Thursday, November 24, 2016

UCSD Successfully Appeals Student Discipline Case

This week, the California Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that found in favor of a student, John Doe, who had been suspended from the University of California San Diego for sexual misconduct.  In July of 2015, a superior court judge invalidated the university's suspension after concluding that disciplinary hearing was plagued by prejudicial procedural errors, including limits on his right to cross-examine the complainant and the investigator, as well as insufficient evidence to justify the findings in complainant's favor.

The appellate court disagreed with the lower court's conclusions.  One of the procedural errors that the lower court addressed was the fact that the respondent was not allowed to ask questions directly to the complainant. Instead, the hearing panel asked the questions John Doe had submitted. This was not itself a problem, but the lower court did find fault in the fact that the panel filtered out many of the proposed questions; only asking 9 of the 31 submitted by the respondent. But the appellate court concluded that the rejected questions were unnecessary or repetitive of earlier testimony.  For example, 7 of the rejected questions sought the complainant's admission that she sent certain text messages, which was unnecessary since the text messages themselves were already in evidence. Moreover, Doe did not argue in his appellate briefs how exactly his case was harmed by the hearing panel's exclusion of various questions.

The lower court had also found that that the hearing panel improperly relied on the investigator's report. But, despite John Doe's argument to the contrary, the appellate court recognized that university policies put him on notice of the fact that the report would be used as a factfinding document.  Additionally, though John Doe claimed he was prejudiced by not being able to cross-examine the investigator who wrote the report, the appellate court noted that Doe could have called the investigator as a witness for that purpose, and that he neglected to do so.

The lower court had based its determination of insufficient evidence on its conclusion that the hearing panel should not have relied on the complainant's testimony or the investigator's report, because neither had been scrutinized under cross-examination.  The appellate court, having rejected the alleged procedural errors about cross examination, easily determined that there was sufficient evidence of John Doe's guilt.

Lastly, the appellate court reversed the lower court's conclusion that the university's decision to suspend John Doe was an abuse of discretion, especially in light of the fact that the length of the sanction increased with each of John Doe's internal appeals. But the hearing panel, which only recommended suspension for one quarter, was only authorized to do that, recommend.  The Dean, who sanctioned Doe for a one year suspension, always had the ultimate authority to determine the initial sanction. While the Dean departed from the hearing panel's recommendation, the appellate court found that the Dean's sentence was consistent with university policy. The council of provosts, which considered John Doe's appeal of the Dean's sentence, increased the sanction to one year and a quarter. The appellate court found that the council's reasons were related to the content of the appeal, and not, as Doe claimed, punishment for exercising his right to appeal in the first place.

The lower court has been ordered to deny John Doe's petition for mandamus, which would have canceled his suspension. It is not clear to me what that means for Doe himself, given the time that has already passed while his case and appeal were pending.