In three separate cases, courts issued rulings this week that address claims by students disciplined for sexual assault that the university's process for administering discipline was biased and/or procedurally unfair. A summary of each is below.
Doe v. Ohio State University. In this case, Ohio State expelled a male student for having sex with a female student who could not consent due to incapacitation by alcohol. He sued the university and several university officials in federal court. This week, the court granted the university's motion to dismiss the constitutional and Title IX claims against it because state entities like Ohio State enjoy sovereign immunity from suit in federal court. The sovereign immunity doctrine has an exception for cases where the plaintiff seeks prospective relief, such as reinstatement, but because the plaintiff did not request reinstatement, that exception does not apply.
Additionally, the university officials moved to dismiss the claims against them in their personal capacities on the grounds of qualified immunity. Under this doctrine, state officials are only liable for violations of constitutional rights that are "clearly established." The court determined the most of the plaintiff's allegations about the deficiency of the process constituted a violation of clear constitutional precedent. However, the court did not dismiss plaintiff's allegations that the university officials were trained in a biased manner, since if proven, such claims would implicate a clear constitutional right to have one's case decided by an impartial adjudicator. However, the court cautiously acknowledged that there's a difference between being biased against sexual assault in general, and being predisposed to finding a respondent responsible for sexual assault in a given case. The plaintiff can't satisfy the latter with evidence of the former. However, the court read the plaintiff's allegations as plausible enough to warrant discovery. The officials would have an opportunity to seek dismissal on summary judgment and have the court determine if the plaintiff has meet that burden of producing evidence in support of the allegations.
Doe v. University of Cincinnati. Here, a male student was suspended for one year for having sex with a female student without her affirmative consent. He then sued the university in federal court and moved for an injunction that would prevent the suspension from taking effect. The court granted the injunction after agreeing that the plaintiff was likely to prevail on the merits of his argument that the complainant's absence from the hearing deprived him of an opportunity to cross-examine her. While not endorsing a blanket right to cross examination in all student disciplinary hearings, the court did acknowledge the importance of that right in cases like this one where the hearing panel's assessment of parties' credibility was the key factor in its determination. The court also did not insist that when a right to cross examination exists, it must be conducted in person at the hearing. Instead, what made the accuser's absence from the hearing a due process violation in this case was the fact that the respondent did not know in advance that she would be not be present, and thus, was unable to take advantage of other means of cross-examination, such as the submission of written questions that the hearing panel could have posed to complainant in some other way.
Arishi v. Washington State University. This case stems from Washington State University's decision to expel a doctoral student after he was arrested for child molestation and statutory rape. The student sued in state court to challenge the university's disciplinary procedure as a violation the state statute that imposes procedural requirements on adjudications conducted by state agencies. He argued that he was not allowed a "full hearing" required by Washington's administrative procedure act, which would have provided him the opportunity to cross examine witnesses, present evidence, and be represented by counsel. The court agreed that state universities are subject to the law and that none of the exceptions warranting an abbreviated hearing apply. The court has ordered the plaintiff's case remanded to Washington State, which must conduct a full hearing if they wish to expel him. According to this news article about the case, the court's decision will mean changes in the disciplinary process not just at Washington State, but 26 other state colleges and universities whose procedures do not constitute full hearings under the state administrative procedures act.