Doe v. University of Michigan et al
ORDER denying 123 Motion for Sanctions; adopting 150 Report and Recommendation. Signed by District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow. (MLan)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
Case No. 18-11776
SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE
ARTHUR J. TARNOW
UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN, ET AL.,
U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ELIZABETH A. STAFFORD
ORDER ADOPTING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION ; SUSTAINING IN PART
AND OVERRULING IN PART DEFENDANT’S OBJECTIONS TO REPORT AND
RECOMMENDATION ; DENYING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SANCTIONS
On June 4, 2018, Plaintiff John Doe commenced this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action
claiming, inter alia, that Defendant University of Michigan’s Policy and Procedures
on Student Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct and Other Forms of Interpersonal
Violence deprived students of due process in violation of the Fourteenth
Before the Court is Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions  filed on May 1,
2020. Plaintiff filed a Response  on May 15, 2020. Defendant filed a Reply
 on May 29, 2020. On November 25, 2020, the Magistrate Judge issued a
Report and Recommendation (“R&R”)  recommending that the Court deny
Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions . Defendants filed Objections  to the
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R&R on December 9, 2020. Plaintiff filed a Response  to Defendant Objections
 on December 23, 2020. Defendant filed a Reply  on December 29, 2020.
For the reasons stated below, the R&R  is ADOPTED; Defendants’
Objections  are SUSTAINED in part and OVERRULED in part; and
Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions  is DENIED.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The Court adopts the facts of this case as set forth in the R&R:
Plaintiff John Doe sued the University of Michigan, its Board of
Regents and eight of its employees, alleging that they violated his
due process rights. [ECF No. 47]. Doe claimed that a fellow
student filed a false sexual misconduct complaint against him with
the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) at the University. [ECF
No. 47, PageID.1332]. He alleged that, in response to the
complaint, “the OIE commenced an investigation to determine if
[Doe] had violated the Sexual Misconduct Policy, dated February
7, 2018.” [ECF No. 47, PageID.1332]. Doe asserted that the
University’s 2018 policy intentionally deprived him of due
process, including a live hearing and cross-examination. [ECF No.
47, PageID.1333-1340]. The Honorable Arthur J. Tarnow agreed
with Doe and, in March 2020, ordered the University to provide
Doe the right to live disciplinary proceedings and an opportunity
to cross examine witnesses and his accuser. [ECF No. 90].
After this order, the University scheduled a student conduct
hearing for April 22, 2020. [ECF No. 97-1]. Doe moved for an
injunction to postpone the student conduct hearing until after April
30, 2020, the end of the Winter 2020 academic term. [ECF No.
97]. Doe described having significant academic obligations
between April 13 and April 30. [ECF No. 97, PageID.2765-2770].
Later, the University learned that Doe’s accuser no longer wished
to participate in the student conduct hearing or proceed with the
investigation. [ECF No. 123, PageID.3613]. The University thus
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cancelled the hearing and permanently closed the investigation,
and Judge Tarnow ruled Doe’s motion moot. [ECF No. 108].
The University now moves for sanctions against Doe, arguing that
his motion for injunctive relief misrepresented his academic
obligations and that those misrepresentations amounted to bad
faith sanctionable under the Court’s inherent authority. [ECF No.
123]. Judge Tarnow referred the motion to the undersigned for
hearing and determination under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) [ECF
No. 149], but because the motion was filed post-judgment, this
Court must prepare a report and recommendation under §
636(b)(3). Fharmacy Records v. Nassar, 465 F. App’x 448, 455
(6th Cir. 2012). The Court finds that the University’s motion for
sanctions to lack merit.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
When a magistrate judge issues a non-dispositive order, the district court
reviews the order under the “clearly erroneous or contrary to law” standard. See FED.
R. CIV. P. 72(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A). This Court reviews the denial of
sanctions under an “abuse of discretion” standard. See Van Emon v. State Farm Mut.
Auto. Ins., Co., 05-72638, 2008 WL 205243, at *1 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 24, 2008);
Haworth, Inc. v. Herman Miller, Inc., 162 F.R.D. 289, 291 (W.D. Mich.1995)
(“Where the relevant legal standard under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
requires the decision-maker to `do justice' or balance the interests at stake, the
magistrate judge's decision will be reversed only on a showing of an abuse of
discretion.”). A judge abuses her discretion if she bases her ruling on “an erroneous
view of the law or a clearly erroneously assessment of the evidence.” See Rentz v.
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Dynasty Apparel Indus., Inc., 556 F.3d 389, 395 (6th Cir. 2009) (citing Ridder v.
City of Springfield, 109 F.3d 288, 293 (6th Cir. 1997)).
The Court may “assess attorney's fees when a party has ‘acted in bad faith,
vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons.’” Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501
U.S. 32, 45-46 (1991) (citing Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society,
421 U.S. 240, 258-59 (1975)). The Court is not required to “determine whether the
conduct could be sanctioned under the rules or relevant statutes before considering
sanctions under its inherent authority.” First Bank of Marietta v. Hartford
Underwriters Ins. Co., 307 F.3d 501, 512 (6th Cir. 2002). A sanctionable offense
would include when “a court finds that fraud has been practiced upon it, or that the
very temple of justice has been defiled.” Chambers, 501 U.S. at 46 (internal
quotation marks and citation omitted). Additionally, this inherent power “must be
exercised with restraint and discretion.” Id. at 44.
Objection 1: “The Report and Recommendation erred by applying an incorrect legal
standard that improperly limits the Court’s authority to sanction bad faith conduct.”
(ECF No. 153, PageID.3937).
Despite noting that the test did not “exactly fit these circumstances[,]” the
Report and Recommendation applied a legal standard for the filing of frivolous
lawsuits in bad faith. (ECF No. 150, PageID.3913). Defendants object to the use of
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this standard and claim that the Court should instead apply the standard articulated
in Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., which empowers the Court to use its inherent authority
to “assess attorney's fees when a party has ‘acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly,
or for oppressive reasons.’ ” 501 U.S. 32, 45-46 (1991) (citing Alyeska Pipeline
Service Co, 421 U.S. at 258-59).
As outlined above, the Court agrees with Defendants, because no other
procedural rule for sanctions applies here. See id. at 50 (“if in the informed discretion
of the court, neither the statute nor the Rules are up to the task, the court may safely
rely on its inherent power.”). However, as explained below, even under the
Chambers standard, Defendants’ motion fails.
Objection 2: “The Report and Recommendation erred by finding that Doe did not
act in bad faith when the record overwhelmingly demonstrates that Doe
misrepresented his academic requirements to the Court so that he could avoid a
student conduct hearing.” (ECF No. 153, PageID.3939).
The Magistrate Judge did not abuse her discretion in finding that Plaintiff had
not misrepresented his academic obligations to the Court in bad faith. In his Motion
for Injunctive relief , filed on April 10, 2020, Plaintiff claimed to have a series
of assignments, papers, and exams in two courses that would conflict with the
misconduct hearing then scheduled for April 22, 2020. Plaintiff now asserts that
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some of those allegations were inadvertently incorrect (i.e. mistakenly confusing his
term paper due dates for his research paper due dates) while others were changed, or
confirmed to be changed, after his motion was filed. The Court finds that the
Magistrate Judge’s assessment of these misrepresentations as innocuous is supported
by the record.
First, several of Plaintiff’s assignments were changed or cancelled in rapid
succession due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced all classes to transition to
an online platform. On March 16, 2020, Plaintiff’s professor for his “Class 1” told
the class that their remaining in-class exercises would now be take-home exercises.
(ECF No. 139, PageID.3834). Accordingly, Plaintiff represented to this Court on
April 10, 2020 that he had homework assignments due on April 13 and 20, 2020.
(ECF No. 99). However, Plaintiff’s professor states that the last homework
assignment was due on April 2, 2020. (ECF No. 148, PageID.3906). The professor
goes on to say that on April 6, 2020, he told the students that in light of the pandemic,
these exercises would instead be part of the final paper due on April 20, 2020. (Id.
at 3907). However, these instructions were once again clarified on April 13, 2020 in
response to students’ questions. (Id.). In light of this evidence, it is not an abuse of
discretion for the Magistrate Judge to conclude that “[t]he students’ need for
clarification shows that the Court cannot assume that Doe’s interpretation of the
modification of the exercises was a fabrication.” (ECF No. 150, PageID.3916).
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Second, Plaintiff claims that he had a final term presentation scheduled on
April 20, 2020, but during class on March 11, 2020, the professor delayed the
presentation to April 30, 2020. (ECF No. 139, PageID.3835). Accordingly, Plaintiff
told the Court that he had a final presentation scheduled for April 30, 2020. (ECF
No. 99). Plaintiff now claims that the presentation was later cancelled during class
on April 13, 2020. (ECF No. 139, PageID.3835). Plaintiff’s professor, however,
disputes this claim. He states that he “did not announce during the March 11, 2020
lecture that the term presentation was delayed to April 30, 2020, nor did [he] cancel
the term presentation during the April 13, 2020 lecture, because [he] canceled the
term presentation on March 13, 2020.”. (ECF No. 148, PageID.3907). However, the
professor also states that he may have reiterated the cancellation during class on
April 13, 2020. This sufficiently substantiates the Magistrate Judge’s claim that “any
conflict between the parties’ positions on the cancellation of the final presentation
could be reconciled by the possibility that Doe mistook the reiteration as the
cancellation.” (ECF No. 150, PageID.3916).
In regard to Plaintiff’s Class 2 assignments, he claimed that he had a
homework assignment due on April 14, 2020. (ECF No. 99). Defendants dispute this
using a declaration from an Associate Dean who claims to be familiar with the
requirement of Plaintiff’s courses. (ECF No. 125). Despite this, Plaintiff has shown
the Court email evidence of the submission of this assignment two days ahead of the
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April 14th deadline. (ECF No. 136). Plaintiff also claimed that he had another
homework assignment due in this course on April 21, 2020. (ECF No. 99).
Defendants again dispute this using the same declaration. (ECF No. 125). However,
Plaintiff claims that on April 14, 2020, his professor told the class that this
assignment would not be graded, but that students should still complete the
assignment in preparation for the final exam. (ECF No. 139, PageID.3836). Plaintiff
has accordingly submitted evidence of this completed assignment. (ECF No. 137).
Defendants, in response, have not shown any persuasive evidence to the contrary.
Finally, Plaintiff told the Court that his exam for Class 2 was scheduled for
April 23, 2020, in accordance with the Registrar’s scheduling guidance. See (ECF
No. 138); (ECF No. 99). Plaintiff then explains that on April 17, 2020, his professor
stated in class that the exam was scheduled for April 24, 2020, which he later
confirmed in an email to the class. (Id.). The email was also submitted to the Court.
(Id.). Plaintiff has shown sufficient proof that any representations that may seem
“false” in hindsight, were merely a reflection of what he knew at the time in the
midst of changing circumstances. Defendants’ assertions to the contrary are
However, to Defendants’ credit, the Magistrate Judge neglected to analyze
one allegation that cannot be as easily excused. Plaintiff represented to this Court
that he had a final exam for Class 1 scheduled on April 27, 2020. (ECF No. 99). The
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course’s professor states that he never scheduled a final exam for the course. (ECF
No. 148, PageID.3906). Plaintiff explains this away by stating that the University
Register schedules final exams for the date and time slot during which the class
typically meets, which for this course would have been April 23, 2020. (ECF No.
133). Plaintiff further explains that the professor first verbally announced on March
11, 2020 that the final exam would be delayed till April 27, 2020, due to the
pandemic’s disruptions. (ECF No. 139, PageID.3835). Plaintiff claims that then on
April 13, 2020, his professor cancelled the exam altogether “due to technical issues
with conducting it remotely.” (Id.).
These explanations would be satisfactory but for the professor’s protestations
that he “did not announce during the March 11, 2020 lecture that a final exam would
be held on April 27, 2020, nor did [he] cancel a final exam for this course during the
April 13, 2020 lecture, because [he] never scheduled a final exam for this course.”
(ECF No. 148, PageID.3907). Given an opportunity to respond in his response brief
to Defendants’ objections, Plaintiff makes no mention of this unmistakable
inconsistency between his affidavit and his professor’s. However, in light of the
several other mistakes and confusion surrounding assignments that were quickly
delayed, cancelled, or changed in form due to the pandemic, Defendants have not
misrepresentations to this Court in bad faith. Objection 2 is overruled.
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For the reasons stated above, the R&R  is ADOPTED; Defendants’
Objections  are SUSTAINED in part and OVERRULED in part; and
Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions  is DENIED.
IT IS ORDERED that the R&R  is ADOPTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants’ Objections  are
SUSTAINED in part and OVERRULED in part.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions 
Dated: March 31, 2021
s/Arthur J. Tarnow
Arthur J. Tarnow
Senior United States District Judge
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