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Robinson v. Howard University, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 20, 2018

HOWARD UNIVERSITY, INC. et al., Defendants.


          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         This is a case about a professor's poor choices and the disciplinary actions that followed. Reginald Robinson is a tenured law professor at Howard University. During a lecture on agency law, he distributed a quiz to his class. One of the quiz questions described in graphic detail types of body waxes and the way aestheticians perform them. Mr. Robinson called on two female students to discuss their answers to the question. They later reported that the exchange made them feel uncomfortable and that at least one other student had left the classroom. After investigating, University officials determined that the question was indeed inappropriate and issued Mr. Robinson a confidential letter of reprimand. He was also required to participate in sensitivity training, to submit future quiz and exam questions to the Dean's Office for approval, and to have a few of his future lectures monitored.

         Impenitent, Mr. Robinson sued the University and various University officials. He alleges breach of contract, bad faith, violations Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 (“Title IX”), sex discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other claims. The Court will dismiss some of these allegations for failure to state a claim. Because the Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and because they have shown that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, the Court will grant the Defendants summary judgment on the remainder of Mr. Robinson's claims.


         In the fall of 2015, Mr. Robinson taught a course called “Agency, Partnerships, and Other Unincorporated Business Associations.” Am. Compl. 13, ECF No. 19. To test students' understanding of the concepts covered, he often used in-class quizzes. Id. “Meaningful participation” in these evaluations “require[d] students to reveal their choices and to defend those choices based on the legal principles and relevant/material facts.” Id. at 13-14. The relevant part of the quiz question at issue said:

Among other services, P offered Brazilian and bikini waxes - sometimes called “Sphynx, ” bare waxing, or Hollywood waxing. . . . T looked confused, and so A explained that a Full Brazilian (“FB”) would render T hairless from belly button to buttocks, and a FB required [that] T would be naked from the waist down. A FB required A to touch T's body and to adjust T's body so that A could access every follicle of pubic hair. Next, A explained a Modified Brazilians [sic] (“MB”). A MB left a thin strip of hair at the top of T's genitalia, viz., a “landing strip.” T opted for FB. A again told T that A would have to touch T's genitals to complete the waxing. T agreed, and T signed the service contract and initialed the space for acknowledging A's information. T got undressed in a private salon, where T also drank hot herbal tea. At A's behest, T, w [sic] who was waist down naked, got on the waxing table. Once on the table, with instrumental tones wafting, T drifted into light sleep; A completed the FB. Upon awaking, T felt physically uncomfortable, asking A if A had touched T improperly. . . . [W]ill the court find in favor of T?

Am. Compl. Ex. 9, ECF No. 13 at 162-163.[1]

         Mr. Robinson called on a female student who suggested that “T would not sleep” during the sort of procedure described. Am. Compl. Ex. 25, ECF No. 13 at 208. The professor pressed her to answer the question, as he “still wanted to know what choice she had made.” Id. He also sought an answer to the hypothetical from a second female student, before moving on to the remainder of his lecture. Id. at 208-209.

         The two students filed complaints against him with the University. Am. Compl. 3. Based on their allegations, Candi Smiley, the University's Deputy Title IX Coordinator, issued Mr. Robinson a Notice of Complaint. Compl. Ex. 10a, ECF No. 1 at 188. It said that the University's Title IX Office would investigate his conduct as required by federal law. Id. It specified that Mr. Robinson was alleged to have engaged in “acts of sexual harassment” and “acts of gender-based discrimination” in violation of the University's Title IX Policy. Id. And it explained that the “charges will be ‘sustained' if it is found that the important facts contained in an allegation are more likely true than not and that those facts violate one or more of” the University's Title IX Policy standards. Id. at 189 (emphasis in original).

         The Notice also described Mr. Robinson's rights and the decision-making process. He had the right to submit a written response to the charges against him, to verbally present his position to the Deputy Title IX Coordinator, and to retain counsel for any interviews with the University. Id. at 190. The letter warned Mr. Robinson that the “decision of the Title IX Decisional Authority is the final administrative action of the University and is not subject to appeal.” Id. at 189-90. The “Decisional Authority” is “the person or persons who will review the final Report of Investigation” prepared by the Deputy Title IX Coordinator. Id. at 189.

         After completing her investigation, Ms. Smiley issued a Report of Investigation and Findings. See Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss or in the Alternative, Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 1, ECF No. 20 (“Defs.' Mot.”).[2] The Report concluded that “there is sufficient evidence to determine Professor Reginald Robinson committed acts of Sexual Harassment in violation of the Title IX Policy.” Id. at 3. Ms. Smiley found insufficient evidence to sustain the charge of gender discrimination. Id.

         The Report identified the University's Provost, Anthony Wutoh, as the Title IX Decisional Authority. Id. at 12. Upon completing his review, Mr. Wutoh issued a Notice of Findings. It informed Mr. Robinson that the University agreed with the Report's conclusions, and that he would therefore be subject to disciplinary action. Compl. Ex. 24, ECF No. 1-1 at 47-48. A confidential letter detailing his conduct, the actions taken, and the possible punishments for future violations of the Title IX Policy was “placed in his file.” Id.

         Mr. Robinson appealed this decision in a letter to Mr. Wutoh. Am. Compl. 24. In response, the Provost explained that, “[i]n accordance with the Howard University Title IX Policy, I serve as the . . . Title IX Decisional Authority. As with all cases, I carefully reviewed the recommendation from the Title IX Office before rendering a decision in this matter. The decision reached . . . is final, and is not subject to reconsideration or appeal.” Am. Compl. Ex. 13, ECF No. 13 at 196.

         Dissatisfied, Mr. Robinson pursued several strategies to force a reversal of the decision. He sent “his documents to a [sic] FIRE, ” a nonprofit organization he believed could help him “end the sex discrimination he faced.” Am. Compl. 25. He appealed the Provost's decision to the University's Faculty Grievance Commission. Id. And when these efforts failed, Mr. Robinson filed a gender discrimination claim against the University with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the “EEOC”). See Dismissal and Notice of Rights, Compl. Ex. 31, ECF No. 1-1 at 65. The EEOC dismissed his complaint, as it was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the [applicable] statutes.” Id. Mr. Robinson then filed this case. He accuses the University, Mr. Wutoh, Ms. Smiley, and Title IX Coordinator Vanessa Love of “knowingly fraudulent, ” “deliberately deceptive, ” and “arbitrary and capricious” conduct. Am. Compl. 1, 3. The operative complaint features several claims, including:

• Breach of contract and the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing;
• Erroneous outcome, deliberate indifference, and unlawful retaliation in violation of Title IX;
• Sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
• Intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress;
• Negligence; and
• A request for declaratory and injunctive relief styled as a claim.

         The Defendants maintain that the actions taken by the University complied with its Title IX Policy and all relevant laws. Thus, they moved to dismiss or, based on the extra-pleadings evidence before the Court, for summary judgment. See Defs.' Mot. at 9 n.3.


         Defendants may move to dismiss a complaint when it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A valid complaint must contain factual allegations that, if true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Mere “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement” are insufficient. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). Rather, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all reasonable factual inferences drawn from well-pleaded allegations. In re United Mine Workers of Am. Emp. Benefit Plans Litig., 854 F.Supp. 914, 915 (D.D.C. 1994). The Court need not, however, accept legal conclusions or mere conclusory statements as true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Evaluating a motion to dismiss is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. It “may consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [the court] may take judicial notice.” EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997).

         If “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, ” a motion to dismiss “must be treated as one for summary judgment, ” and the “parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present all the material that is pertinent to the motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). The decision to covert a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment is “committed to the sound discretion of the trial court.” Flynn v. Tiede-Zoeller, Inc., 412 F.Supp.2d 46, 50 (D.D.C. 2006).

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, a movant must show that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). A factual dispute is material if it could alter the outcome of the suit under the substantive governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. “[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant makes this showing, the non-moving party bears the burden of setting forth “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.


         Before addressing the substance of Mr. Robinson's claims, two preliminary matters warrant brief discussion. First, the parties disagree on whether to treat Mr. Robinson as a pro se litigant. He has described himself as a lawyer, a law professor, and “an adept legal academic” who “knows the legal system.” Pl.'s Rule 6(b) Mot., ECF No. 26 at 12-13. Pointing to these statements, the Defendants argue that he is “not entitled to the leeway sometimes granted to pro se litigants.” Defs.' Mem. in Opp. to Pl.'s Mot. to Delay Resp., ECF No. 31 at 1 n.1. Mr. Robinson disagrees, citing a definition of “pro se” from Black's Law Dictionary (“one proceeding for himself and on their own behalf, in person”) and cases ...

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