Settlements have been reached in two federal lawsuits filed by two male Rhodes College students who were accused of sexual assault in the same February 2019 incident, according to court documents.
Both are described in court documents as football players. They filed suit early this summer under the pseudonyms “John Doe,” and “John Coe,” arguing they were falsely accused of rape during a Valentine’s Day fraternity party.
The two men argued they were then brought to an unfair on-campus disciplinary hearing, after which the college expelled both of them. Among other arguments, the lawsuits allege the college violated their rights under Title IX, the law that guarantees gender equality in education.
Court documents don’t reveal the terms of the settlements, but John Doe had sought money damages and a chance to receive his diploma and graduate. Meanwhile, John Coe sought money damages and a chance to come back for the fall 2019 semester.
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The lawsuit filed by John Coe, a resident of Florida, was dismissed in July, following the settlement. The suit filed by John Doe, a resident of Texas, was likewise dismissed in early August.
Efforts to reach lawyers involved on both sides of the cases were unsuccessful on Friday afternoon.
College spokesman Matt Gerien wrote in an email, “The case has been resolved. Rhodes College is committed to the well-being of its students, upholding the law, and ensuring a safe learning environment that supports all members of our community.”
Sealed documents about an alcohol-fueled incident at a fraternity party
Many of the key documents in the case have been sealed, making it difficult to follow all of the events. But a heavily redacted document that was filed on July 7 in the John Doe case lays out the basics.
It says on Feb. 14, the plaintiff, a 22-year-old, attended a formal event at Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity on the Rhodes’ campus. His complaint says during the course of the evening, an unnamed woman consumed alcohol, marijuana and cocaine and became violently ill and slipped in and out of consciousness.
The lawsuit contends that the plaintiff tried to help her. The woman later said she had been raped.
The Memphis Police Department investigated. News outlets covered the story and President Marjorie Hass sent a letter to the college community saying that the fraternity had been ordered to cease and desist from all activities.
“We will not tolerate sexual assault in our community,” Hass said.
The suit alleges there was no evidence against John Doe and John Coe, but that the news coverage and public pressure, including from an anti-sexual assault group on campus, led Rhodes College to expel them both.
In court filings, Rhodes College responded that John Doe didn’t deserve to graduate. “He has not completed his individual class requirements, did not conform to the regulations of the College, and is not in good standing with the College,” Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Milton Moreland wrote in an affidavit filed in June. “To the contrary, he was expelled prior to completing his last semester.”
Moreland also wrote that the school’s Sexual Misconduct Hearing Board had found he’d failed to adhere to the college’s personal and academic standards, that he had failed to comply with the college’s moral requirements, and that a second misconduct claim was pending against him.
Another court filing by John Doe’s lawyers confirms a second claim against him involved an allegation of sexual misconduct. His lawyers described the claim as baseless. They also said he’d completed the academic requirements to graduate.
A complaint filed in the John Coe case says he attended the same Feb. 14 fraternity party with John Doe. It describes the same chain of events leading to expulsion. Rhodes didn’t file documents laying out its position in this case, according to court records.
Federal cases at University of Memphis
Two other federal lawsuits involving sexual assault are pending against another major local higher education institution, the University of Memphis. One of those cases involves a woman identified under the pseudonym Jane Doe who said she was twice sexually assaulted in 2017 and that the university failed to respond properly.
Those 2017 incidents were publicized in The Daily Helmsman student newspaper, leading to protests and an on-campus forum in which students publicly questioned the college president and other officials for more than two hours.
The university argued it cannot be held liable for the sexual assaults against Jane Doe because both happened off-campus — one was at a private home in Arlington, the other at an off-campus apartment complex.
On July 2, attorneys argued the case before U.S. District Judge Mark Norris, with each side asking the judge to issue an immediate ruling in their favor. Norris has not yet ruled, according to online court records.
And earlier this month, former University of Memphis football player Ernest Suttles filed a suit, alleging that he lost his scholarship, reputation and job prospects due to a 2017 sexual assault arrest and discipline by the university.
Suttles filed the suit shortly after authorities dropped the criminal case against him. The University of Memphis has not yet filed a legal response to the Suttles lawsuit.
Investigative reporter Daniel Connolly welcomes tips and comments from the public. Reach him at 529-5296, [email protected], or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.
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