December 13, 2019
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Maine’s university system: Student suing it has no grounds, had previously agreed not to sue

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
University of Maine at Farmington

The University of Maine System is arguing that a suspended student who is suing the system no longer has grounds for a lawsuit because he dropped a request that his school immediately lift his suspension.

The University of Maine at Farmington is currently investigating the male student, and has in the past, for stalking, harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault and physical assault against multiple women. It suspended him in March pending the outcome of its latest review.

The student, who goes by John Doe in court records, filed suit Sept. 9, arguing that the university has not adequately protected him. He asked for compensatory damages and to have his suspension lifted. However on Sept. 17, he dropped his legal request for immediate relief from the suspension due to “changes in circumstances.”

So the University of Maine System is now arguing that he does not have grounds to sue at all.

In documents filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Oct. 3, university system attorneys asked the court to dismiss the matter. That’s also because the student had previously agreed to a settlement preventing him from pursuing future legal action, they said.

The legal fight stems from 2017 when a female student alleged that Doe had raped her and that their school had not held him accountable, though it did find him responsible for stalking and harassment and placed him on disciplinary probation. The Bangor Daily News wrote about her Title IX campus judicial proceedings as part of a larger story in January, using the name Sierra as her pseudonym.

Later, additional women, who didn’t know one another’s stories, told the BDN that the male student in question in the story had also harassed or assaulted them.

The BDN published a follow-up in March in which three women who used their names, and another who remained anonymous, shared how the man physically took advantage of them. A fifth woman described how he continued to pressure her to have sex after she said no. A sixth said she witnessed him harass her friend.

Three of those women made formal complaints against Doe with their school, which is investigating them as required under the federal law Title IX. The school also placed him on an interim suspension pending the outcome of its investigation, due to the serious nature of the allegations.

When the student sued the university system, he said he, in fact, was the victim of sexual misconduct, that his school violated his rights under federal law Title IX, and that he is owed compensation for emotional distress and damage to his reputation.

Here’s how arguments are shaping up in court.

Due process

In his complaint, Doe challenged the due process afforded him in March when UMF suspended him pending the outcome of its administrative investigation, saying the school had “refused” to grant him a hearing on the matter. He cited a federal court case that found a university has to hold a hearing before such a suspension.

However, UMF gave him the chance to have a hearing, the university system said in court documents. It was the student who “continually refused to make himself available for an interview and has repeatedly asked to reschedule times that have been set to meet with him,” court documents state.

A previous settlement

Part of Doe’s lawsuit asserted that UMF subjected him to gender discrimination by failing to act in 2017 when he said he alleged a female student had sexually assaulted him.

However, the university system pointed out in court records, he “never identified [the woman] by name until after she had made a report against him in March 2019.”

Doe also alleged that another woman had been “sexually aggressive” toward him in 2017 and that the school failed to investigate her.

But in October 2018 he signed a settlement agreement with the university system releasing it from future claims relating to the 2017-18 school year, the university system said.

The system did not admit any wrongdoing, but, to avoid litigation, it provided him with funds reflecting in part the value of tuition he had paid for classes that he did not attend when Sierra alleged that he raped her.

“I explicitly informed Doe that any settlement would include a complete waiver and release of all Doe’s claims against UMS, including his claims of gender discrimination under Title IX,” said James Thelen, general counsel for the University of Maine System, in a court affidavit.

Therefore, the system’s attorneys are now arguing, Doe’s claims in his lawsuit that the system subjected him to a hostile educational environment and selectively enforced Title IX should fail because he already agreed to abstain from legal action in exchange for compensation.

Under Title IX, schools have to follow an adjudication process to resolve claims of sexual harassment or assault. It does not aim to prove innocence or guilt as a court would in separate proceedings. Rather it usually involves trained administrators conducting an investigation, followed by a panel of people at the school deciding whether it’s “more likely than not” that a violation of the student conduct code occurred.

Retaliation claim

The male student is also seeking damages for alleged harm he suffered when university officials “retaliated” against him by not defending him publicly when the Bangor Daily News wrote about Title IX cases at UMF. The BDN did not name him in its stories.

Doe claimed that the university system failed to tell the media that campus disciplinary proceedings against him “for sexual assault and/or rape had been dismissed for exculpatory reasons.”

“Setting aside the fact that Plaintiff’s allegations are false,” the university system responded in court, schools are prohibited from releasing certain information about campus judicial proceedings under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Ongoing investigation

The university is currently investigating the student for several potential violations of the student conduct code, including that he threatened suicide to coerce a woman into engaging in sexual contact, threatened to rape her and physically assaulted her, among other things.

Given the ongoing Title IX investigations, his claim in the lawsuit that he deserves monetary compensation for the harm caused by his “unlawful suspension” are “still uncertain, at best,” university system attorneys said. If the school eventually finds him responsible for violating the student conduct code, his claim for damages would be “moot” or “nominal.”

Given that he has dropped his request that the school immediately lift his interim suspension, he should bring his claims after campus judicial proceedings are finished, university system attorneys wrote.

Here is the BDN’s previous reporting on the matter:

Step by step, 2 women detail Maine university’s failings in their rape cases

After 2 women described mishandled rape response, Maine university president says school will make changes

Students confront UMF officials about handling of rape cases

5 women say a man UMF cleared of rape also assaulted or harassed them

UMF takes immediate steps to ensure safety after multiple women say student assaulted them

Student cleared of rape sues Maine university system for not protecting him more

Student suing Maine’s university system is under investigation for sexual misconduct against four women

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.



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