A district court judge has granted a legal victory to Indiana University’s School of Dentistry and high-ranking members of its faculty after finding the school did not violate a former clinic director’s rights by firing him for alleged sexual harassment of students.
Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s handed down the summary judgement on Wednesday.
Dr. Matthew C. Moeller, a 30-year faculty member of the school, sued his former employer and supervisors in 2016, alleging federal and state law claims related to due process and breach-of-contract violations. Moeller’s trouble began two years earlier, when he was investigated by the university for alleged sexual harassment of female students.
In court filings, Moeller acknowledged “on occasion he would pat, rub and massage the backs of female students,” but denied the conduct was unwanted, unwelcome or “presented in the context of sexual harassment.”
In one incident, he acknowledged touching a female student’s left thigh while sitting next to her at a seminar. But he said in court documents the touch was innocent greeting “something to the effect of ‘how are you doing, OK?’” and when he realized the touching was inappropriate, he apologized to her within 24 hours.
Moeller was sent a notice of the complaint against him, which included the allegations from the female student, as well as allegations that both male and female students were “creeped out” by his actions, yet chose not to broach the issue for fear of academic retribution.
In a subsequent written response and interview, Moeller claimed the allegations were true, but not in the context in which they were presented. He asserted his practice of touching students was meant to encourage them and was not intended to be sexual in nature. He also claimed he was a touchy person by nature who responded best to physical encouragement.
Moeller went on to write he had implemented a zero-tolerance policy to break himself of his habit of touching students, and offered to be placed on probation under similar conditions. The university eventually removed him from his position as a clinic director, then terminated him after a series of meetings between the school’s high-ranking faculty members determined he had violated university policy.
Though his initial appeals and requests for rehearing were denied, Moeller found a minor victory with the Faculty Board of Review, which determined there were procedural deficiencies in the investigation into his actions. The board recommended the university provide Moeller with a copy of its investigatory report, interview him a second time and provide a full explanation of the factors that led to his dismissal.
IU Chancellor Nasser Paydar made those options available to Moeller, but only on the condition that he waive his right to appeal. Moeller refused and instead filed the suit against the university, Paydar, IU President Michael McRobbie and other university faculty members involved in the investigation.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, prompting Moeller to move for dismissal without prejudice of two of his claims—breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
As an initial matter, Magnus-Stinson denied Moeller’s motion to dismiss the two breach claims, finding that if she did not do so, he would presumably litigate the same claims in state court, a course of action that would be unfair to the defendants.
Magnus-Stinson went on to write that the university and individual faculty members being sued in their official capacities each had 11th Amendment immunity, so Moeller’s claims against them could not continue. While the faculty members did not have immunity for the claims against them in their individual capacities, the chief judge determined each of those claims failed as a matter of law.
Magnus-Stinson granted summary judgment to the faculty members on Moeller’s due-process claim, determining no reasonable jury could conclude he was not afforded notice of the claims against him or an opportunity to respond.
Rather, the notice Moeller received outlined the six allegations against him that were the subject of the investigation. He then had the opportunity to respond both in writing and in an interview, as well as in other meetings with the school’s faculty and through his various appeals and requests for reconsideration.
“The University’s decisions to ensure an environment where students are free from uninvited back rubs, thigh touches and other physical contact by a clinical instructor who holds the power to negatively impact their clinical successes is a lawful one within its prerogative,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “A procedural due process claim is not an invitation for the Court to consider whether it agrees with the University’s judgment, or whether it endorses the University’s policies and procedures.”
She also granted summary judgment to the defendants on the state law breach claims, determining neither of those claims was based on any actual contract between Moeller and the school. Further, Moeller failed to respond to the university’s substantive arguments regarding those claims, thus waiving any argument in opposition.
Finally, in a footnote to the 48-page opinion, Magnus-Stinson addressed Moeller’s claims that his conduct, though inappropriate, did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.
“The Court rejects the overall theme of his argument—that the Defendants were somehow required to conclude that although he engaged in the conduct for which he was terminated, he should be excused either because he did not intend the consequences or because the recipients of his behavior should not have been offended,” she wrote.