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Federal Court Issues Temporary Injunction Ordering University to Take Back Student Suspended for Sexual Assault

In a decision with significant ramifications for colleges and universities, a federal district court recently issued a temporary injunction against the University of Connecticut, ordering the school to permit a male student to return to campus even though the school found he had sexually assaulted a female student. A hearing on a preliminary injunction is scheduled for February 11, 2020.

The male student, a college senior, claimed UConn violated his due process rights by finding that he had committed a sexual assault against a female student and suspending him. The court found that the plaintiff made a compelling showing of irreparable harm because UConn suspended him for two years with no assurance of readmission; UConn would not accept any credits he might earn at another institution during the suspension; and UConn planned to place a note about the suspension on his official transcript. In the court’s view, these sanctions stopped the plaintiff’s education “dead in the water” one semester before graduation and would “forever change[] the trajectory of his education and career.”

The court also held that the plaintiff had shown he was likely to prevail on his claim that UConn violated his due process rights. UConn’s determination against him had relied heavily on witness credibility, and yet, the decision points out, UConn’s hearing officers refused to hear four of the five witnesses that plaintiff offered to buttress his credibility claims. The court also accepted the plaintiff’s claim that he did not have an adequate chance to respond to or question the complainant or the witnesses who supported her during the course of the investigation. On this point, the court noted that the hearing officers did not ask all the questions the plaintiff had proposed or provide the plaintiff a copy of the complainant’s written statement. Leaving open the question whether he had a constitutional right to cross-examine the complainant, the court found that the “Plaintiff was denied even the right to respond to the accusations against him in a meaningful way.” 

The court also held that the equities favored entering the temporary injunction. After all, the court reasoned, UConn would suffer little harm from allowing the plaintiff to enroll again. While this “may cause some emotional harm to” the complainant, the court found that UConn had not presented evidence that problems had occurred when the plaintiff and the complainant encountered each other on campus after the alleged assault but before his suspension. The court found it telling that UConn had not issued a no-contact order between the parties or taken other measures to separate them before the suspension.

While the decision is limited, it does have several significant implications.

  • First, the court’s decision tracks the concerns that animated the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to withdraw its earlier Title IX guidance and issue proposed regulations. Those regulations would, among other things, require evidentiary hearings and cross-examination of any relevant witness.

  • Second, the court gave little deference to the University’s chosen Title IX procedures. Traditionally, courts give institutions of higher education wide latitude to craft their student conduct procedures. The court’s decision to push aside that deference is noteworthy.

  • Third, the court did not hesitate to question the University’s decisions – including its decision whether to impose interim sanctions, its judgment about what sanctions were appropriate after it found the plaintiff responsible for violating the University’s sexual misconduct policies, and its concern for the Title IX complainant’s well-being should the plaintiff return to campus. The court’s willingness to challenge those decisions raises concerns for both public and private educational institutions facing potential Title IX suits.

The final Title IX regulations, once they are issued by U.S. Department of Education, will likely spell out specific procedures that colleges and universities must follow in pursuing Title IX complaints involving sexual misconduct. In the interim, it’s worth following the next stages of the case against UConn to see if it provides any further guidance.

© 1998-2022 Wiggin and Dana LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 34

About this Author

Aaron Bayer Litigation Attorney Hartford Wiggin and Dana

Aaron is a litigation partner who heads the firm's Education Practice Group and previously chaired the firm's Appellate Practice Group.  Based on his experience in government, he also advises companies and non-profit organizations on government regulatory matters and investigations.

He draws on his experience in positions in higher education and government to advise colleges, universities, private secondary schools, and nonprofit organizations on the complex legal, regulatory, and public relations issues they regularly face. His advice is...

Benjamin Daniels Regulatory and Compliance litigation lawyer Wiggin Dana

As Counsel in Wiggin and Dana’s Litigation Department, Ben is a key member of the firm’s Education and Appellate and Complex Legal Issues Practice Group. He works with universities, colleges, independent schools, education associations, corporations, major health care systems, and sovereign nations to solve a range of legal and regulatory challenges.

Ben helps his Education clients navigate rules and regulations relating to compliance with nondiscrimination laws, campus security requirements, financial aid, and privacy and data security statutes. Attuned to the unique demands of the...

Amanda Brahm Employment Attorney Wiggin and Dana

Amanda is an Associate in Wiggin and Dana's New Haven office.

Before joining Wiggin and Dana, Amanda was an intern in the Data Privacy and Security Department at the Office of the Attorney General in Hartford, as well as a summer associate at Wiggin and Dana.

Amanda received her J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law, where she served as the Senior Notes and Comments editor for the Wake Forest Journal of Business and Intellectual Property and received CALI Awards for Excellence in Conflicts of Law,...

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