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Former student sues Vanderbilt for $10M after expulsion for sexual assault

A former student filed a $10 million lawsuit against Vanderbilt University, claiming he was wrongfully accused of sexual assault in 2016.

The student, identified only as "Z.J.," was expelled three days before his expected graduation and lost his ROTC scholarship, requiring him to repay $136,000 in tuition, according to the lawsuit filed May 5 in Circuit Court. As a result he also lost his commission as an Army officer.

The suit claims Vanderbilt did not follow its own campus discipline policies and denied him the right to confront his accuser or offer his own witnesses in a hearing that concluded he had assaulted a female student.

Vanderbilt officials are reviewing the lawsuit and said in a statement that the school "thoroughly investigate all sexual misconduct complaints and resolve them promptly and equitably, as required by federal law and Vanderbilt's sexual misconduct policy, which is designed to be fair to all parties." The student's attorney, Rob McKinney, declined to comment.

The lawsuit is the latest in a growing number of legal actions taken against universities by students who say they were wrongly accused of sexual assault then deprived of their rights in campus proceedings.

At least 150 such suits have been filed since 2011, according to Save Our Sons, a group that advocates on behalf of accused students and their families.

They include one in 2015 in which a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student successfully challenged the school's finding he had committed sexual assault. The case was tried in Nashville where Chancery Court Judge Carol McCoy concluded the school's disciplinary process had used an "untenable standard" that required the accused student to disprove the allegation, rather than presuming he was innocent.

What these suits have in common with other high profile college sexual assault lawsuits brought by alleged victims is an effort to put colleges' internal sexual assault investigations on trial.

As a result of last year's $2.48 million settlement between the University of Tennessee Knoxville and eight female students accusing the campus of an unfair discipline process, UT President Joe DiPietro commissioned a panel to review campus discipline. That panel has not yet released its findings or recommendations.

Andrew Miltenberg, a New York-based attorney who currently represents about 15 students who claim to be wrongfully accused of sexual assault, said the lawsuits bring to light a "laundry list of flaws" in confidential campus proceedings.

"You can have a process that encourages people who feel they've been a victim of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact that encourages them to come forward and deals with the allegation very seriously and at the same time you can have certain protections in place that make the accused feel like their rights are being respected," Miltenbert. "You don't have that at a lot of universities right now."

The incident alleged in the Vanderbilt lawsuit occurred in 2016 after a St. Patrick's Day tailgate party at a fraternity.

The students' accounts, detailed in excerpts from Vanderbilt police and campus reports cited in the lawsuit, start off the same. They both agree they drank alcohol then returned to the male student's room and engaged in "consensual petting."

From there, their stories diverge.

"Z.J." said when he asked the female student, named "A.H." in the lawsuit, to have sex, she said 'no' then grew upset when he couldn't remember her name. Z.J. reached to place his hand on the back of her neck to get her to sit back down. She had a panic attack, then left when she was calm, according to his account.

The female student went to Vanderbilt Hospital a day later to report her throat was hurting and she had bruises on her breasts and neck. A.H. told Vanderbilt Police that Z.J. placed his hand on her neck and shoved her to the ground. She told a social worker that he attempted to penetrate her and bit her on the breast, choked her and slammed her face in the floor. A Metro Nashville sex crimes detective "ruled out any non-consensual sexual contact," the lawsuit said. No police report was filed.

A Vanderbilt report said officers observed bruises on her breast tissue, a small hickey and very light bruising on either side of her neck.

Three weeks after the alleged incident, A.H. provided additional details, saying Z.J. grabbed her thong, ripped it off and tried to penetrate her.

The lawsuit claims that A.H.s accounts were inconsistent, but Vanderbilt officials determined she was more credible because she was "consistent."

A final report issued by Vanderbilt officials concluded that Z.J. groped the woman in an aggressive manner, removed her underwear and attempted to penetrate her.

The suit claims that Z.J. didn't get the chance to review all of A.H.'s statements in the materials he was given, denying him the right to provide an adequate defense. The lawsuit alleges that that university officials would not allow his witnesses to appear because they weren't present at the time of the incident, but allowed the woman to use as witness a friend she had confided in after she returned to her dorm.

Because A.H. was not required to testify at the disciplinary hearing, Z.J. was deprived of the right to cross examine his accuser, the lawsuit said.

A panel of three appellate officers appointed by the chancellor upheld the findings after Z.J. appealed.

The lawsuit claims that the spotlight on Vanderbilt following two high profile sexual assault trials has put pressure on university officials to take strong action against sexual assaults. But, it claims, Vanderbilt is now violating federal rules regarding sexual discrimination, known as Title IX, by creating a "hostile environment for male students accused of sexual assaulting a female."

Z.J. "was guilty until proven innocent, effectively denying him due process by having to prove his innocence when the female's statement is accepted at face value," the lawsuit said.

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