On June 14, 2022, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a former Harvard University student, Damilare Sonoiki, will be allowed to proceed with his claim that Harvard University impermissibly withheld his diploma due to pending sexual misconduct allegations. In so ruling, the Appeals Court determined that because Harvard’s student handbook was ambiguous as to the university’s authority to withhold a diploma, Sonoiki’s breach of contract claim should not have been dismissed by the District Court. Apart from the breach of contract claim, however, the Appeals Court affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of all of the remaining claims.
As noted in the decision, Sonoiki had been a senior on track to graduate from Harvard in May 2013. He was selected to speak at graduation and was set to embark on a career as an analyst in New York City. Two days before his graduation, two female students filed Title IX complaints against him, alleging sexual misconduct. A third student filed another complaint shortly after graduation. Although Sonoiki participated in the graduation ceremony, he was not awarded a diploma nor an undergraduate degree. Following graduation, Harvard concluded its investigation into the allegations and ultimately dismissed Sonoiki.
In his lawsuit, Sonoiki claimed that Harvard’s decision to withhold his diploma constituted a breach of contract because the student handbook did not authorize the university to withhold his diploma under the circumstances. In its decision, the Court noted that the both parties acknowledged that the handbook was a binding contract between Harvard and its students. In closely examining the handbook, the Appeals Court concluded that the language was ambiguous as to when Harvard could withhold a diploma in circumstances involving a pending disciplinary matter. Given this ambiguity, the First Circuit found it plausible that Sonoiki could have expected to receive his degree since he had not actually been “charged” with sexual misconduct at the time of his graduation ceremony. As a result, it ruled that his breach of contract claim should be allowed to proceed.
Although this case has not yet been decided on its merits, this decision is a good reminder to all educational institutions about the importance of having clear and consistent handbook language. Policies and procedures must be internally consistent, have clear definitions, and be unambiguous with respect to process. Once this language is established, it is equally important that schools follow their established policies and procedures. As is often said, schools should use handbooks to say what they do and then do what they say, a mantra that is important to keep in mind as schools review handbooks in preparation for the next academic year. Click to view the full text of the First Circuit Court of Appeals decision.