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Doe v. Trustees of Dartmouth College

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

May 2, 2018

John Doe
Trustees of Dartmouth College


          Landya McCafferty United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff brings this lawsuit against defendant Trustees of Dartmouth College (“Dartmouth”), alleging violations of his rights under Title IX, along with a number of related state-law claims. Contemporaneously with his complaint, plaintiff filed a motion to proceed under the pseudonym “John Doe” (doc. no. 2). Dartmouth takes no position on the motion. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion is granted.


         Plaintiff's central claim is that Dartmouth discriminated against him on the basis of his sex when it expelled him for misconduct stemming from a drunken sexual encounter with a female student. A detailed recitation of the allegations in the complaint is necessary to understand the context of plaintiff's desire for anonymity.

         Plaintiff alleges that, in August 2016, while a student at Dartmouth, he engaged in sexual contact with a female student- hereinafter referred to by the pseudonym “Sally Smith”-after a fraternity party. Plaintiff describes Sally as the sexual aggressor, and as someone he knew to be interested in sadomasochistic sex. Plaintiff claims that he “blacked out” from intoxication before the encounter and had no memory of seeing Sally that night. The next morning, plaintiff awoke to find Sally in his bed, and the two engaged in consensual sexual intercourse. Sally then explained what had occurred the previous night, and stated that “things had gotten a bit ‘rough.'” Doc. no. 1-3 at ¶ 18. Plaintiff told Sally that he had no memory of the previous night. When Sally left his room, plaintiff fell back to sleep.

         Plaintiff alleges that when he woke up, he was in physical pain. He had bruises and scratches on his back, his nipple was bleeding, and he felt “extreme pain” in his genitalia. Plaintiff claims that Sally sent him a text message that day, describing the night as “fun” and enclosing photos of herself that showed bruises on her body. Later that day, they met to talk, and Sally stated that they had engaged in “rough foreplay” and slapping, and had fallen off the bed multiple times. Id. at ¶ 23. Sally also told plaintiff that he had asked her to leave several times on that night.

         In October 2016, Sally filed a complaint against plaintiff with Dartmouth's Title IX office. She alleged that plaintiff had physically assaulted her during their sexual encounter in August, but she told a Dartmouth official that the sexual contact was itself consensual. After receiving the complaint, Dartmouth notified plaintiff that it was instituting an investigation into whether he had violated standards governing both physical and sexual misconduct. On November 2, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint against Sally, alleging that his intoxication rendered him incapable of consenting to the sexual encounter on August 4, and that she had caused him physical harm during that encounter. Dartmouth jointly investigated both complaints.

         According to plaintiff, his version of events was borne out by the evidence. After receiving the preliminary report and factual findings, Sally and plaintiff communicated to Dartmouth that they had reached an agreement and wished to terminate the investigation. Thereafter plaintiff filed a written response to the preliminary report, noting its alleged inaccuracies and discrepancies.

         On March 3, 2017, Dartmouth notified plaintiff that it found a violation of the physical misconduct standard (i.e., placing another student at risk of physical harm), but found no violation of the sexual misconduct standard. Dartmouth found that Sally had not violated either standard.

         Dartmouth then instituted the process to determine the sanction. Plaintiff alleges that, over his objection, Dartmouth deprived him of the ability to appear before or write to the people deciding his sanction. Dartmouth decided that expulsion was the appropriate sanction. Plaintiff appealed that sanction, and it was upheld. Plaintiff alleges that the appellate decision-maker was biased against him because of his gender, and that her bias was evident in an article she had written in 2014 about sexual assault on college campuses.

         Plaintiff further alleges that the climate at Dartmouth infected his investigation with gender bias. He claims that his investigation occurred at a time when students were hyperfocused on allegations of violence against women, and while Dartmouth was under federal investigation for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints.

         Plaintiff brought this action in January 2018, raising claims for violation of Title IX, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and negligence. On March 19, 2018, the court held a hearing on the present motion.


         Plaintiff argues that, given the nature of the underlying facts and Dartmouth's findings, his reputation, career prospects, and mental health will be significantly damaged if he is not permitted to proceed under a pseudonym. He contends that the mere public identification of a person “accused of and found responsible for assault by a college is severe and can have life-long effects on the [person's] ability to complete his education and gain employment, ” and can also increase the likelihood that the person will be the target of threats, harassment, and intimidation. Doc. no. 21 at 4. He maintains that, if the court requires him to reveal his identity, the purpose of his lawsuit will be defeated and the very harms he is trying to undo will be compounded and exacerbated.

         Before delving into the merits, however, there is a threshold question to address regarding the appropriate standard of review. As plaintiff notes, neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the First Circuit has definitively articulated the circumstances under which a plaintiff may use a pseudonym. Plaintiff relies on certain balancing tests developed by other federal courts of appeals to support his position. At the hearing, the court expressed some skepticism as to whether it should apply one of these balancing tests over the First Circuit's test for determining whether to seal judicial records. Plaintiff has filed a supplemental memorandum further expanding on his view of the relevant law.

         Therefore, the court begins by addressing the appropriate standard of review, before applying that standard to the circumstances presented. As will be discussed below, the court concludes that plaintiff may ...

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