In the world of disciplinary hearings under Title IX, the process for students accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault on campus often begins this way: an accused student (the “respondent” in campus disciplinary parlance) is called into a meeting with a school administrator and informed of a disciplinary charge that could result in expulsion. At most schools, the information that the school provides about the actual charge consists of the date of the alleged event (or a range of dates); the identity of the complainant (the student who is making the accusation) and the provision of the student code that the respondent allegedly violated, or another summary description such as “non-consensual sexual conduct.” In practice, this information is often not sufficient to allow the respondent to identify the actions that the school is investigating, particularly where the allegations stem from a long-term romantic relationship with the complainant, much less to prepare a defense. It also may not give respondents adequate notice to allow them to evaluate whether they may face criminal charges, and make informed decisions about whether to waive their 5th Amendment right to remain silent by making statements during the school’s investigation.
Earlier this month, my colleague blogged about concerns that a weaker federal Department of Education (DOE) in the Trump Administration would mean less protection against discrimination and harassment for minority students. Under Obama the DOE took strong, sometimes controversial, positions in the name of anti-discrimination, for example, issuing numerous guidance documents instructing schools on how to address sexual harassment and sexual assault, and interpreting Title IX to protect transgender students. In the views of its critics, DOE often went too far in issuing these rules, both because it circumvented the normal rule-making procedures for administrative agencies, and because in many instances its guidance letters seemed to directly conflict with the free speech and due process rights of students.
It seems safe to assume that sexual harassment prevention is not high on Trump’s priority list. During the presidential campaign videos surfaced of him discussing sexually assaulting women and more than a dozen women came forward to accuse him of having done just that, and his sons — who played key roles in his campaign — have both indicated that women who do not like being sexually harassed either should not work, or should find a different job. Given that fact, and his stated antipathy to the DOE, it seems quite likely that his administration will do an about-face on both the scope of the DOE’s work, and its positions on key title IX issues. But will the administration’s positions change anything on campus?
I previously wrote about a Massachusetts federal district court decision that was groundbreaking because it tackled the question of whether a private university’s sexual misconduct investigation and disciplinary procedure was fundamentally fair, and concluded that it was not. Last week another local federal court weighed in on the college sexual misconduct issue and found in favor of the accused student, but went in a distinctly different legal direction.
John Doe v. Brown University is one of the few cases on this issue to proceed all the way to trial. The case arose out of a November 2014 sexual encounter between John Doe and Ann Roe. Roe complained about the incident in November 2015, and the case was heard by Brown in 2016. Notably, in fall 2015 Brown adopted a new Title IX policy that contained Brown’s first definition of consent, and a new process for handling sexual misconduct cases. While Brown informed its investigator and panel that the case against Doe would proceed under the 2014-2015 policy that was in effect at the time of the incident, Brown also provided the panel with the 2015-2016 policy and specifically told the panel that that policy codified the community’s understanding of consent, so they could look to it if it assisted them. Continue reading
Six months ago a judge in the federal district court in Massachusetts issued what many people who litigate cases surrounding college sexual assault adjudications consider the most comprehensive decision on the topic. In Doe v. Brandeis University, Judge Dennis Saylor denied Brandeis University’s motion to dismiss the complaint by its former student as to claims that Brandeis breached its contractual duties towards him, handled his case with negligence, and used a fundamentally unfair process to evaluate the accusation against him.
The case arose out of a January 2014 sexual assault complaint against John Doe by his former boyfriend. Under Brandeis’ policy, the complaint was investigated by a Special Examiner who also decided whether John Doe was responsible for sexual assault. (This “single investigator” model, promoted by the White House, has gained significant traction with schools nationwide in the last three years, despite significant concerns about its fairness).
Despite noting that “the Handbook is no model of clarity,” the judge nonetheless found for Brandeis on most of the contract claims based on Doe’s allegations that Brandeis failed to follow its Handbook. The judge similarly rejected most of Doe’s tort claims, with the exception of a claim for negligent supervision based on Brandeis assigning an administrator with no familiarity with the process as the final decision maker in the case. The judge was skeptical that Doe could prevail on the claim, but allowed it to survive the motion to dismiss. Continue reading
Students wrongfully disciplined for alleged sexual misconduct on campus have had a difficult time convincing federal courts to entertain lawsuits based on Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in education. Although the Department of Education has used (some would say exceeded) its administrative authority under Title IX to compel schools to adopt detailed policies for addressing and adjudicating complaints of sexual misconduct, courts were hesitant to recognize claims of unfairness in these campus tribunals based on Title IX itself. An example of this approach, which I have covered before, was a federal district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against Columbia University for failure to identify a “smoking gun” demonstrating that the flaws in Columbia’s investigation of an alleged sexual assault were specifically due to gender bias. Although a few courts more recently found that plaintiffs had made out a sufficiently plausible case to proceed, they did not challenge the basic idea that someone bringing this type of case needs to have at least some evidence of gender bias at the outset.
But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed the Columbia case, holding that the district court had required too much of the plaintiff without the benefit of discovery in the course of litigation. Briefly, the male plaintiff in the Columbia suit, identified as John Doe, had sex with a female fellow student in the bathroom of her suite; she later alleged that the interaction was not consensual. Doe claimed that he was not informed of his rights, that Columbia’s investigator never followed up on his witnesses or evidence, and that he was precluded from offering evidence in his favor. He was suspended for 3 semesters, which even the complainant stated was too harsh. Continue reading
The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, the state agency responsible for guiding public colleges in Massachusetts, has recently waded into the thorny underbrush of law, morality, politics, and public relations that is the current state of discourse around sexual assault on campus. An existing 2014 Board Resolution declared “zero tolerance” for sexual violence on campus, and in 2016 the Board’s Commissioner established a Task Force on Campus Safety and Violence Prevention to make recommendations about campus safety in general and sexual assault in particular. The Board accepted the resulting report, “Securing Our Future: Best Practice Recommendations for Campus Safety and Violence Prevention,” at its June 14, 2016 meeting.
As attorneys whose role in campus proceedings is often to represent accused students, the question we ask when reviewing any new guidance is what implications it might have for the accuracy and fairness of fact-finding following accusations of sexual assault or harassment on campus. The sections of the report that deal with sexual assault are not groundbreaking, and will ring familiar to anyone who has already perused the reports of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the extensive guidance that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has released on this issue. But disappointingly, to the extent that the report does give any guidance as to what procedures schools should follow, it appears to endorse practices that deprive students of constitutional rights and subject them to biased inquisitions without first giving them fair notice of the accusations against them.
As explained in Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk’s forthcoming article, The Sex Bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) guidance documents about Title IX have shaped college and university sexual harassment and sexual assault policies by threatening the withdrawal of federal funding if the schools do not adopt OCR’s recommendations. OCR has defined sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” but made clear that under Title IX schools only have an obligation to address such harassment when it rises to the level of creating a hostile environment, which it defines as harassment that “is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program.” This definition of sexual harassment provides the floor below which school’s policies may not fall, but nothing in Title IX or OCR guidance prevents schools from adopting even more expansive definitions of sexual harassment or standards under which they will investigate allegations of such harassment.
Recently, OCR has emphasized that it expects colleges and universities to investigate claims of sexual harassment well before they reach the threshold at which Title IX requires the school to address the harassment, i.e. before the harassment creates a hostile environment. Continue reading
As we have covered before on this blog, courts have generally been inhospitable to Title IX claims by students accused of sexual misconduct on campus, often dismissing them in the early stages before the students have a chance to obtain evidence through discovery. The most common theory for a Title IX violation is the “erroneous outcome” theory outlined in Yusuf v. Vassar College: to state a claim under this theory, a student disciplined for sexual misconduct must make some showing that the disciplinary process was unfair, combined with “particular circumstances suggesting that gender bias was a motivating factor behind the erroneous finding.”
Unfortunately for plaintiffs, evidence of this sort of gender bias is frequently hard to come by. Even when there is a “smoking gun” document or email, it is often locked away within the university until and unless a court orders it revealed. (The Washington & Lee case, where the Title IX officer had expressed on a public website her view that a woman is sexually assaulted when she has sex and then regrets it, is a rare exception.) The requirement that a plaintiff come forward with particulars at the very beginning of the case fits awkwardly with the standard by which claims are judged when the school, almost invariably, files a motion to dismiss. Since 2007, and especially after the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, plaintiffs have had to make enough specific factual allegations at the beginning of a case to make their legal claims “plausible” in the eyes of the judge. I have discussed previously on the blog how this combination creates a Catch-22: an accused student usually cannot get access to critical evidence without discovery from the university, but the student’s lawsuit will get thrown out before discovery unless it identifies that evidence. Thus, by and large, the courthouse doors have been shut on this type of claim.
Over a year ago, I published a blog post describing the unfair processes used by many schools to deal with complaints of sexual assault and harassment, and compared it to the criminal justice system. As I wrote then, the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has placed enormous pressure on colleges and universities under Title IX to take swift and decisive action against students accused of sexual assault, even though the stacked procedures and low standard of proof make it likely that many innocent students are being punished (often, suspended or expelled), with substantial damage to their reputations and future careers.
What has changed since then? For the most part, not very much. A different bureau of DOE, separate from OCR, did issue some regulations following amendments to the Clery Act and the Violence Against Women Act. The most noticeable impact of the regulations is that now, in cases involving sexual assault (but not necessarily misconduct short of sexual assault), schools must allow students to bring an attorney or other advisor of their choice to hearings and meetings in the disciplinary process. That is unquestionably a step forward. However, the regulations still permit schools to prevent counsel from taking an active role, and the standard if not universal practice is for attorneys to be able to attend but not participate, other than whispering or passing notes to the student.
A complex patchwork of federal laws, regulations, and both binding and non-binding “guidance” issued by federal agencies governs how colleges respond to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault on campus. Compliance with these laws is often a challenge for colleges, which have to respond to the federal government’s increasingly specific demands regarding the contents of their policies and conduct of adjudications in this area. From my perspective as a lawyer whose most frequent involvement in such campus proceedings is as an advocate for accused students and faculty, it often seems that the laws that govern in this area are becoming increasingly complex and yet no better able to deal effectively or appropriately with the complexity of real human relationships and interactions. I firmly share the goal of reducing sexual assault on college campuses and elsewhere, but believe that legislation should be carefully evaluated with an eye to its likely real-life consequences for students, whether complainants or respondents.
That is why, as states begin to legislate more frequently in this area, California Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of one proposed law was a refreshingly common sense choice. The bill would have required colleges to dole out at least a two year suspension to any student found responsible for a sexual assault of any kind. That requirement quickly prompts the question of how “sexual assault” is defined, and there the legislation provided little help, stating: “For purposes of this section, ‘sexual assault’ includes, but is not limited to, rape, forced sodomy, forced oral copulation, rape by a foreign object, sexual battery, or a threat of sexual assault involving a student, whether on or off campus.” That definition is incredibly poorly drafted; it is common sense that sexual assault would include the listed crimes, but by stating that it is “not limited to” those crimes, legislators left open the possibility that the definition could be wide enough to sweep up extensive conduct that most people would not consider so severe as to warrant a two year suspension from college, with its attendant loss of financial aid and removal from school housing.