Latest in the Montague Case

The latest filings in the Jack Montague case at Yale confirm why negotiations between the two sides (which delayed the filing of the lawsuit) failed. Yale’s filing, though full of condemnatory passages about Montague, failed to answer the critical procedural question of the case: why did the university not adhere to its own procedures—publicly affirmed by Stephanie Spangler, who supervises Yale’s sexual assault adjudication system—regarding the limited circumstances in which the Title IX office can file complaints on its own?

The issues at play:

Fast & Loose with Procedure, I

Montague’s was a case that never should have been brought. The accuser was unwilling to file a complaint herself—despite strong pressure from Yale’s Title IX officials to do so. So Yale’s Title IX officials filed the complaint themselves—ignoring the fact that the university’s own procedures gave the Title IX office very limited justifications (none of which applied in this case) to substitute itself for the accuser as the complainant.

Stephanie Spangler, the person in charge of Yale’s sexual assault adjudications since 2011, was blunt on this issue (before Montague filed his lawsuit). On February 15, 2016, in an official Yale report, she stated, “Only in extremely rare cases, where there is serious risk to the safety of individuals or the community, will the University take independent action.” [emphases added] After charges were filed against Montague (but before the Title IX office’s involvement was public), Spangler told the Yale Daily News, “Except in rare cases involving an acute threat to community safety, coordinators defer to complainants’ wishes.”

So how did Yale explain this critical discrepancy? With the following assertion: “Nothing in the Report suggests that in this circumstance the Title IX Coordinator is empowered to file a complaint only where there are ‘risks to the safety of individuals and/or the community.’” Nothing, that is, except the words of the person who wrote the Report, in sentiments that she confirmed in a subsequent interview.

The most recent Spangler Report, produced after Montague filed his lawsuit, didn’t include Spangler’s damning admission.

Fast & Loose with Procedure, II

In the original complaint in this case, Montague’s lawyers asserted that not only was the decision to file the claim against Montague improper—but that Yale officials had violated procedure in other ways. The accuser made perfectly clear that she wanted to handle the matter through the informal process (in which, at Yale, the accused student is always found guilty, but only receives counseling, and can’t be suspended or expelled). The Title IX office initially appeared willing to go along with this route, but then something changed, and Title IOX officer Angela Gleason suggested that Montague had previously been found guilty of sexual misconduct. But this information was supposed to be secret.

In depositions, two Yale Title IX officials clearly admitted that they were obligated not to share Montague’s disciplinary history, as they unconvincingly claimed they hadn’t done so. Excerpts below:

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The fact-finder appeared to recognize there was something wrong here. In her draft report, she noticed that Yale Title IX official Angela Gleason had relayed something “slightly different” about the amount of information the Title IX office had shared with the accuser. The fact-finder worried that the report was providing “too much information about his prior record, which is not relevant to this investigation.” It’s easy now to see why the fact-finder was concerned.

The response of the Yale Title IX official to this problem? In her deposition, she suggested that the accuser had been untruthful in her statements to the Yale fact-finder about her conversations with the Title IX office. (Yet in its filing, Yale offers the accuser’s version of events, including specific details, as wholly true.)

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As for the other Yale Title IX official deposed: he simply ignored the Spangler guidelines and offered an after-the-fact justification for why his office could file a complaint.

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Fast & Loose with Procedure, III

Yale has—at least superficially—been more transparent than any other university in how they handle sexual assault allegations. A few years ago, they described a series of sexual misconduct scenarios, and the punishment that perpetrators would receive. In the scenario that most resembled the actions for which Montague was found guilty, Yale’s own document asserted that the “penalty would likely be a reprimand.”

Yale bypassed its own recommendation by deeming the incident Montague’s second occasion of sexual misconduct—with the first being a time as a freshman when, after a drunken, verbal argument outside a bar, he shoved a paper plate into a female student’s chest. But there was no indication this incident was gender-related (if the argument had been with a male, it doubtless would have unfolded in the same way), and discovery brought notice even from a Yale official that even some (specially trained, no less!) members of the Yale sexual harassment panel might not see this as a sexual misconduct question.

This, by the way, is the same “prior record” that Yale’s investigator described as “not relevant to this investigation.”

Does Yale Adjudicate Sex Crimes?

The most common defense universities use for weakening due process protections for accused students is that campus tribunals, unlike the criminal justice system, can’t send an accused student to jail—because they only investigate whether a student violated the university’s code of conduct, not a criminal statute.

And yet here are some quotes from Yale’s brief: “The plaintiff’s sexual assault of Ms. Roe”; “Ms. Roe did not report the sexual assault”; “nearly a year had passed between [Montague’s] sexual assault of Ms. Roe”; and, most bluntly, “On the night of October 18, 2014, the plaintiff, Jack Montague, sexually assaulted Jane Roe.” Throughout its motion, Yale simply presents as fact the accuser’s unverified assertions of an event that even the university’s fact-finder conceded lacked “direct witnesses to the sexual encounter between the parties.” The university’s apparent belief is that that a panel decision finding the accuser’s overall version of events more believable than Montague’s—even if, as preponderance allows, only by a margin of 0.2 percent—then everything the accuser recalled of the evening, more than one year later, is true. This is a case, moreover, where even one of the accuser’s friends, and supportive witnesses, confessed that the accuser “had no romantic feelings for [Montague] but she was sexually attracted to him,” a point of view that seems to corroborate Montague’s version of events.

It seems, in the end, as if Yale plays down the actual issue its adjudicators decide—when it needs to justify why it provides so few procedural protections to accused students. But then, once a guilty finding has been made, Yale is willing to state, in a legal filing, that its student committed an offense that Connecticut law considers a felony.

Harm?

According to Yale, Montague waited too long to file his motion, and therefore couldn’t have suffered irreparable harm from the university’s actions. (Much of this “delay” was a result of discussions between Montague’s lawyers and Yale, in the hopes of avoiding a lawsuit or avoiding needless claims in a lawsuit.) This is a case, it’s worth recalling, in which the accuser waited nearly a year to speak to Yale Title IX officers, and never filed a complaint herself. The university had no problem with her delay.

Yale, oddly, claimed that Montague failed to challenge the “accounts of the events giving rise to the discipline imposed upon him”—even though he has consistently done so from the first time this case reached the courts. The university also claimed that—having been publicly identified as someone who committed sexual assault, including by CBS Evening News and (before the Facebook posting mysteriously vanished) Yale’s own Women’s Center—its former student’s record “does not suggest any reputational injury.” Yale also, comically, blamed Montague for the publicity the case received, because his lawyer or his father responded to press inquiries as the accuser’s supporters were publicly attacking him, including in use of confidential material whose dissemination a Yale official said the university was powerless to stop.

In its most brazen line of argument, Yale asserted that even a (temporary) legal victory could not remove the effect of its actions, since “entering a preliminary injunction at this time will do nothing to remove the public stain which [Montague] claims is causing him harm.” It’s true, at least in part, that even a judicial victory won’t allow Montague to fully restore his reputation. (I doubt CBS Evening News will devote a segment to a hypothetical Montague victory in court, to balance its guilt-presuming segment on Yale’s initial actions.) But the idea that a judicial rebuke of the university would do “nothing” to improve Montague’s public standing curiously implies that Yale’s disciplinary process deserves such respect that even an unfavorable court action shouldn’t call into question the university’s determination.

Intoxication Levels as Justification

Yale contended that the panel correctly sided with the accuser because—while Montague admitted that he was drunk—she “was not intoxicated or otherwise impaired in any way that would have affected her recollection of those events.” By contrast, DePauw, Vassar, Michigan, Tennessee-Chattanooga, UCSD (and myriad other institutions) have maintained either that the accuser being intoxicated enhanced the credibility of her claims, or that the accuser’s intoxication level could not in any way be used to minimize her credibility. Yale’s argument suggests that for universities, when addressing questions of alcohol and sexual assault, the accuser is inherently credible, regardless of whether she’s intoxicated.

The case remains pending.

Amherst Accuser Skirts Deposition

As the Amherst case moves toward eight months awaiting a ruling after a preliminary hearing, there was a minor development in the case: recent filings by the college, related to a delay of deadlines for subsequent filings, revealed that the accusing student (who I’ll call A.S.) successfully quashed the accused student’s subpoena. The ruling thus ensured that not only would A.S. not be deposed, but she would not need to produce any relevant documents in the case.

I’ve previously written about the Amherst case—perhaps the most egregiously unfair of the myriad due process cases that have emerged since the Dear Colleague letter. Having myself successfully resisted a third-party subpoena (when Duke attempted to compel me to reveal my sources in the lacrosse case), I’m sensitive to the ways in which the civil process can be abused. But the suggestion here that A.S.’s interests outweigh the obvious relevance of her testimony is puzzling.

In a ruling that was a model of circuitous reasoning, Judge James Robart, a Bush appointee, gave A.S. the benefit of the doubt on close legal issues because of her status as a sexual assault victim—in a case that challenged the basic fairness of the only proceeding that deemed her a sexual assault victim. (Despite an offer of facilitation by an Amherst administrator, A.S. pointedly declined to file a criminal complaint with police. Perhaps she realized that if she did so, she wouldn’t be able to conceal the text messages that undermined her credibility.) In so doing, Robart essentially accepted the legitimacy of Amherst’s procedurally dubious adjudication.

Robart ruled out a deposition on grounds that it “would force [A.S.] to relive a night in which she asserts Mr. Doe sexually assaulted her.” This was “heavy burden,” he argued, because “a live deposition would impose emotional and psychological trauma upon [A.S.].” Any “emotional and psychological trauma,” of course, would come only if A.S. was telling the truth when she testified to the Amherst panel—and the lawsuit provides considerable information, much of it from A.S.’s own texts, that calls into question the accuser’s truthfulness.

Even Robart conceded that supplying requested documents wouldn’t impose psychological trauma on the compromised accuser, but he ruled that the accused student’s requests were either “overbroad” or consisted of “communications that could readily be obtained from other sources” (that is, people who work at Amherst). Yet much of the requested material couldn’t come from Amherst employees. For instance, a critical aspect of the accused student’s case is the basic unfairness of an adjudication that went forward under the false premise that A.S. had not reduced anything about the incident to writing. So the subpoena asked A.S. for “all communications, including text messages or emails, between you and anyone else on February 5, 2012.” The only conceivable source of this material would be A.S., not any Amherst employees.

The subpoena also requested “all notes, journal/diary entries, recordings, transcripts, or other memoranda by you relating to Your Complaint, the Investigation, John Doe, [and] the John Doe Disciplinary Process”; and “any and all communications with witnesses in the John Doe Disciplinary Process concerning the topic of sexual misconduct, the John Doe Disciplinary Process, Your Complaint, John Doe, and/or your interactions with John Doe on February 4-5, 2012.” This, too, is material that’s critical to evaluating the fairness of Amherst’s disciplinary process, which no Amherst employee could provide.

Although the case was decided in Washington (where A.S. now lives), Judge Robart cited no precedents from Washington, or from Massachusetts, where the lawsuit is being tried. He primarily relied on Gonzales v. Google, Inc.—a California district court decision that arose out of the ACLU’s constitutional challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. Moreover, despite the obvious differences from the Amherst case in subject matter, requesting party (the federal government), and scope of request (initially, a list of all URLs on the Google search engine), Gonzales nonetheless required Google to turn over some information (a sample of URLs from its search index). Judge Robart, by contrast, admitted that the accused student’s subpoena could be narrowed, specifically with regard to the documents he was requesting, but disagreed with the Gonzales precedent on the wisdom of narrowing. Yet Gonzales was the only case in his opinion that received multiple citations.

A.S.’s motion to quash was filed by John Clune, a high-profile accusers’ rights attorney. (Among other cases, he represented Erica Kinsman in the Jameis Winston case.) His brief consisted of unsubstantiated claims that the sole purpose of the subpoena was to “harass” A.S. and suggestions that Max Stern, the accused student’s lawyer, somehow (for reasons Clune never got around to explaining) behaved improperly when he talked about the case on TV. Most outrageously, the brief wildly misinterprets the role that A.S.’s sexual history played in the accused student’s filing. According to Clune, this information was included “to portray her as someone who is promiscuous and thus more likely to have consented.” The lawsuit makes no such claim, nor anything resembling it. It included this information, since the texts showed that A.S. has misled both Amherst’s investigator and Amherst’s disciplinary panel about who she invited to her room after the incident with the accused student, when she extended the invitation, and for what purpose she extended the invitation.

That Clune came to A.S.’s side to prevent more information about her troubling behavior to come to light gave some sense of how damaging the accusers’ rights movement sees this case. That Robart credited this misrepresentation of the record is disappointing.

Ironically, whatever minor assistance the ruling might have to frustrating the Amherst student’s quest for justice, the victory might be a Pyrrhic one for the accusers’ rights movement as a whole. Judge Robart sent a message that the only way an accused student can obtain relevant evidence involving his accuser is—as a handful of accused students have done—to sue his accuser as well as the college. Expect more accusers to be added to future lawsuits as a result.

More Filings from Williams

Williams has now filed its motion to dismiss (which you can read here) in the due process lawsuit about which I previously wrote. In the filing, Williams aggressively defends its finding of guilt against the accused student, and includes the full report prepared by the college’s hired investigator, Allyson Kurker. (In his lawsuit, the student had partially redacted the report.) But, curiously, the college allows to stand unchallenged the timeline of the case, which is the strongest argument in favor of the accused student.

In the realm of campus due process cases, events at Williams are unusual, in multiple respects. In contrast to the norm in these cases, the two parties had a lengthy (and dysfunctional, to put it mildly) relationship. At the critical points in the case, the accuser was an employee of the school, though their relationship began when both were Williams undergraduates. Finally, unlike many due process lawsuits, this was a he-said/she-said case in which the sexual assault allegation was not disprovable (unlike, for instance, the case at Amherst), and in which the accuser’s excuse for waiting more than a year to report was, at least, not implausible (unlike, say, the Jack Montague case at Yale).

Given its importance, which the Williams filing has now basically confirmed, it’s worth repeating the timeline of key events in the case. While these two people seem to have been arguing almost from the start of their relationship, they only brought their problems to the attention of the college beginning in late 2015:

Allegation One:

  • Dec. 5, 2015: The accused student attended a party, at which he danced with another woman. The Williams employee confronted him, slapped him (after, she said, he swore at her), and took his phone.
  • Dec. 6, 2015 (early morning hours): The employee emailed then-Williams dean Sarah Bolton, claiming that her wayward boyfriend had committed academic misconduct in three classes, by allowing her to write his papers for him. Shortly thereafter, she posted a message on the accused student’s Facebook page, informing him, “There isn’t anything in this world you can do to heal the wound you’ve made in me tonight.”
  • Dec. 6, 2015 (mid-morning): The employee e-mailed the accused student, telling him, “Come get your phone. I need to talk to you . . . I did something bad . . . I’m sorry.”

Williams adjudicated this claim, but the accused student was found not guilty.

So, the undisputed record is: after a fight at a party (at which a college employee—perhaps verbally provoked, perhaps not—slapped a Williams student), the employee filed a claim of misconduct against the student. The college would deem that claim to be unsubstantiated.

Allegation Two:

  • March 8-12, 2016: After the strain of the academic misconduct finally ended their relationship, the employee called the accused student 48 times and texted him nine times, as reflected in his phone records.
  • March 13, 2016: The accused student’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to the employee, cc’ing it to Dean Bolton.
  • March 14, 2016: The accused student’s lawyer met with Dean Bolton and Williams’ college counsel to express concerns about a Williams employee harassing her client.
  • April 7, 2016: Williams issued a mutual no-contact order between the student and the employee.
  • April 13, 2016: The accused student filed a formal complaint with Williams against its employee.

So, the undisputed record is: despite having been informed that an employee was allegedly harassing one of its students on March 13-14, and despite receiving a formal complaint about the matter on April 13, Williams did not open an immediate investigation.

Allegation Three:

  • April 27, 2016: Dean Bolton informed the employee that the student had been cleared of the plagiarism allegations. (Normally, FERPA would prevent the sharing of such information, but Williams claims its actions were permissible, because the employee was the accuser in the plagiarism case.) Bolton told the employee (two weeks after the college had received a formal Title IX complaint about the employee’s behavior), “For now, the most important things are to continue to get support, and to ensure that you are safe.”
  • May 10, 2016: The student was informed that the employee had filed a complaint against him, alleging that he had “displayed abusive behavior towards her during the past two years.” Williams hired the investigator made (in)famous by the Amherst case, Allyson Kurker, to investigate.
  • Late spring 2016: In her initial interview with Kurker, the employee escalated her allegations, claiming that on one night in September 2014 (around 18 months before the end of their relationship), she hadn’t consented to have sex with the student. (This claim does not appear to have been part of the initial complaint she filed in May 2016.) The employee (who was at the time a Williams student) said she was drunk at the time. There were no witnesses to the incident, nor (it seems) did any contemporaneous electronic evidence exist. Two friends of the employee testified that she had told them about the incident, although one admitted that this disclosure came only in July 2016, after the employee first made the allegation to Kurker.

Williams had two choices in this (ugly) case. It could have treated these three sets of allegations as connected. In so doing, it likely would have concluded that a college employee who made an unsubstantiated misconduct allegation against a student (after a fight at a party), and who was then charged with harassing the same student, subsequently filed a retaliatory complaint, and any evaluation of the employee’s credibility needed to be viewed through the prism of the first two allegations.

Williams, of course, didn’t choose that approach. Instead, it effectively evaluated the sexual assault claim as if the accuser’s credibility hadn’t already (fairly or not) been eviscerated by her unsubstantiated earlier allegation. It found the student guilty of sexual assault, and expelled him. In its motion to dismiss, the college claims it had no choice but to follow this course, because federal law requires it to investigate all sexual assault complaints.

In its filing, the college cites to Judge Saylor’s important Brandeis decision—but a college evaluating a sexual assault complaint devoid of the context of the relationship between the two parties is one of the central faults to which Saylor attributed to Brandeis. Following the Brandeis precedent almost certainly would end in a Williams defeat.

Williams’ brief makes three basic arguments: (1) the college’s process was eminently fair; (2) this issue was a private one between two people, irrelevant to either the accuser’s status as a college employee or her gender; (3) the accused student’s disciplinary past implicitly provides support for the college’s handling of this case.

(1) Williams asserts that its “handling of student discipline is entitled to considerable deference,” and it also suggests that the accused student made no meaningful allegations of wrongdoing against the three disciplinary panelists who ultimately found him guilty. The college, the Williams brief asserts, followed its procedures, and that’s all it needed to do. Moreover, Williams argues, even if Dean Bolton were biased against the accused student (the college denies this point, but the dean’s sympathetic email to an employee against whom a Title IX complaint had been filed is tough to explain), she no longer works for Williams, and left the college before the final decision to expel occurred.

The college’s suggestion that its handling of the case was fundamentally fair depends on the court accepting its decision not to treat the May 2016 complaint as the culminating event in a pattern of allegations or odd behavior by the college employee, and on accepting its argument that a dean allegedly prejudicing the process at the start isn’t relevant as long as the dean wasn’t the final decisionmaker.

Given the wide range of court decisions on this issue—a California appeals court, after all, has upheld a procedure that one of its members compared to a kangaroo court—perhaps this argument will be enough for Williams to prevail.

(2) The Williams brief distances itself from the accuser in one important way. The college can’t be held liable for its employee’s alleged misconduct toward one of its students, it argues, because her “alleged conduct was not committed within the scope of her employment”; the “conduct all occurred in the context of the parties’ personal relationship, having nothing to do with her employment in the Alumni Office.”

It’s true that unlike, say, Alexander v. Yale (which involved a professor allegedly harassing a female student in his class), the employee didn’t encounter the accused student on her job. On the other hand, the Williams argument seems to absolve the college of lots of responsibility to investigate employee misconduct by claiming it’s “personal” and unrelated to “employment.”

The college brief goes to great lengths to deny the student’s gender discrimination claim, arguing (citing to the relevant case law on this issue) that he can’t show different, and more favorable, treatment by a similarly situated female accused student. (Given that 99 percent of accused students in campus sexual assault cases are male, and given the odd general circumstances of the case, there obviously is no identically situated female accused student.) But, back in the real world, imagine if Williams employed a male in the alumni affairs office who: (1) carried on a romantic relationship with a female student, despite discouragement from college guidelines; (2) physically confronted the female student at a party; (3) right after the fight, made an early-morning-hours academic misconduct claim about the female student that the college eventually dismissed; and (4) had an episode of possibly stalker-ish behavior toward the same female student.

Does anyone believe that if this hypothetical male employee then filed a sexual assault complaint against the female student that Williams would have taken the complaint seriously?

(3) The Williams brief points to the accused student’s previous disciplinary record (a one-year suspension for unspecified sexual misconduct—not involving the employee—and a finding of academic misconduct for which he received an F). This record is obviously relevant to the decision to expel, which was justified once the guilty finding had come in.

Williams leaves the implication that because the student was found (through Williams’ procedures, of course) to have committed some type of sexual misconduct in the past, he should be deemed less credible in this case. But that argument undermines the college’s case regarding the employee’s credibility. Having already been found guilty of cheating, presumably it was more likely that the accused student, per the Williams’ brief’s insinuation, would be found guilty a second time in the academic misconduct case. That he wasn’t would seem to call into question the employee’s credibility, since she made the allegation.

In another filing, Williams faults the student’s lawyer for an inflammatory e-mail she sent to the employee, which discussed the possibility of a lawsuit and the ways in which a lawsuit could show “how dishonest, narcissistic and emotionally unstable” the employee was. This issue has attracted the attention of Judge Ponsor, who (on his own initiative) has called for it to be discussed at the next hearing.

Williams’ supplemental brief also contains the curious claim that it uses “the preponderance of evidence pursuant to federal law.” Of course, federal law requires no such thing, as even Obama administration officials have conceded.

Based on the filings to date, the parties in this case are not particularly sympathetic. But even unsympathetic students are supposed to receive a fair process.

A hearing on the case (though not on Williams’ motion to dismiss) is scheduled for January 11. [Update, Jan. 5: The judge postponed the 1-11 hearing, and has now scheduled a hearing, to cover all matters, for Thursday, March 2.]

Due Process & Cross-Examination

“Cross-examination is the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” So wrote the legal theorist John H. Wigmore, in a remark favorably quoted in by the Supreme Court in California v. Green. The Obama-era Office for Civil Rights, on the other hand, suggested that at least in some formats, cross-examination of campus sexual assault accusers could, in and of itself, provide grounds for a Title IX complaint against a university. And, quite apart from OCR’s improper pressure, most universities—institutions ostensibly committed to pursuit of truth as their reason for existence—have declined to allow meaningful cross-examination in campus sexual assault cases.

Two decisions in the past week pushed back against this system.

The University of Cincinnati has seemed particularly eager to position itself as among the most ardent defenders of unfair campus tribunals in the country. It already has been the subject of three lawsuits. The first case involved an undergraduate student whose case was simultaneously investigated by police—who claimed that university officials were improperly pressuring them to bolster the accuser’s story—and whose university tribunal featured UC ignoring potentially exculpatory video evidence.  (For good measure, the university allegedly suggested that the accused student had the burden of proof.) In the second case, UC permitted the accuser to testify—accepting her story as credible—and then flee the room to avoid cross-examination.

Judge Sandra Beckwith, in a deeply troubling opinion, suggested that the university’s handling of these cases did not violate the Constitution. A 6th Circuit panel seemed favorably disposed toward upholding the Beckwith opinion.

The most recent case, however, yielded a far better decision (which you can read here), from Judge Michael Barrett. UC, yet again, seemed to go out of its way to use unfair procedures. Here, the accuser made several statements to UC investigators, and to the local police; as the process continued, her version of events became more extreme. The police did not pursue charges. The university, however, elected to move forward; the initial contact with the accused student from a UC administrator all but presumed that the accuser was truthful, and implied that the only evidence that would interest UC was evidence that would show the accuser had charged the wrong guy. “If you have any documentation about where you were during the incident alleged in the complaint or witnesses that can speak with me about that, please let me know,” the administrator asked. (You can read the complaint here.)

After the accuser eventually settled on a version of events (in an e-mail to Jyl Shaffer, UC’s Title IX Coordinator, the accuser described her shifting descriptions, in response to the interview of the accused, as “edits for the file”) that she had consented to some but not all of the sexual acts on the night of the incident, the case moved to a hearing. The accused student then received a surprise—at the hearing, neither the accuser nor the investigator appeared. He therefore had no opportunity to use even UC’s very limited cross-examination procedures (under which he could write down questions and hope that the panel asked them of the accuser) to probe the accuser’s inconsistent statements, or to determine the methods through which the investigator reached her conclusions. (Needless to say, none of the third-party witnesses to whom the investigator spoke appeared either.) When asked if he had any questions to ask of the report, the accused student not unreasonably replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.”

The panel—reflecting current norms at UC, and relying solely on the report of an investigator—found him guilty, and he appealed, citing (among other things) his denied right of cross-examination. The appeal was rejected, with UC asserting that “the procedural safeguards he argues were missing are safeguards typically found in criminal court actions and are not required for university hearings.”

The accused student sued. UC defended the constitutionality of its actions by citing to a handful of district court cases, plus four appellate or Supreme Court cases involving high school students (Wood, Jahn, Newsome, Antone) a fifth involving a university student who pled guilty to a felony drug offense (Flaim), and a sixth (Horowitz) dealing with the academic performance of a medical school student. UC concluded it fulfilled its duties—it told the accused student about the charges, and it provided a forum, however unfair, for him to be heard. (You can read UC’s reply here.)

The university did not explain why cases involving high school students or admitted felony offenses are appropriate for a university determining the truth of a contested allegation among college students. UC did concede that the accused student never had a chance, in the university’s procedure, to cross-examine his accuser. But, in an Orwellian argument that it placed in a footnote, Cincinnati deemed it “simply incorrect to state that UC failed ‘to permit John Doe to confront his accuser.’ Rather, the cross-examination UC does afford was simply unavailable in this case because Jane Roe did not attend the disciplinary hearing.” The university offered no explanation why it permitted the accuser to avoid attending the hearing to adjudicate her own charges.

Judge Barrett disagreed with this cavalier approach to the truth. “In this case,” he noted, “the [UC] Hearing Committee was given the choice of believing either Jane Roe or Plaintiff, and therefore, cross-examination was essential to due process.” And however broadly or narrowly the right to cross-examination is conceived, the facts of this case, Graham observed, were clear: “Plaintiff was effectively denied the right to cross-examination because he was not notified in advance of the hearing that Jane Roe would not be present at the [UC] Hearing. It was plain at the hearing that Plaintiff intended to ask certain questions, but because Jane Roe was not present at the hearing, he was not able to ask those questions.”

The accused student’s lawyer, Joshua Engel, told Ashe Schow of Watchdog, “We are especially pleased that Judge Barrett recognized that cross examination is vitally important in the ‘he said, she said’ type cases. Without cross examination, an accused student has no ability to effectively challenge the credibility of his accuser and allowing an accuser to hide behind an investigative report undermines the reliability of any decision.”

Graham’s decision prevented UC from suspending the student immediately, but the case isn’t over. A broader decision last week relating to cross-examination and due process came out of state court in Washington. (You can read the opinion here.) The facts of this case, which occurred at Washington State University, were highly atypical. The allegation was statutory rape, with a 40-year-old accused student (a graduate student from Saudi Arabia) and a 15-year-old accuser he had met on-line. As in the UC case, the accuser didn’t show up for Washington State’s disciplinary hearing, which relied instead on notes from a university administrator’s interview of the two police officers investigating the case.

The student sued, alleging that WSU had violated a state law that requires universities to provide significant due process protections—the right to a lawyer, the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to subpoena witnesses. Advancing many of the same types of arguments that UC made, and also citing pressure from Title IX, Washington State justified its decision not to run a hearing at which accuser wasn’t required to appear, and all witness questions had to be presented, in writing, to the panel, which could decide whether or not to ask them.

A three-judge appellate panel overturned the university’s decision. The opinion especially recognized the importance of cross-examination: “Because assessment of veracity and credibility were key,” the judges held, “safeguards of the subpoena power, oral testimony, and cross-examination were critical.” Indeed, the fact that the accuser didn’t testify, and therefore couldn’t be cross-examined, “undermines confidence in the outcome.”

The judges conceded that in the post-Dear Colleague letter era, the issue “is not a simple matter.” But the rights of accused students—and the need to follow Washington law—came first. The judges counseled Washington colleges to work with the state. Perhaps allowing independent state officials to run campus sexual assault investigations would relieve any burden from the court’s requirement that all colleges follow state law.

In the aftermath of a California state appeals court green-lighting a university disciplinary process that the author of the opinion said reminded him of a “kangaroo” court, it was refreshing to see judges stand up for fairness.

News from Williams

Adoption of the Dear Colleague letter in 2011—coupled with campus pressure from activists and their faculty and administrative allies—has paved the way for all sorts of procedural abuses in campus sexual assault cases. This new system is one that’s ripe for abuse and favoritism, in all sorts of ways. The latest example comes in a lawsuit filed against my former employer, Williams College. (You can read the complaint here.)

The case revolves around the actions of a former Williams employee, who worked in the Alumni Relations office for the 2015-2016 academic year. She came to the job after graduating from Williams. For more than a year before she graduated, the employee dated another Williams student—identified as John Doe in the complaint—who was one year behind her academically. The two were close enough that the employee knew Doe’s computer password and (allegedly) his Facebook and Snapchat passwords.

It seems to have been an uneven relationship; in October 2014, the employee (then still a student) wrote to Williams dean Sarah Bolton indicating that she and Doe had a (verbal) argument. (Bolton departed Williams last summer and is now president at the College of Wooster.) Because “he ended up calling me selfish and telling me he can’t even look at me,” the future employee reported, she’d need to take a week off from school to recover emotionally. The e-mail contained no hint of any allegation of physical misconduct by Doe. Bolton responded very sympathetically, despite the extreme nature of the request (a week off from classes) given the conduct alleged (a personal insult).

The employee, moreover, considered Doe to be faithful (the specifics here remain in dispute). And when she claimed to have uncovered evidence of this (by checking on Doe’s Facebook, through means that remain disputed), she—oddly—informed Doe’s sister of his infidelity. Nonetheless, she evidently recovered from her emotional trauma sufficiently to graduate and decided to accept a job at Williams—in part, she later claimed, to stay close to Doe.

The relationship reached a new nadir at a December 2015 party. Doe was there with another female student; the employee saw him, got upset, and some sort of argument (initiated by the employee) ensued, which culminated in the employee grabbing Doe’s phone and hitting him across the case. Doe threatened to call security—which the employee believed might lead Williams to fire her. So after leaving the party, she called Doe’s sister—who subsequently produced documentation that the call occurred, and who recalled the employee as frantic:

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Very shortly after the the employee-Doe’s sister conversation ended, the employee emailed Dean Bolton. At 2.27am, on the morning of Sunday, December 5, 2015, she explained that she had been “too beaten (emotionally) to show up for work” in the past week. (It’s rather hard to miss a pattern here.) Issuing what she described as a “cry for help,” the employee claimed that Doe had “taunted” her at the party. She then charged that Doe had committed academic misconduct, by maneuvering her into helping him write papers for his Spanish courses. (Both accuser and accused are of Hispanic descent.) Here is a copy of the late-night, post-party email.

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The December 2015 email, like its October 2014 counterpart, contained no hint of any allegation of physical misconduct by Doe.

Despite the employee’s email constituting an admission that she had violated Williams policy by continuing a relationship of some type with Doe (college policy: “All faculty and many staff are potentially in a position of power with regard to students; hence, sexual relationships between employees and students are in almost all cases inappropriate”), Bolton does not appear to have taken any action against the employee. But Williams did file disciplinary charges against Doe for academic misconduct, claiming that he failed to submit his own work in three separate courses.

When I taught at Williams, I served two years as a faculty member of the Honors Committee. (The then-structure had a committee of five students and four professors, but only the students could vote.) The committee procedures essentially (and not unreasonably) presumed guilt–the accused student had no right to discovery, no right to a lawyer, and was facing a panel that would need to dismiss the findings of a Williams professor (who normally would be the figure bringing a plagiarism/academic integrity charge to the committee) to find him not guilty.

This case was unusual, however, in that the allegation came not from any of Doe’s professors–but from a Williams employee in the alumni affairs office. And Doe was able to prove his innocence on the academic dishonesty allegations. The committee itself found him not guilty of two of the allegations against Doe; a third was dismissed on appeal.

The result of the academic integrity inquiry thus provided Williams with critical, and troubling, evidence that one of its employees had leveled serious, uncorroborated allegations against a student with whom she’d had an inappropriate romantic relationship. Yet, again, the complaint indicates that no record exists of an attempt to discipline the employee. Indeed, in its most explosive allegation, the complaint claims Dean Bolton assured the employee that Doe’s expulsion was virtually assured, despite firm college rules that preclude someone in Bolton’s position discussing another student’s disciplinary proceedings with someone in the employee’s position. Ironically, Doe knew about the call because he happened to be in the room, with the employee, at the time. (It goes without saying that the relationship between these two was not a model for an ideal partnership.)

The strain from the academic integrity claim finally brought about an end to the Doe-the employee relationship, in early March 2016. But the employee—who was, to reiterate, still operating under rules that held “sexual relationships between employees and students are in almost all cases inappropriate”—appears to have wanted to rekindle matters. According to a letter sent by Doe’s lawyer, Stacey Elin Rossi, the employee flooded Doe with calls and texts in the days after their final breakup:

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Doe responded to none of these calls, and his lawyer sent to the employee a cease-and-desist letter. Doe and his lawyer also met with Dean Bolton and the college counsel, placing Williams on notice about its employee’s behavior. One month later, on April 13, 2016, Doe filed a Title IX complaint against the employee, claiming gender-based harassment. For reasons that remain unexplained, Williams appears not to have investigated this complaint against its employee—formally presented by Doe’s lawyer to Williams’ Title IX coordinator—for nearly another month. According to the complaint, the college offered no reason for its decision not to promptly open an investigation into its employee’s behavior.

Then, on May 10, Doe received a notice from the same Title IX coordinator—informing him that the employee had filed an allegation of against him. The charge? “Abusive behavior toward her in the past two years.” The letter provided no more specifics.

At that point, only weeks away from his graduation, Doe found himself subjected to Williams’ Title IX procedure. (Only now did the college open an investigation into his April complaint, as well. Conducting the investigations simultaneously allowed Williams to avoid treating the employee’s May complaint as retaliation for Doe filing a Title IX complaint against her.) Doe soon discovered that the allegations included a claim of sexual assault—which was first floated by the employee only after Doe had filed a Title IX complaint against her. According to the complaint, Doe also was charged with “relationship abuse,” even though that concept wasn’t added to the college disciplinary code until October 2015, well after many of the events at issue in the case. A Williams official claimed that the wording change in the policy merely formalized preexisting “general guidelines”—but this precise argument, when Brown tried it, was rejected by Judge William Smith.

Williams has adopted a modified version of the single-investigator model, and the college turned to an eastern Massachusetts employment attorney named Allyson Kurker. Those familiar with campus due process matters might recognize Kurker’s name—she’s the “investigator” who handled the high-profile Amherst due process case. In that case, she failed to discover exculpatory text messages sent by the accused, and later testified that her failure was irrelevant, since she was interested in discovering contemporaneous texts only “to the extent that the incident is being described as nonconsensual.”

Doe was permitted to walk with his class, but couldn’t receive his degree. In September, Kurker’s investigation (which included an opportunity for Doe to respond in writing) concluded. (The complaint includes a copy of Kurker’s report, but most of it is redacted, so—unlike in the Amherst case—there is no way to comment on the clarity of Kurker’s work.) After both the employee and Doe produced an additional round of written responses, Kurker allegedly penned a revised written report (which Doe did not receive, for reasons Williams did not explain). The college also rejected Doe’s request for the transcripts of interviews between Kurker and witnesses. Moreover, since by fall 2016 the employee was no longer working for the college (her LinkedIn page has no indication of where she currently works), there was no possibility of sanction from Doe’s against her.

Last week, a panel of three college administrators informed Doe that they had found him guilty of sexual assault—citing to an incident in September 2014. That the relationship continued for another 18 months after the alleged assault, and that even Williams’ procedures found the employee’s initial claims of academic misconduct non-credible, and that the employee appears to have engaged in (at the very least) professionally dubious conduct toward Doe, and that the employee made two separate allegations to Dean Bolton without mentioning the alleged September 2014 incident, appears not to have impacted the committee’s evaluation of the employee’s credibility. Much as in the Brandeis case, the decision to analyze a single event in isolation (and ignore how the totality of the relationship between the two parties might affect the credibility of the accuser) produced an odd result.

Unanswered, from the complaint:

  • Why did Williams not punish its employee for violating the college’s policy regarding dating students?
  • Why did Williams not immediately investigate Doe’s Title IX complaint alleging harassment by a college employee of a student?
  • Why did the college downplay or ignore the evidence that appeared to eviscerate its employee’s credibility?

The case has been assigned* to Judge Michael Ponsor.

*–additions and edits for clarity.

At UCSD, “Where Is the Kangaroo?”

California law gives to state courts some discretion in reviewing the determinations of administrative hearings—which includes campus sexual assault tribunals. As a result, some of the most pro-due process decisions (UC-San Diego, USC) have come from California state courts.

On October 12, Judge Joel Pressman’s important decision was reviewed by a three-judge appellate panel. While it’s always dangerous to predict an appeals outcome from oral argument, it was clear that all three justices (Richard Huffman, Joan Irion, and Gilbert Nares) had concerns about the fairness of the UCSD system.

A quick summary: in this case, the accuser made two charges—that the male student raped her, and then sexually assaulted her the following morning. A UCSD investigator spoke to 14 witnesses, but wasn’t able to corroborate the first claim. But even though something these 14 witnesses said caused the investigator to doubt the accuser’s credibility, notes of these interviews (and even the identity of the parties!) wasn’t shared with the accused student. Regarding the incident the following morning—to which there were no witnesses—both the investigator and a UCSD panel deemed it more likely than not the accuser was telling the truth. UCSD never gave the accusing student a copy of the accuser’s previous statements to UCSD. The panel chair also refused to ask 23 of the 32 questions the accused student submitted.

The hearing’s highlight came almost immediately. After a brief opening statement by Grant Davis-Denny, who represented the University of California system, Justice Huffman interrupted to express his concern with the basic unfairness of the UCSD system. The two other judges quickly chimed in their agreement. Then Huffman noted, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”

 

The judges repeatedly expressed specific concerns about the procedures UCSD used, and why any university interested in fairness would have employed them. After a bit of pushback, Justice Irion was able to extract from Davis-Denny that it was this public university’s responsibility to produce a fair hearing:

 

Justice Huffman reiterated the value of fairness:

 

And here’s Justice Huffman wondering why—in a case that solely came down to the credibility of the two students—UCSD wouldn’t have turned over the notes from interviews with the 14 witnesses that had led UCSD’s own investigator to conclude that regarding the first of her two allegations, the accuser was not sufficiently credible for the university to bring charges:

 

Justice Irion made a similar point about the university’s decision to withhold the identities and the notes from the witness interviews. She was flabbergasted when Davis-Denny argued that withholding this information was justified because there was “no evidence in the record” that this (obviously relevant) information was relevant:

 

Davis-Denny attempted to respond to this argument by claiming that granting the accused student’s request would require full-scale civil discovery (Justice Irion was incredulous)–and then suggesting that it was at least possible, if unlikely, UCSD’s investigator didn’t rely on the interview notes in preparing her report.

 

Justice Nares, meanwhile, was especially concerned by the unfairness of UCSD’s “indirect” cross-examination, in which the accused student has to produce written questions in advance, which the panel might (or, this case, mostly might not) ask:

 

And like his colleagues, he was concerned with UCSD’s withholding of the notes:

 

In strongly discouraging cross-examination of accusers, the Office for Civil Rights has implied—but never directly stated—that cross-examination (which the legal scholar John Henry Wigmore, described cross examination as the, “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth”) is somehow harmful to the pursuit of truth in college sex tribunals. The UCSD attorney dropped any pretense, and made the argument openly:

 

Finally, UCSD (in a line of argument often heard in discussions about campus sexual assault claims) championed the idea that due process means the college doing the minimum legally possible. Davis-Denny’s implication that this minimum essentially removed any role for judicial oversight drew a sharp rebuke from Justice Irion:

 

The judges also had tough questions for the accused student’s lawyer, Andrew Chang—but the questions here dealt with specifics of the case, not the basic unfairness of the system.

The decision remains pending.

Erdely-Jackie Conversations

If the Rolling Stone-Nicole Eramo trial is the Iran-Iraq war of academic due process (in that both sides are extremely unappealing), the 150-minute conversation between Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the hoaxer Jackie is something of a modern-day version of the Monica Lewinsky-Linda Tripp tapes–a long conversation between two people who enjoyed talking about themselves, with the older person pressing for information and the younger person alternating between imagined trauma and mundane gossip.

I’ll have a writeup on the tape, made public by CBS-19, at Minding the Campus. But below are some of the most pertinent brief excerpts. The two had their extremely lengthy conversation in a loud restaurant; the audio quality is mediocre.

At several points, Erdely made clear–despite later suggestions in response to the Phi Kappa Psi lawsuit against Rolling Stone–that her article would target the fraternity.

The incident, she suggested, was a gang rape fraternity initiation ritual:

 

The fraternity, Erdely believed, might well have a “culture of gang rape”:

 

Erdely said that she wanted to “get these guys”:

 

Phi Kappa Psi members, Erdely maintained, personified the “banality of evil”:

 

And Erdely presses Jackie to recognize how confronting her purported attackers would show that she had power over them:

 

Jackie, meanwhile, comes across as a fanatic.

After Erdely presses her to name Phi Kappa Psi to identify the initiation ritual, Jackie suggests she wants all fraternities to be subjected to a comprehensive investigation, on grounds that if they had done nothing wrong, they’d have nothing to hide:

 

Jackie also makes clear that she and her allies in the accusers’ rights movement welcomed bad publicity against UVA:

 

Both Jackie and Erdely see a non-existent campus, dominated by rape culture, in which people are terrified even to mention sexual assault. For good measure, Jackie talks about an imagined conversation with her catfish target, Ryan Duffin:

 

Erdely, meanwhile, imagines a campus in which students actively discourage victims from reporting:

 

The two have highly negative views of fraternities:

 

This clip, in which Jackie passes along allegedly negative information about Eramo, will be helpful to Erdely in the libel trial:

 

Finally, this clip, in which Jackie talks about why she stopped seeing a campus counselor, captures her me-centered, unappealing personality: