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Doe v. Alger

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

April 25, 2017

JOHN DOE, Plaintiff,
JONATHAN R. ALGER, et al., Defendants.


          Elizabeth K. Dillon United States District Judge.

         By memorandum opinion and order entered on December 23, 2016, the court granted summary judgment in plaintiff John Doe's favor as to liability. Specifically, the court ruled that defendants deprived Doe of a property interest-his right to continued enrollment at James Madison University-without due process of law. The court's order required the parties to submit memoranda concerning the appropriate remedy for the violation. That issue has been fully briefed and argued and is now ripe for disposition. Given the court's ruling as to liability, the parties agree on many aspects of the relief to be granted and, at the court's request, have submitted proposed alternative orders (Dkt. No. 172) with their proposed formulations of that relief.[1] Several primary areas of disagreement remain, however, and the court addresses those herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The factual background of this case is set forth in detail in the court's memorandum opinion on the summary judgment motions, and the court will not repeat it here. In short, the court concluded that Doe did not receive adequate process at the appeal stage of the misconduct charge against him. That finding necessitates certain declaratory and injunctive relief, and the parties agree as to much of the relief to be ordered.[2] For example, the parties agree that the prior finding of responsibility for sexual misconduct, as well as the sanctions imposed as a result of it, should be vacated, and they agree that Doe should be reinstated as an undergraduate student at JMU in good standing. They also agree that Doe should be permitted to elect, on or before June 30, 2017, whether to withdraw as a JMU student in good standing or to re-enroll as a student at JMU. Other relief, on which the parties agree, includes the expungement of certain records and certain injunctive relief to prohibit the disclosure of Doe's identity and the now-vacated finding that he was responsible for sexual misconduct.

         There also remain some areas of disagreement. Doe and defendants have proposed different language as to a number of items in their respective proposed orders to the court. With regard to some of those disagreements, the court concludes that they do not require any significant analysis. Instead, they are issues that fall squarely within this court's broad discretion to fashion an equitable remedy. The court will not discuss them further, but will craft the order to reflect its decisions on those issues.[3] There are three issues, however, that merit further discussion. The court will address each in turn, after a brief discussion of the legal standards that inform the court's analysis.


         A. General Standards

         In determining the proper remedy for the due process violations here, the court is guided by several overarching principles. To begin with, the injunctive relief Doe seeks is an equitable remedy, and, in granting equitable relief, the court has “broad” powers, “for breadth and flexibility are inherent in equitable remedies.” Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1, 15 (1971). Indeed, “[i]n equity, as nowhere else, courts eschew rigid absolutes and look to the practical realities and necessities inescapably involved in reconciling competing interests . . . .” Lemon v. Kurtzman, 411 U.S. 192, 200-01 (1973) (plurality opinion).

         As with all injunctions, an injunction to remedy a constitutional violation is an “extraordinary remedy” and requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that (1) he has suffered an irreparable injury, (2) damages are unavailable or inadequate to compensate him for that injury, (3) an injunction is warranted based on the balance of hardships between the plaintiff and defendants, and (4) the public interest will not be disserved by an injunction. Doe v. Rector & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 179 F.Supp.3d 583, 587 (E.D. Va. 2016) (citations omitted) (hereinafter “Doe v. GMU”); see also eBay, Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC, 547 U.S. 388, 391 (2006) (applying the same test where “a plaintiff seek[s] a permanent injunction”); A Helping Hand, LLC v. Baltimore Cty., 355 F. App'x 773, 775-76 (4th Cir. 2009) (applying same in reviewing injunctive relief where plaintiff prevailed in a civil rights action). Defendants concede, as they must, that Doe can establish the first two of these elements. As to the injunctive relief to which they object, though, defendants dispute that the third and fourth elements are satisfied. (Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mem. Remedies 12, Dkt. No. 166.)

         B. Injunction Prohibiting a New Appeal Board Hearing

         The first disagreement-and arguably the most important one-concerns whether further proceedings should be permitted as to Roe's charge against Doe. Doe argues that, if he elects to re-enroll as a JMU student, defendants should not be permitted to conduct another appeal board hearing on Jane Roe's misconduct charge against him. Defendants counter that the proper remedy for a violation of due process is a new hearing to receive the process due. They therefore contend that Doe is entitled only to a new appeal board hearing with constitutionally adequate process and that an injunction prohibiting them from conducting that appeal is not an appropriate remedy.

         The court has carefully considered the arguments of the parties and the authority on which they rely. As even plaintiff acknowledges (Pl.'s Mem. Remedies 27, Dkt. No. 160), “the typical remedy for a violation of due process in the university disciplinary context is more process.” Doe v. GMU, 179 F.Supp.3d at 588 & n.12. Indeed, defendants cite to a number of cases (from both federal and state courts) in which that was the remedy ordered. (Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mem. Remedies 16-17 (citing, among others, Doe v. Brown Univ., No. 16-cv-017, 2016 WL 5409241 (D.R.I. Sept. 28, 2016); Furety v. Temple Univ., 884 F.Supp.2d 223 (E.D. Pa. 2012); Huntsinger v. Idaho State Univ., No. 4:114-cv-00237, 2014 WL 5305573, at *2-3 (D. Idaho Oct. 15, 2014)).) Thus, the standard remedy in similar cases is a new hearing that comports with due process. That is true in the employment context as well. See, e.g., Detweiler v. Va. Dep't of Rehab. Servs., 705 F.2d 557, 562 (4th Cir. 1983) (explaining that if the plaintiff- a terminated employee who alleged a due process violation in the hearing afforded him-could prove his allegation, “he should be afforded a rehearing by the panel that comports with the due process clause”). There are exceptions to the general rule, though, and this court recognizes that it has the broad authority to fashion a different remedy, including the one sought by Doe. But for the reasons discussed herein, the court does not believe the remedy Doe seeks is appropriate.

         In support of his request, Doe relies heavily on the decision in Doe v. GMU. 179 F.Supp.3d 583. There, after finding that a college student accused of sexual misconduct had been denied due process, the court granted the plaintiff's request, similar to Doe's here, that the court enjoin the university from pursuing any further hearings against him stemming from that charge. There, like here, the plaintiff had been found not responsible at his initial hearing and the plaintiff admitted that the first hearing satisfied the requirements of due process. Id. at 586. But when the accusing student appealed, the university allowed the appeal to proceed, despite the fact that it failed to state an acceptable ground for an appeal under GMU's disciplinary procedures. The defendants then committed additional due process violations in processing both that appeal and another level of review, including ex parte meetings with the accusing student. Id. After two levels of appeals, the plaintiff was found to have violated the student code of conduct and was expelled. Id. The court ruled that the defendants violated plaintiff's right to due process by, among other things, “permitting [the accusing student], without a proper basis in GMU's internal disciplinary procedures, to appeal the finding of no responsibility.” Id.

         As is evident from that factual background, there are significant differences between that case and this one. Most notably, in that case, the court had held that the original appeal was not proper under the university's procedures and should not have been permitted. Thus, the plaintiff should never have been subjected to an appeal in the first place. That factor was noted by the court in enjoining further proceedings against the ...

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