Sewanee $3 million breach-of-contract lawsuit trial begins

Sewanee $3 million breach-of-contract lawsuit trial begins

August 24th, 2011 by Todd South in News

"John Doe" exits the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building for lunch on Tuesday.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

A $3 million breach-of-contract lawsuit trial against Sewanee: The University of the South enters its second day today with lawyers questioning an expert witness on college sexual harassment and assault policies.

The plaintiff, identified only as John Doe in court documents, is suing the school in federal court for negligence and breach of contract, claiming he received no due process when forced to leave following a rape accusation by another student. The female student later left the school for drug and alcohol treatment and did not pursue criminal charges against Doe.

"Instead of being careful with their conduct, the university chose to rush to judgment," Doe's attorney Charles Wayne told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon.

Doe seeks money for damage to his reputation and loss of future earnings.

"Any harm to his reputation came from his actions and the consequences of his actions," Sewanee's attorney, Rosemarie Bryan, said in court.

Bryan told jurors that Doe's attorneys would "nitpick" the process of how Sewanee officials decided to expel Doe, a freshman at the time of the incident, but the university followed procedures nearly perfectly and Doe simply didn't like the result.

Attorneys on both sides declined to comment on the case outside the courtroom.

U.S. District Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice told the court that the trial could last until Aug. 31.

Sewanee spokeswoman Laurie Saxton offered a written statement, which said the university aims to treat all students fairly, has confidence in its disciplinary process and looks forward to presenting its case.

Wayne and his co-counsel, Elisha King, called Brett Sokolow as their first witness Tuesday afternoon. Sokolow is considered an expert witness on sexual harassment and assault policies. He is the president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management and consults hundreds of colleges on their policies related to sexual harassment.

Sokolow testified this was the first time he has worked as a witness on behalf of someone accused in a sexual assault. In all other instances, he has testified on behalf of the university or the victim of a sexual assault.

Wayne asked Sokolow for his opinion on how Sewanee handled Doe's case.

"The university did not satisfy the standard of care," Sokolow responded.

On Aug. 29, 2008, Doe and an 18-year-old female freshman had sexual intercourse in his dorm room, according to court documents. The woman, identified as A.B., stayed for a few hours after the act, left about 7 a.m. and called police to report she had been raped by Doe.

In court, Wayne laid out the timeline of events Doe faced.

On Sept. 16, 2008, A.B. met with Sewanee Dean Eric Hartman, who handles student disciplinary actions. A.B. related her memory of the alleged rape and made a written statement detailing the incident.

Based on her statement, Hartman categorized the allegation as rape and contacted faculty to begin an investigation.

Two days later, Hartman spoke with Doe, informing him that he had been charged with violating the school's sexual harassment and assault policy and that there would be a hearing by the faculty committee the following day.

Wayne told jurors that Hartman told Doe to bring a character witness and talk with his faculty-appointed advocate before the committee meeting. Doe also was told that he would not be allowed into the proceedings except for when he was called to testify, Wayne said.

Doe said Hartman asked for a written statement and advised Doe to say he was too drunk to know what was going on the night of the incident and that he is sorry.

The committee met the next day and, within a few hours, found Doe guilty and told him he had two days to leave campus.

Hartman told Doe to "destroy" all related materials and that appealing the decision could increase his punishment and possibly cause A.B. to pursue criminal charges, Wayne told the jury. Doe's options, according to Hartman, were to leave school for one semester, reapply for admission with the incident remaining on his student record or withdraw for a year and reapply for the next fall with a clean record.

Doe left campus and decided on the one-year option, but later decided not to return. In June 2009, he and his parents, identified as James and Mary Doe, filed the lawsuit.

Jury selection took the entire morning Tuesday. Seven women and two men comprise the nine-member jury.