Universities and colleges around the country are under pressure to handle claims of sexual misconduct against students. Schools now create legalistic-procedures to deal with these claims. There is no prescribed form these procedures must take. Many critics of this system claim there is inherent unfairness to the student who stands of accused of sexual assault or harassment.
In the last year, there has been a flurry of legal challenges to the policies and procedures for handling sexual misconduct. For example, in one notable case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that universities must provide a live hearing that include cross-examination for cases in which a witness’s credibility is at stake.
In this case styled John Doe v. Northern Michigan University, a federal court allowed a student to proceed with a suit against NMU based on a claim of a breach of contract.
The big takeaway is that this legal avenue may be a way to fight these proceedings in private universities. Students at private universities do not have the same Due Process rights as their counterparts at public universities. Students at public universities are are afforded Due Process rights throughout disciplinary proceedings. Due Process rights provide procedural fairness to the students (to some extent, not quite the same as in a criminal proceeding, but better than nothing).
Students at private universities are not protected by Due Process. Students facing discipline at private universities must protect themselves through other legal means. This case explores such a legal avenue that could be be employed by students in future cases.
What Happened in the Case
John Doe met John Roe (not their real names) met while working together. They struck up a relationship which included consensual sex. One night after a party, Doe and Roe had sex but Roe later claimed she was too drunk to consent.
Doe claimed she did not seem intoxicated – he had not given her alcohol or seen her consume alcohol. They discussed the event through text messages. The two still spoke after that night and had consensual sex after that night as well. About a year after that night, Roe initiated a formal complaint and investigation against Doe, claiming she did not consent.
Doe met with the investigator of the complaint. He claims the investigator was hostile and aggressive toward him, and asked him questions with the presumption he was guilty. The investigator gave Doe a list of three statements to either affirm or deny. The investigator created a written report with factual findings. Doe never had the opportunity to respond to Roe’s version of events.
An NMU Sexual Misconduct Review Board reviewed the report of findings on the situation. The Board found by a preponderance of the evidence that Doe undressed Roe and engaged in sexual conduct without her consent. Doe was expelled and he sued the school.
What Happened Legally Speaking
Doe brought a lawsuit against Northern Michigan University based on a variety of claims. For example, he sued based on a violation of his Title IX rights. The university filed a suit to dismiss the claims by Doe.
What’s notable to this case is Doe’s legal claim. Doe argues the university breached a contract with him when it did not follow it’s own procedures in handling his case. This claim is a novel one that may open the doors to future claims by students who have been treated unfairly by a university.
Legally, students may sue universities based on a breach of contract from a university’s alleged failure to follow its own procedures during a disciplinary proceeding. The question is whether the proceedings fell within the range of reasonable expectations of the rules.
Specifically in this case, Doe alleged the university did not advise him that he could have counsel or an adviser to help him through the process, even through this is NMU’s own rule.
The Court ultimately dismissed parts of Doe’s claim and allowed him to continue his suit on some grounds.
Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Ann Arbor.
ArborYpsi Law is located 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.
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