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.