Inside 3 Lawsuits Brought by Accused Students

In 2016, dozens of students who say they were falsely accused of sexual misconduct pushed ahead with legal challenges. The Chronicle examined what’s at stake in three of those cases.

Brandeis University

Background: A former student, John Doe, sued the university in 2015 after he was found responsible for sexually assaulting his ex-boyfriend in 2014. He wasn’t expelled, but he was given a disciplinary warning, and a notation was added to his academic transcript. Mr. Doe also filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging violations of the federal gender-equity law known as Title IX.

Legal claim: Mr. Doe alleged a "breach of contract," based on the fact that students and colleges have a contractual relationship: The student pays money to the college, which agrees to educate the student and abide by its stated policies. Many of the accused-student lawsuits that find success involve 14th Amendment due-process claims, but only students at public universities have such constitutional rights, and Brandeis is private.

Allegations: Mr. Doe said that before he was given a chance to respond to the allegations, he was barred from entering his dorm, working at his campus job, and attending classes. During the disciplinary process, he said Brandeis officials refused to provide him with a clear statement of the charges or with a copy of the investigation report.

What happened: Brandeis tried to have the suit dismissed, but in March 2016 a Massachusetts district-court judge, F. Dennis Saylor IV, declined to do so. Mr. Saylor’s 89-page ruling didn’t determine whether Brandeis had broken the law, but said the university "appears to have substantially impaired, if not eliminated, an accused student’s right to a fair and impartial process."

What’s next: Mr. Doe withdrew his lawsuit in September. His lawyers issued a news release saying that he felt "vindicated" by Mr. Saylor’s ruling and that he wanted to save money and move on with his personal and professional life. His federal complaint remains under investigation by the civil-rights office.

Columbia University

Background: A former student athlete sued Columbia in 2014 after he was found responsible for sexually assaulting a female student in 2013. The student, John Doe, was suspended for a year.

Legal claim: Mr. Doe alleged that several campus officials involved in his case had demonstrated a pro-female bias, a violation of Title IX. Lawsuits brought by accused students based on Title IX tend to fall flat. Such cases allege reverse discrimination — Title IX was originally intended to protect women, while most accused students are male — and it’s difficult to prove that a pro-female bias existed on a campus, says Andrew T. Miltenberg, one of Mr. Doe’s lawyers.

Allegations: Mr. Doe said Columbia officials failed to interview several witnesses he had provided and to inform him of his rights during the disciplinary process. He also said he believed the university had felt pressured to find him responsible because of the criticism officials were receiving for not taking female students’ sexual-assault reports seriously.

What happened: In July 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed an earlier decision that threw out the lawsuit, allowing the student’s case against Columbia to move forward. The ruling did not mean that Mr. Doe had proved that he was discriminated against because of his gender. It meant, rather, that the appeals court believed that his Title IX case was plausible enough to go ahead.

What’s next: The case will go back to a lower court for a trial, though the timeline is unclear. In the meantime, Mr. Miltenberg says it was "the most important decision" made so far in any accused student’s Title IX case.

University of Virginia

Background: A recent UVa law graduate filed suit against the Office for Civil Rights in 2016 after he was found responsible for sexually assaulting a female student in 2015 — a few weeks before he was to graduate and start a job at a prominent law firm. After the student, John Doe, was found in violation of campus policy, his degree and job were put on hold for nearly a year.

Legal claim: Mr. Doe did not sue the university, but challenged the civil-rights office’s recent guidance on Title IX, which has prompted sweeping changes in how colleges handle sexual-assault cases. The most notable guidance was the office’s 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, which signaled to colleges that the federal government was stepping up enforcement of Title IX and wouldn’t hesitate to investigate institutions for potential violations of the law.

Allegations: Mr. Doe’s lawsuit argues that in failing to notify the public or seek feedback before putting in place what amounted to new requirements for colleges, federal officials violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a 1946 law that spells out how federal agencies can establish regulations. (The civil-rights office says its guidance documents simply clarified existing law and were not new regulations.) The suit also says that the retired judge who determined Mr. Doe’s responsibility said she handed down that verdict only because the civil-rights office’s guidance forced UVa to change its policies and use a lower standard of evidence.

What happened: The lawsuit was filed recently and had not moved forward as of early 2017.

What’s next: Mr. Doe’s case has invigorated critics who have long said that the civil-rights office’s recent Title IX guidance is on shaky legal ground. These critics also say the guidance doesn’t include enough protections for accused students. "Schools have the right and the responsibility to adjudicate sexual-assault cases," says Justin Dillon, one of Mr. Doe’s lawyers. "They just have to do it fairly."

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