Penn student accused of rape sues university, citing gender, racial discrimination

The University of Pennsylvania has become the latest local school to be hit with allegations that its process for handling campus sexual assault complaints is discriminatory against male students.

In a lawsuit filed last week, a university senior - identified in court filings only as John Doe - asked a federal judge to halt ongoing disciplinary proceedings against him based on what he described as a "sham investigation" into claims he raped a female student this year.

The suit joins a series of similar complaints lodged against schools including Swarthmore College and St. Joseph's and Philadelphia Universities.

It comes amid a growing concern among some academics and legal experts that, in trying to become more responsive to reports of sexual violence on their campuses, some universities may have overcorrected to the detriment of students facing the accusations.

"The stakes here are high and the damage is irreparable," Doe's lawyer, Patricia M. Hamill, wrote in the suit, filed Friday. "The internal university 'investigation' . . . was so tainted by ineptitude, preconception and bias that it violated John's contractual and legal right to a fair disciplinary process."

As with many of the other lawsuits, Doe is pursuing a sex-discrimination claim under Title IX, the federal law better known for its role in protecting women's rights on college campuses.

His complaints regarding Penn's disciplinary process echo those made by other male students who have sued their universities under similar circumstances.

Among them is that the university uses a "preponderance of the evidence" standard in sexual-misconduct cases, meaning that an assault is more likely to have occurred than not. In contrast, the criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.

But in a new wrinkle, Hamill also alleges that Penn's investigation of her client - a black man accused by a white female - relied heavily on stereotypes of the "young African American male as aggressor."

Hamill, who previously represented a student who settled a similar claim against Swarthmore in 2014, declined to discuss her client's case.

Lawyers representing Penn did not return calls for comment Tuesday. But in a filing Monday, the university's lawyers urged the judge to let the school's disciplinary proceedings play out before allowing Doe to protest the outcome in court.

"There has not even been a hearing at the university yet - let alone a final decision - and [Doe] already wants a 'do over,' " wrote attorney James A. Keller. "There cannot be any irreparable harm when we do not even know what the outcome is."

According to Doe's suit, he and his accuser were rising seniors at the time of their June sexual encounter. Though both had been drinking, Doe alleges neither he nor his accuser was intoxicated or exhibited any signs of being incapacitated.

"She was fully awake the whole time and was an active participant," Hamill wrote. "Afterward, she stayed with John, talked and cuddled with him, asked him to set an alarm so that she could get to work in the morning, and then went to sleep with him in his bed."

The next morning, when Philadelphia police officers arrived at his door with a search warrant, Doe learned he had been accused of sexual assault. It is not clear from court filings, and Doe's lawyer refused to discuss, whether Doe was ever criminally charged, though Hamill notes in court filings that he took and passed a polygraph test.

The school followed with its own investigation, which culminated months later in a report recommending Doe's expulsion for engaging in sexual acts with his accuser without her consent.

Doe maintains he was never given notice of the specific allegations against him until the report was issued, and that the university investigator ignored factors undermining his accuser's credibility and changed language in her statement to make Doe's actions appear more sinister than she had described them.

A university hearing panel will ultimately determine whether to accept, modify, or reject the investigators' conclusion and recommendation to expel Doe.

He has asked the court to stop the disciplinary proceeding, allow him to remain on campus, and set aside any findings by the university investigator that he violated the school's policies.

He is also seeking more than $600,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck