Last week, a federal jury in Tennessee returned a jury verdict and award of $26,500 in favor of a male college student who had been accused of rape. The student, using the pseudonym John Doe, sued the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, charging that the university's failure to follow its published procedures in handing of the accusation against him constituted a breach of contract and negligence, violated Title IX, and unlawfully damaged his reputation. The jury concluded that the university was negligent, but reportedly found it to be 53% at fault, compared to Doe's 47%. The damages award constitutes tuition paid for the year that Doe did not finish.
The case began on August 29, 2008, when Doe had sex in his dorm room with a female student. Later that day, the female student reported to college officials that she had been raped. Three weeks later, Doe received notice of the charges from the university and was told to report to a hearing the following day. There, he was found responsible for sexual assault, for failing to recognize that the victim was too impaired from drugs or alcohol to provide consent. The university gave him a choice between two sanctions: a one-semester sanction, with the assault remaining on his record, or withdrawal from school, with the option to reapply later with an expunged record. Doe withdrew, and did not reapply.
Instead, he filed a lawsuit against the university, seeking up to $5 million in damages. In 2009, the judge dismissed Doe's claims that the university's actions against him violated Title IX, concluding that Doe's complaints did not include sufficient allegations to support a finding that the university was motivated by sex bias or negative assumptions about the male sex. Doe v. University of the South, 687 F.Supp.2d 744 (E.D.Tenn.2009). Later, the court dismissed Doe's claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, but cleared the way for his negligence and breach of contract claims to go to trial.
At the trial, which concluded last week, the jurors heard evidence in support of Doe's charges that the university failed to comply with its own procedures, including providing timely notice of the charges, conducting an appropriate and thorough investigation, cutting off proceedings when there’s insufficient evidence to support the charges, allowing Doe to bring a lawyer to the hearing, and considering all of the relevant evidence, including evidence favorable to Doe (like the accuser's use of prescription medication, which could have affected Doe's perception of her ability to consent). The jury concluded that the university's conduct in this case constituted negligence (though not breach of contract) and returned a modest damages award meant to compensate Doe for actual damages in lost tuition, not for claimed damage to his reputation and future earning potential.
In today's issue of Inside Higher Ed, experts speculate on the effect of this decision, believed to be the first of its kind, on other universities going forward. Everyone seems to agree that this case is a reminder that universities have legal responsibilities to both accusers and accused when handling sexual assault cases, and that ignoring the rights of the accused can result in legal liability. Of course, universities can be liable under Title IX for failing to protect the rights of the accuser. Earlier this year, the Department of Education has clarified and promoted awareness about universities' obligation under Title IX to those who report sexual assault. Universities were reminded of their obligation to publish and follow grievance procedures for sexual assault, to investigate claims even if the police are involved, and to not impose a higher burden of proof on the victim than what the legal system normally requires of plaintiffs in civil cases. Importantly, however, nothing about this recent case in Tennessee suggests that universities are in a double-bind situation and forced to respect either one student's rights or the other's. None of the procedures the university was accused of violating in John Doe's case would have, if followed, put the university at risk of violating the Title IX rights of the accuser. While Title IX requires universities to take accuser's claims seriously, the law anticipates and expects that the university will provide a fair hearing that does not curtail the procedural rights of accused.