John Doe v. Stonehill Coll., Inc.

Decision Date14 December 2022
Docket Number21-1227
Citation55 F.4th 302
Parties John DOE, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. STONEHILL COLLEGE, INC., Defendant, Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit

Timothy C. Woodcock, with whom Janna L. Gau and Eaton Peabody were on brief, for appellant.

Christopher M. Iaquinto, with whom Philip J. Catanzano, Timothy D. Andrea, and Holland & Knight LLP were on brief, for appellee.

Before Gelpí, Lipez, and Howard, Circuit Judges.

LIPEZ, Circuit Judge.

John Doe was expelled from Stonehill College for violating its sexual misconduct policy by engaging in "nonconsensual sexual intercourse." Seeking redress for what he alleges was an unfair and biased disciplinary process, Doe filed suit against Stonehill asserting, inter alia, breach of contract, sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, negligence, and defamation. In a thoughtful decision, the district court concluded that Doe's allegations were insufficient to support any of his claims, and it dismissed his complaint in its entirety pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Doe v. Stonehill Coll., Inc., No. 20-10468-LTS, 2021 WL 706228 at *1 (D. Mass. Feb. 23, 2021). After review of the operative complaint and related materials, we reverse dismissal of the breach-of-contract claim but otherwise affirm the decision of the district court.

I.

Because Doe appeals the dismissal of his complaint, "we rehearse the facts as they appear in the plaintiff['s] complaint[ ] (including documents incorporated by reference therein)." Hochendoner v. Genzyme Corp., 823 F.3d 724, 728 (1st Cir. 2016). Here, we consider Doe's complaint, Stonehill's sexual misconduct policy -- titled "S1.14 Opposition to Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Interpersonal Violence" ("the policy" or "the sexual misconduct policy"1 ) -- and documents produced as part of Stonehill's investigation into Doe's conduct.2

A. The Relationship between John Doe and Jane Roe

Doe was admitted to Stonehill's class of 2021 in the spring of 2017. He subsequently joined a Facebook group for his class, where he met Jane Roe. They began to exchange messages through Snapchat, text, and Facebook. Once on campus, they continued to exchange messages and saw each other in person numerous times.

In October 2017, the pair's relationship "grew to include sexual intimacy." Compl. ¶ 35. The complaint describes three sexual encounters prior to the incident at the heart of this case. Each involved Doe "us[ing] his fingers to stimulate" Roe, with Roe "physically communicat[ing] her consent by removing her clothing, allowing him to fondle her and to rub her bare skin, and by making her vagina more accessible to him." Id. ¶ 38; see also id. ¶¶ 41, 44. In at least the first two encounters, Doe asked Roe "if she wanted him to proceed" after he had already been digitally stimulating her. Id. ¶¶ 38, 41. The first time, Roe responded that she did. Roe subsequently asked Doe during that first encounter to stop "because she had once been sexually assaulted," and "Doe did stop as requested." Id. ¶ 40. In the second encounter, when Doe asked for "permission to proceed," Roe responded with "the same physical cues as on the first incident and, when she wanted him to stop, she told him to stop, and he did." Id. ¶ 41. In the third encounter, Doe "[a]gain" initiated the sexual activity without first asking permission, "but [Roe] presented the same physical cues from prior interactions that she wanted him to proceed to digitally stimulate her." Id. ¶ 44.

B. The November 19th Incident

In the early morning hours of November 19, 2017, Doe received a Snapchat message from Roe stating that she was scared to walk back to her room alone from another dormitory, New Hall. Doe offered to walk her back, and she accepted the offer. Doe approached New Hall, but after receiving no response to a message asking Roe about her location, he started to walk to Roe's dormitory. He soon received another message from Roe saying that she had been talking to an ex-boyfriend on the phone and that she had made it back to her dorm. After Doe walked to Roe's room and knocked on her door, she opened the door and invited him in.

Roe lay down on her bed, and Doe joined her. Roe then got up, removed her t-shirt to switch to a tank top and a fleece pullover, and returned to lay next to Doe. Doe began rubbing Roe's back "and then moved his hand to her vagina and began to digitally stimulate her." Compl. ¶ 58. Roe began to make moaning noises and, when Doe stopped, "Roe rolled onto her back and made her vagina more accessible to him," which Doe believed was intended "to make it easier for him to continue stimulating her." Id. Doe asked Roe if she liked what he was doing, and she did not respond but "continued to make the moaning noises." Id. ¶ 59. Doe continued to touch Roe, but after a short time he asked if she wanted him to stop. Again, Roe did not respond. Instead, she rolled over so her back was to Doe and "began breathing heavily." Id. Doe asked if Roe was okay, and she responded "it's not you. It's ok." Id. ¶¶ 62, 263(I). Roe then rolled over toward Doe, and believing that she had gone to sleep, Doe left.

Later that morning, Doe received Snapchat messages from Roe stating "things like, ‘what just happened?’[,] ‘that wasn't consensual,’ and[ ] ‘that wasn't ok.’ " Id. ¶ 65. Doe responded: "Please forgive me for being a drunken idiot. I'd never want to hurt you." In a second message, he wrote: "I'm so really sorry I know I fucked up, I totally misread the situation. What can I do to make it right?" Id. ¶ 70. Doe avers that neither message was true because he "had not been drinking on the evening of November 18-19[,] [h]e was entirely sober," and he "did not mistake the physical cues Jane Roe sent him." Id. ¶ 71. Rather, he claims that he was puzzled and alarmed by her messages but accepted responsibility to make Roe "feel better about herself" because he knew that she "lacked self confidence and often felt vulnerable." Id. ¶¶ 66, 68, 72.

The next day, November 20, Roe filed a sexual misconduct complaint against Doe. Michael Labella, Director of Community Standards at Stonehill, sent Doe a letter that same day informing him that an incident report had been filed and that a no-contact order was in place between him and Roe.

C. Roe's Complaint

On November 21, Roe met with Stonehill's Title IX Coordinator3 , Lily Krentzman, and provided a written statement.4 In her statement, Roe described Doe as "a boy on the football team [with whom] I had previously made out sober twice in my room." Compl. ¶ 95. With respect to her interaction with Doe on November 19, she described the incident as follows. When Doe arrived at her room, "she told him that she was ‘drunk’ and ‘tired’ and did not ‘want to do anything.’ " Id. ¶ 96(D). She then told him that she was going to bed, lay down, and closed her eyes. Doe tried to kiss her, and she stated, again, "stop, I'm drunk. I don't want to do anything with you." Id. ¶ 96(E)-(F). Doe started rubbing her back and her thigh and Roe started to fall asleep, but she described feeling "completely shocked, awake, startled, and[ ] taken aback," when Doe "moved his hand down [her] thigh quickly and brushed against [her] vagina." Id. ¶ 96(G)-(H). She pushed Doe away and said "I don't want to," but "then he started fingering [her]." Roe added that "she was ‘too drunk to fight him off.’ " Id. ¶ 96(I)-(J). Roe stated that she told Doe three or four more times to stop and that "I don't want this," but he continued. Id. ¶ 96(K). Eventually, Roe "jumped to some sort of last ditch effort to save myself [and] started crying [and] hyperventilating" until she pretended to fall asleep and Doe left. Id. ¶ 96(L).

The next day, November 22, Labella informed Doe by letter that Stonehill would be investigating the incident and that Roe alleged that Doe had violated a provision of the college's sexual misconduct policy by engaging in "nonconsensual sexual intercourse"5 with her. The letter noted that two Title IX investigators, David Bamford and Shayla Jordan, would be conducting the investigation.

D. Stonehill's Investigation

Stonehill's sexual misconduct policy provides for an investigative model encompassing the following steps:

1. A report of sexual misconduct is referred to the college's Title IX investigators. The student accused of sexual misconduct must be notified of the report.
2. Both the complainant and respondent may submit "potential witness names and questions to be asked during the investigative process." The Title IX investigators have the discretion to assess the "appropriateness and relevance" of such submissions.
3. Both parties have the right to "be informed of all witnesses being interviewed."
4. After completing their investigation but before making their recommendation, the investigators "will offer to meet with [the parties] separately to discuss ... the facts gleaned in the matter and to offer a final opportunity to the parties to ensure both have been afforded the opportunity to present all relevant witnesses and evidence before the finding is reached."
5. Both parties will "[b]e allowed to review and respond to pertinent evidence received" and "to review and respond to the investigative report before it is submitted to the Ass[ociate] Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean for Students [‘AVPSA’]."6
6. After "the facts that will be used to reach the outcome are shared with the parties," the investigators will submit a final report to the AVPSA. The final report "will contain factual findings and a recommendation of responsibility as to the original claim and/or any lesser offense."
7. In making their final recommendation to the AVPSA, the investigators apply a preponderance of the evidence standard and "must consider the totality of the evidence presented."
8. The AVPSA "will determine if the facts gleaned in the investigation ... align with the findings offered by the [i]nvestigator[s] and will then issue a formal decision in the matter, including
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