Rudman Winchell attorneys defend University of Maine

By Rudman Winchell Attorney

June 19, 2004

Student-Athletes Accused of Rape Get Mixed Ruling

A federal court in Maine has delivered a mixed ruling to two former University of Maine football players, who sued the school and several of its officials for alleged violations of federal civil rights law, the U.S. Constitution, and the Maine Constitution, among other things.

The plaintiffs, Stefan Gomes and Paris Minor, filed a complaint after they were disciplined by the university for allegedly raping a fellow student on June 10, 2003. The university moved to dismiss the 10-count complaint, leading to the instant opinion.

The plaintiffs specifically had alleged that their due process rights “were violated because: (1) they were subjected to discipline for alleged conduct ‘not within the jurisdiction’ of the student conduct code; (2) the defendants conducted a ‘fundamentally unfair hearing’,” which included, among other things, depriving the plaintiff of certain evidence, “effective assistance of counsel,” and “imposing severe punishment without substantial evidence;” and (3) “the investigation, hearing and appeal ‘were conducted in bad faith and sanctions were imposed in bad faith.’”

The court, however, disagreed, finding that “the university’s decision to suspend the plaintiffs, once it determined they had sexually abused a fellow student, was well within the substantive due process protections of the 14th Amendment.”

The plaintiffs also claimed that since the alleged incident took place off-campus, it fell outside the jurisdiction of the student conduct code. The court disagreed, finding, instead, for the defendants that the student code applies to all “registered or enrolled students,” regardless of territorial limitations.

The individual defendants also argued in a motion to dismiss that they were entitled to governmental immunity, which shields them from personal liability, according to the Maine Tort Claims Act. Darling v. Augusta Mental Health Inst., 535 A.2d 421, 425 (Me. 1987); True v. Ladner, 513 A.2d 257, 260 (Me. 1986). In Darling, the state’s high court set forth a four-prong test “to determine whether immunity exists: (1) whether the act necessarily involves a basic governmental policy, program or objective; (2) whether the act is essential to the realization or accomplishment of that policy, program, or objective as opposed to one which would not change the course or direction of the policy, program, or objective; (3) whether the act requires the exercise of basic policy evaluation, judgment and expertise on the part of the governmental entity involved; and (4) whether the government possesses the requisite constitutional, statutory or lawful authority and duty to do or make the challenged act. 535 A.2d at 426.”

The court seemed to agree, finding that “the nature and scope of a university disciplinary hearing, the conduct of the hearing and the final judgment of the university officials would appear to fit well within discretionary function immunity under the MTCA. Absent an allegation of intentional harm, investigating a student disciplinary complaint, conducting a disciplinary hearing, and issuing a decision would seem by the nature of the activity not to be ministerial duties, to require the exercise of discretion, and to be within the scope of the official’s legal authorization.”
However, it also noted that the motion being reviewed in the instant opinion was a motion to dismiss, as opposed to a motion for summary judgment. To sustain the former, a defendant “must demonstrate that there is not set of facts, which would entitle the plaintiff to relief,” according to the court. Gomes et al. v. University of Maine System et al., Civil No. 03-123-B-W

D. Maine, 2/23/04

Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Frederick F. Costlow, Harrison L. Richardson and Mary F. Kellogg of Richardson, Whitman, Large & Badger in Bangor, Maine. (for defendants) Paul W. Chaiken and Timothy A. Pease of Rudman in Bangor, Maine.

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