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Federal judge dismisses sexual assault lawsuit against U of M

Joy VanBuhler/Flickr Creative Commons
The U of M law quad in winter

A federal judge has thrown out a sexual assault lawsuit against the University of Michigan, in which a former student claimed he was wrongly accused of rape.

The man – who just goes by John Doe in the court filings – says he had consensual sex with a female student at a party in January 2016.

She filed a complaint, however, saying she’d been drinking and was incapacitated at the time; she says she’d also told him “no sex” that night.

The university’s investigators interviewed witnesses and sided with the male student, but then, on appeal, a panel found there was in fact enough evidence of sexual misconduct.

Facing possible expulsion, John Doe agreed to withdraw from the university.

But then he sued the school this fall, claiming irreparable damages and seeking to be readmitted. His lawsuit claimed the university’s process was biased against him, and deprived him of his rights to due process. What’s more, he also claimed the university’s policies (which have since been updated) unfairly required students to figure out the tricky line between “intoxicated” and incapacitated.”

Federal Judge David Lawson disagreed, saying a "person of ordinary intelligence" can figure out when someone is incapacitated. The judge also said John Doe’s suit failed to provide evidence of bias, or demonstrate how the university deprived him of due process.

For John Doe’s attorney, Deborah Gordon, this case illustrates a dangerous pattern, in which any man accused of sexual assault is automatically thrown out, just to make the school look like it’s taking sexual assault seriously.

“It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever been involving in my 40 years of doing civil rights cases, I’ve never been in an area of the law where the penalty is so overwhelming and such a lifelong thing,” she says. “This you’ll never move on from, and you’re a kid. You’re a 19-year-old kid, and for the rest of your life you’ll be explaining why you didn’t graduate from the college you attended for three years.

“What are you going to say? ‘I had sex with somebody, and she complained?’ I mean, it’s a very, very significant burden to carry.”  

But for Jane Doe’s attorney, Jennifer Salvatore, the judge’s decision is a relief for a young woman who was worried she’d have to see her alleged assailant on campus again. “The federal court really looked closely at the record here, looked closely at the evidence that was before the three-member [appeals] panel here, and really made sure there was sufficient evidence here to justify the decision that was made in this case.”  

“You know, she’s very gratified by this decision. The defendant’s decision, in our case, to seek readmission to the university has been really unsettling to my client. She signed a resolution agreement last spring to make sure she could have finality to this process…and so his attempt to get back into the university, has brought a lot of uncertainty and stress anxiety for her this year. So she’s relieved … and glad that it’s been resolved at this point.”  

Deb Gordon, the plaintiff’s attorney, declined to comment on whether they would appeal this decision.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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