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Shaw v. Elon University

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 18, 2019

SAMUEL SHAW, Plaintiff,
v.
ELON UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          OSTEEN, JR., DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before this court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. (Doc. 15.) Defendant has filed a brief in support of its motion, (Doc. 16), Plaintiff has responded in opposition, (Doc. 17), and Defendant has replied, (Doc. 20). For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case involves a university's disciplinary process in suspending a student following a physical altercation with another student. The facts alleged, construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, are as follows.

         Plaintiff Samuel Shaw, a citizen and resident of Massachusetts, was a student at Defendant Elon University (“Elon”). (Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) (Doc. 14) at 1 ¶ 1, at 2 ¶ 1.)[1] Elon University is a private university in North Carolina. (See Id. at 1 ¶ 2.)

         A. The Student Handbook

         Elon's Division of Student Life publishes an annual Student Handbook, which outlines Elon's campus policies, procedures, and regulations. (See Id. at 2 ¶ 2; see also Def.'s Motion to Dismiss, Ex. 1, Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1).)[2] Sections 5 and 6 of the Student Handbook outline Elon's Code of Conduct and Formal Conduct Procedures, respectively. (See Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 14-51.) Elon's Code of Conduct provides that “[p]rocedures and rights in the student conduct process are conducted with fairness to all.” (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 3; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 14.) Elon's Formal Conduct Procedures set forth Elon's student-disciplinary procedures for violations of the Code of Conduct and provide that potential violations of the Code of Conduct “should be handled expeditiously and thoroughly.” (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 5; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 35.) The Formal Conduct Procedures are “flexible”; they prioritize consistent disciplinary outcomes in similar situations but also note “that not all situations are of the same severity or complexity.” (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶¶ 5-6; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 35.) The Formal Conduct Procedures also state that, “[c]onsideration will be given to all available and credible information relevant to” a student's potential violation of Elon's Code of Conduct. (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 5; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 35.) The Formal Conduct Procedures outline a three-step process for student disciplinary proceedings, which Elon “typically” follows: (i) a preliminary inquiry, (ii) a student conduct conference, and (iii) a formal hearing. (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 7; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 35, 40-42.) Formal hearings conclude “with the rendering of a ‘Responsible' or ‘Not Responsible' decision . . . based on the preponderance of the evidence and appropriate sanctions will be assigned if warranted.” (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 32; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 42.) If a hearing officer's recommended sanction is disciplinary suspension, then the hearing officer is to consult with Elon's Dean of Students prior to issuing a final decision. (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 32; Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 42.) The Formal Conduct Procedures also set forth applicable timelines: the preliminary inquiry “typically” takes one to seven business days, (Student Handbook (Doc. 15-1) at 40); charges are “usually” set, and an administrative hearing scheduled, within five business days of the student conduct conference, (id. at 42); and “most” formal hearings are conducted within thirty days of the potential violation. (Id.) Fighting and acts of physical aggression violate Elon's Code of Conduct. (See Id. at 26.)

         B. The October 20, 2017 Incident

         On the night of October 20, 2017, Plaintiff attended an Elon sorority event. (See Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 8.) He consumed no alcohol, left the event by bus, and was picked up at the bus drop-off location by Nick Marano, who was serving as a designated driver for the evening. (Id. ¶ 9.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff's friend, Nate Joslin, called Marano and asked him to pick up an intoxicated individual - who Plaintiff later identified as Spencer Schar, the son of a significant financial donor to Elon - who had allegedly assaulted two female students. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11, 15-16.) Marano, accompanied by Plaintiff and another individual, Andrew Dewdney, drove to pick up Schar. (Id. ¶ 12.) Upon arriving at Schar's location, Plaintiff observed Schar punch Joslin while he was not looking, causing Joslin to drop to the ground bleeding. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.) Believing Schar to be a threat to Joslin and the two female students Schar had allegedly assaulted, Plaintiff exited Marano's vehicle, tackled Schar, and then struck him. (Id. ¶ 14.) Following the altercation, the group subdued Schar, and Marano drove him home. (See Id. ¶ 17.)

         Plaintiff alleges that the Elon Police Department investigated the incident and found that Plaintiff had acted in self-defense. (Id. ¶ 18.)

         C. Elon's Disciplinary Process

         On October 30, 2017, Randall Williams, Elon's Director of Student Conduct, began a preliminary investigation of the incident on October 20, 2017. (Id. ¶ 24.) Williams first interviewed Schar and his mother. (See Id. ¶ 21.) During that interview, Schar did not implicate Plaintiff in the altercation. (See Id. ¶ 22.) Schar provided Plaintiff's name to Williams on or about November 6, 2017. (Id. ¶ 25.) On November 28, 2017, Plaintiff was notified that Williams had scheduled a student conduct conference. (Id. ¶ 26.) On December 4, 2017, Williams held Plaintiff's student conduct conference, during which Plaintiff provided a statement about the incident on October 20, 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) On December 7, 2017, Williams interviewed Marano and Dewdney about the incident, and they both provided statements. (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff was notified later that day that a formal hearing had been scheduled. (See Id. ¶ 31.) On December 14, 2017, at 11:00 a.m., Williams began Plaintiff's formal hearing via telephone. (Id. ¶ 33.) At 11:17 a.m., Williams entered a case resolution form, indicating that Plaintiff was responsible for “fighting or acts of aggression and disorderly conduct.” (Id. ¶ 34.)

         Sometime between December 14, 2017 and December 21, 2017, Elon suspended Plaintiff. (See Id. ¶¶ 33-35.)[3] It appears that Elon also suspended Schar, allegedly for a shorter duration than Plaintiff. (Am. Compl. (Doc. 14) ¶ 37.) Plaintiff appealed his disciplinary suspension to Elon's Appeal Board, which upheld the suspension. (Id. ¶ 35.)

         Plaintiff alleges that inspection of his disciplinary conduct file revealed no evidence about Schar's injuries and no statement from Schar or any of the material witnesses about the events of October 20, 2017. (See Id. ¶ 36.)

         D. Procedural History

         Plaintiff originally filed this action in North Carolina state court on June 8, 2018, and Defendant removed it to this court on June 26, 2018. (See Doc. 1-1 at 1; Doc. 1 at 1.) On September 17, 2018, ...


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