When can a person accused of sexual misconduct sue the accuser for defamation? Since the #MeToo movement began, more and more people accused of sexual assault have turned to defamation lawsuits as a weapon to combat those allegations. In 2022 Johnny Depp won his defamation claim against his ex, Amber Heard, who had written an op-ed describing herself as a survivor of domestic violence, without naming Depp. (Depp was also found liable for defaming Heard when his lawyer called Heard’s claims a “hoax”). In 2020 a judge found singer Kesha had defamed her former music producer by telling a friend he had raped her; New York’s highest court recently overturned that decision, and the parties settled. A crowdsourced Google spreadsheet of allegations of sexual misconduct against men in media resulted in a lawsuit against the woman who started the spreadsheet, and a six-figure settlement for the plaintiff. Defamation claims in sexual assault cases have gone the other way too; A jury recently found that Donald Trump defamed E. Jean Carroll by calling her sexual assault allegations against him a hoax. In these high-profile instances, defamation suits have become a vehicle to set up a jury to decide whether allegations of sexual misconduct are true. CONTINUE READING ›
For the second time this year, the First Circuit has reversed a district court’s ruling dismissing a student’s breach of contract claim against his school, reaffirming that courts are willing to second guess school’s interpretations and applications of their own policies.
Background of the Case
In Doe v. Stonehill College the plaintiff alleged that Stonehill had violated his contract with the school, and discriminated against him in violation of Title IX, when it found him responsible for sexual misconduct in 2018 and expelled him. According to his complaint, he and student Jane Roe had had three previous consensual sexual encounters before the incident that gave rise to her Title IX complaint against him. On the night in question, he claimed that the two engaged in sexual conduct that was the same as on other nights, and to which she consented in the same way (through physical manifestations of consent) that she had on previous occasions.
One of several controversial revisions to the new Title IX regulations issued by the Department of Education (DOE) is the change to the definition of “sexual harassment.” The regulations significantly narrow the scope of Title IX’s definition of sexual harassment, making it less expansive than the workplace standard for sexual harassment under Title VII and related state anti-discrimination laws. The DOE has justified this dramatic redefinition of sexual harassment based on concerns that Title IX enforcement has been overbroad and, as a result, has applied to conduct that may implicate free speech and academic freedom concerns. The DOE also supports the revisions by claiming that they clarify and provide more explicit guidance to schools about what conduct constitutes sexual harassment for Title IX purposes. The new regulations may provide more clarity in the most egregious circumstances involving quid pro quo sexual harassment and conduct that constitutes sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, or stalking under the Clery Act (the federal law requiring United States colleges and universities to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses). However, the revised definition raises serious questions for complainants about whether other conduct—such as some forms of physical contact, verbal sexual harassment, or gender-based (non-sexual) or LGBTQ-based harassment—will be prohibited under Title IX.
Definition of Sexual Harassment Under Prior Law
Under prior guidance, the DOE defined sexual harassment as “[c]onduct of a sexual nature [that] is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the education program, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment.” This definition broadly included a variety of conduct that could interfere in a student’s ability to participate in school, ranging from physical conduct such as rape, groping, and other nonconsensual sexual contact to verbal harassment.
Cross examination rights in Title IX campus cases have long been hotly contested—both in litigation challenging the adequacy of school sexual misconduct proceedings and in the public debate about how colleges and universities should handle allegations of sexual misconduct. This week’s newly issued Title IX regulations have attempted to find a middle path: they require schools to hold live hearings and permit cross-examination, but only if it is conducted by advisors rather than by the parties themselves.
Until now, the rights of the parties in campus sexual misconduct cases to question each other and witnesses have been highly variable. (Generally respondents accused of sexual misconduct and their advocates have pushed for these rights, while groups advocating for complainants have opposed them, but it’s worth noting that the regulations grant the same rights to both parties.) State and federal courts in different parts of the country have taken sometimes very different positions on whether some form of cross-examination is required under the Constitution, Title IX, or state law, and, if so, what that cross-examination has to look like. In general, the decisions granting such a right have been limited to students of public institutions, who have constitutional due process rights that students at private schools do not have.
Yesterday, the Department of Education released final new Title IX regulations. Our office is addressing the regulations, which mandate significant changes to the way that most colleges and universities have been handling accusations of sexual assault and harassment, in a series of blog posts. This post addresses just one important issue as to which the regulations clarify schools’ options: the standard of proof that they can use to adjudicate complaints falling under Title IX.
While overall the regulations prescribe how allegations must be resolved with a fair amount of specificity, one area in which they have given the schools increased discretion compared to prior guidance is the standard of proof for resolving allegations. In a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, issued in a different presidential administration, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) required schools to use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to determine whether or not a respondent was responsible for sexual harassment or assault. A preponderance of evidence means, essentially, that the evidence establishes that something is more likely than not to have occurred.
Labor Day Weekend is upon us and millions of college students across the country will be beginning their fall terms, including many first-year students who have just become adults and have spent little time away from their families or communities. If you are a parent of an incoming student, you may be helping your child pack, stock up on ramen, move into their dorm, and get oriented to a sprawling and likely overwhelming college campus. While you are preparing your child for a new stage of their life and hopefully independence and responsibility, this is the time to familiarize yourself with the college’s policies on sexual assault, harassment, and other misconduct. While the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is working on passing new regulations related to sexual misconduct on campus (for a summary see one of our lawyer’s comments here), no formal changes have taken effect to date and therefore it is important to ensure that your child is aware of their school’s specific rules and knows their rights and responsibilities, as well as the risks of any criminal exposure that may arise from sexual behavior. CONTINUE READING ›