite the length of his Complaint, Plaintiff only alleges that he resides in North Carolina without specifying where within the State he resides,” the university’s court filing added. “[A]ll Defendants reside in the Middle or Eastern District of North Carolina, and all substantial events giving rise to Plaintiff’s claims occurred in the Middle District.”

“By filing this case in the Western District, Plaintiff has disregarded the convenience of witnesses and the parties and compelling interests of justice. For example, Plaintiff ignores the likelihood that most witnesses — including the Individual Defendants and other UNC-CH employees — reside in or near Chapel Hill,” UNC lawyers wrote.

“He likewise ignores that most documentary evidence is located and maintained in Chapel Hill. Moving this case closer to the witnesses, the parties, and the documentary evidence would substantially promote the convenience of the parties and witnesses,” the university argued. “Additionally, it would serve the interests of justice by decreasing the need for travel and potential delays in the proceedings. Therefore, this case should be transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina for further disposition.”

The motion for a change of venue arrived in the Western District on Monday, the same day university and individual defendants filed their latest briefs asking for the court to dismiss the case entirely.

A July 13 order from Chief U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger indicated that the case would proceed using pseudonyms for the plaintiff and his female accusers.

“Here, the Plaintiff has a strong interest in anonymity because of the extremely sensitive nature of the allegations made against him and the high risk of retaliation should these allegations be made public,” Reidinger wrote. “Moreover, allowing the Plaintiff and the four female students to proceed under pseudonym protects not only the Plaintiff from retaliation but the four students — none of whom are parties to this litigation — as well.”

“[T]he Defendants do not oppose allowing a pseudonymous proceeding nor do they allege that preserving the Plaintiff’s anonymity will prejudice them,” Reidinger added. “And while the public has an interest in open court proceedings, the Plaintiff’s strong privacy interests outweigh it here. Moreover, the public still has access to information regarding the action with the exception of the identities of the Plaintiff and the female students.”

Reidinger’s order applies to any part of the case extending through his decision about whether to grant summary judgment to Doe or the university. “Should the case proceed further than summary judgment, the Court will take up the issue of further privacy measures at that time,” the judge explained.

The student proceeding as Jacob Doe claims UNC Chapel Hill botched an investigation of sexual assault claims against him in 2021.

Both the university and a group of individual defendants led by Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz filed motions in May seeking dismissal of Doe’s suit. The university also filed paperwork agreeing with the plaintiff’s request to proceed with the case anonymously.

All court documents have identified the student as Jacob Doe. Four accusers in the case are each identified as Jane Roe. Other witnesses are named with pseudonyms as well.

“When four students reported Plaintiff Jacob Doe for sexual misconduct, these policies, as mandated by federal law, controlled the process Plaintiff received,” wrote UNC’s lawyers. “In accordance with these policies, and with representation from counsel, Plaintiff
submitted evidence, participated in hearings, testified in his own defense, and contested
findings through several appeals.”

“Plaintiff was found not responsible in the matters reported by Janes Roes 2 and 3. And Plaintiff was found responsible in the matters reported by Janes Roes 1 and 4,” UNC’s memorandum continued. “He was suspended for his assault of Roe 1 and expelled for his assaults of Roe 4. Plaintiff claims his sanctions in the Roe 1 and 4 matters resulted not from his own actions, but instead from UNC-CH’s bias against men. He claims that UNC-CH’s process, which twice produced results in his favor, was systemically biased against men when it produced results not in his favor.”

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.”

“All of these claims are legally defective and warrant dismissal,” UNC argued in its memorandum. “First, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in an improper venue. Second, Plaintiff failed to state a Title IX claim. His allegations that gender bias caused his injury fail the legal standard, and he seeks remedies that are unavailable under Title IX. Third, Plaintiff’s §1983 claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and because no UNC Defendant is a ‘person.’ Fourth, the UNC Defendants are immune from Plaintiff’s state law claims.”

The eight individual defendants raised similar concerns about Doe’s case. “Plaintiff claims that the process he was afforded was biased against him because he was male. However, the ultimate outcome of the four cases against Plaintiff should silence that refrain — he was vindicated in two of the four cases,” according to a separate brief.

Doe’s lawsuit took up 192 pages. “The sheer length of the Complaint cannot make up for the lack of a factual or legal basis for Plaintiff’s claims,” individual defendants argued.

The suit 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 U.S. 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.

Doe contends UNC violated his due process rights and Title IX and engaged in a breach of contract. The suit also mentions “other state law claims.”

“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.

Reidinger granted Doe a temporary restraining order on Feb. 22, one week after he filed suit. The order banned UNC “from releasing or disclosing any information concerning the disciplinary proceedings” covered in the lawsuit.