Possible Victory for Accused Student in Third Circuit Appeal

Oral argument in a somewhat below-the-radar appeal suggests a possible, even probable, victory for the accused student in Doe v. University of the Sciences. A Third Circuit panel of Luis Restrepo (Obama nominee), David Porter (Trump nominee), and Paul Matey (Trump nominee) seemed quite skeptical of the university’s position on the Title IX claim, and at least somewhat skeptical of the university’s breach of contract arguments. The latter makes this case of potential import—the Third Circuit will join the First Circuit as the only Appeals Courts to consider what the concept of fairness requires in a Title IX adjudication.

Another Third Circuit appeal, involving a Title IX erroneous outcome claim against St. Joe’s, was submitted on the briefs in late January. (There were no common panel members between the two appeals.) It’s not clear, obviously, which opinion will appear first—a rather important point here since the Third Circuit hasn’t issued a ruling in this area to date. The previous cases it’s handled involved tangential issues (Bucknell, William Paterson) or were settled after oral argument (Clarion).

In the Sciences case, two students—sorority sisters—filed Title IX claims alleging that the accused student had sexually assaulted them (in different incidents, both of which occurred many months before the reports). The first accuser appears to have persuaded the second accuser to file. Although the University of the Sciences promises fairness in its investigations, it employs a single-investigator model; the same person handled both allegations. After interviewing the parties, she returned a guilty finding; Doe appealed but was expelled halfway through his senior year.

He sued, and his case was assigned to Judge Juan Sánchez a W. Bush nominee. Sánchez denied a TRO and eventually dismissed the complaint in an opinion that firmly sided with the university. He rejected each of the student’s Title IX theories (gender bias in the investigation; selective enforcement because the university knew that Doe, too, was intoxicated on the night of the second incident, but didn’t investigate the accuser for possible sexual assault). Sánchez also dismissed Doe’s breach of contract claim, alleging that the university had disciplined him without providing a fair process. The court argued that “under Pennsylvania law, ‘fundamental fairness’ [which the University’s handbook promised] in the context of student disciplinary proceedings requires a student be given ‘notice of the charges and some opportunity for a hearing.’” Sánchez’s opinion never really engaged with the question of how a process without a hearing provided Doe with “some opportunity for a hearing.”

Doe appealed, focusing his appeal on two elements: selective enforcement in violation of Title IX, and breach of contract for not providing fundamental fairness in his process. Joshua Engel argued the case for Doe (his opening brief is here); Leslie Greenspan argued for the university (her brief is here). The case also attracted an amicus brief of 17 law professors, helmed by accusers’ rights activist Nancy Chi Cantalupo and Georgetown Law’s David Super, focusing entirely on the breach of contract claim. The brief, which defended the single-investigator model, is here.

A few general points on the oral argument. It occurred in the era of social distancing, and so came entirely by phone, making it occasionally disjointed. (Engel tweeted about the experience.) As a listener, a videoconference would have been much easier to follow. Second, virtually all of the questions that Engel received from Judges Restrepo and Porter (Judge Matey didn’t appear to have asked him any questions) were informational. Third, Greenspan was repeatedly challenged by all three members of the panel, with Matey asking particularly incisive questions. Finally, the amicus brief wasn’t mentioned in oral argument, around two-third of which dealt with the Title IX claim.

This exchange, in which Engel articulated his argument that a process without a hearing couldn’t meet Pennsylvania’s requirement of fairness, typified the first half of the oral argument, with Doe’s lawyer receiving almost no pushback from the panel.

Greenspan seemed to make some headway with her argument that the amended complaint misrepresented the single investigator’s report (though not in a way relevant to the selective enforcement claim). Otherwise, the panel seemed deeply skeptical about her arguments.

Judges Restrepo and Porter started things off, noting that the university had evidence that Doe and Roe were similarly intoxicated, but only investigated Doe.

This point was raised several times in the oral argument, and Greenspan kept coming back to a claim that Doe never filed a complaint, and told the single investigator that he considered the sexual encounter to be consensual. Both Matey and Porter, however, challenged her on this point. They noted that even though Doe clearly considered the encounter consensual, under the university’s (extremely broad) definition of alcohol and incapacitation, it was possible that Doe was sexually assaulted, too.

Finally, Restrepo and Porter pointed out the plain language of the university’s own policies required it to investigate if it had evidence of a possible sexual assault, even if the alleged victim didn’t file a complaint.

It’s possible, of course, that all three judges (or at least Restrepo and Porter) were playing devil’s advocate. But there was little in this oral argument to suggest a likely victory for the university on Title IX.

The path the panel would take to such an outcome, however, is less clear. As Greenspan kept pressing her claim that Roe didn’t provide a comparator to Doe under the selective enforcement theory (which dates to the Second Circuit’s Yusuf decision), Judge Matey wondered why the Third Circuit was obligated to follow Yusuf. Perhaps, he noted, the panel could be influenced by the Seventh Circuit’s Purdue opinion.

No other circuit has yet adopted the Seventh Circuit’s plaintiff-friendly standard; if the Third Circuit did so, it would be a significant development.

The panel was a bit harder to read on breach of contract/fairness—though here, again, Engel received no tough questions and Greenspan did. Fairness has been common in New England Title IX cases; the concept was also raised implicitly in important student wins against Cornell Medical School and George Washington. And a recent district court ruling in Florida denied summary judgment to Rollins College on breach of contract/fairness (in a case argued by Engel). On the other hand, the Middle District of Tennessee, in two victories for Vanderbilt, has adopted a theory that fairness simply requires a university following its own procedures (however unfair they may be), and Judge Sánchez’s district court ruling adopted a similar definition.

Greenspan attempted to push the Vanderbilt definition, but Judge Restrepo questioned the “circular” logic of a position that a university’s actions must be deemed fair because a university says it handles its cases fairly.

Then, in perhaps the argument’s most interesting section, Porter and Matey questioned whether the single-investigator model could be reconciled with a fair system. Greenspan defended the university’s policies on grounds of “efficiency,” a standard of which Matey seemed dubious. (She would later try to walk back the justification.)

There wasn’t enough back-and-forth in the breach of contract section to get a firm sense of the panel’s likely sentiments. But, as with the Title IX section of the oral argument, there was little here that suggested sympathy for the university’s position.

Given both the quality and the nature of his questioning, an opinion from Judge Matey could be particularly interesting. But both Porter and Restrepo seemed sympathetic to Doe, as well.

Restrepo ended the oral argument by promising an opinion soon.

Likely Win for Matt Boermeester in Closely-Watched USC Case

Earlier this week, a three-judge California appellate panel heard an appeal filed by former USC kicker Matthew Boermeester—at the center of one of the most troubling cases of university procedural unfairness in the post-Dear Colleague letter era. It appears as if the appeals court will side with Boermeester, though all three justices promised openness to USC’s arguments.

The specifics of the Boermeester case are, by this point, well-known. A report reached the university—third-hand—alleging intimate partner violence by Boermeester against his girlfriend, Zoe Katz. Katz was required by the Title IX office to speak to a USC Title IX investigator—and subsequently claimed, in multiple sworn affidavits, that USC misrepresented what she said in the interview. USC immediately suspended Boermeester, and ultimately found him guilty of an offense in which the “victim” said nothing untoward happened. He received no hearing, with no right to cross-examine either the third-hand witnesses the university had or to present his own witnesses. Nor did USC give him any chance to explain during its “investigation” what the university now sees as the key evidence in the case (a grainy security video of the incident).

The process was so unfair that Secretary Betsy DeVos highlighted it in her speech announcing the rescission of the Obama-era Title IX guidance. Terming USC’s treatment of Boermeester “disturbing,” the Secretary described “the story of an athlete, his girlfriend and the failed system. The couple was described as ‘playfully roughhousing,’ but a witness thought otherwise and the incident was reported to the university’s Title IX coordinator. The young woman repeatedly assured campus officials she had not been abused nor had any misconduct occurred. But because of the failed system, university administrators told her they knew better. They dismissed the young man, her boyfriend, from the football team and expelled him from school.”

DeVos concluded her recap of the case by quoting Katz: “’When I told the truth,’ the young woman said, ‘I was stereotyped and was told I must be a ‘battered’ woman, and that made me feel demeaned and absurdly profiled.’”

Boermeester sued USC in state court in 2017 (he also has filed a federal lawsuit, which currently is stayed), but drew a superior court judge, Amy Hogue, who has consistently sided with universities in accused student lawsuits. As he appealed, however, the law in California started to change. Several decisions from the California Court of Appeals, including two involving USC, made clear that an accused student needed to have some form of cross-examination, and cast doubt on the single investigator model that USC used. USC was even more vulnerable to these rulings in the Boermeester case because the single investigator was, in effect, the judge, jury, and police in a complaint filed by the institution that paid her check.

The appeal went before a three-justice panel of Tricia Bigelow, Maria Stratton, and John Wiley. As the hearing commenced, the judges put on record that they had issued a tentative ruling (which would the subject of the oral argument) indicating an intent to side with Boermeester. The tentative ruling suggested an agreement “with recent authorities that in a case such as this one, where a student faces a potentially severe sanction from a student disciplinary proceeding and the university’s decision depends on witness credibility, the accused student must be afforded an in person hearing in which he may cross-examine critical witnesses, directly or indirectly, to allow the adjudicator the ability to observe witness demeanor to decide credibility.” USC’s briefing had challenged the wave of recent precedents by suggesting that the case wasn’t about credibility, since the video was sufficient to confirm Boermeester’s guilt. But to the justices, “The surveillance video by itself is not conclusive. The picture is grainy and there is no audio.”

Representing USC, Julie Arias-Young opened her argument by claiming that the panel’s tentative ruling expanded the rights of students accused of Title IX offenses. Justice Bigelow, by far the most active of the panel members, seemed skeptical. She conceded that USC was in a “pickle” because of the wave of 2018 and 2019 decisions in favor of accused students (rulings that occurred after USC elected to deny Boemeester a hearing or any opportunity to confront his accusers). But, the justice noted, that’s the way the “cookie crumbles.”

USC offered two core arguments to try to persuade the panel to reverse its tentative ruling. First, Arias-Young claimed that the five pro-due process California appeals court decisions applied only to students accused of sexual misconduct, not intimate partner violence. No one in the panel seemed particularly persuaded by the first line of argument, although a bit later in the hearing, the justices toyed with limiting principles (which nonetheless would reverse USC’s discipline against Boermeester) in a potential ruling.

Second, Arias-Young suggested that credibility wasn’t key to the case—and, indeed, generally was not a key issues in allegations of intimate partner violence, period. Justice Bigelow seemed dubious.

The bulk of the oral argument revolved around the video, and USC’s claim that this piece of evidence justified the university’s decision to deny Boermeester a meaningful opportunity to defend himself. But the justices also had watched the video, and Justice Stratton remarked that she couldn’t deem the video decisive.

Arias-Young’s desperation to suggest that this case—where the alleged victim, it’s worth recalling, said under oath that nothing untoward happened, and that USC officials misrepresented what she told them—brought her very close to suggesting that because the “grainy” (Arias-Young’s word) video appeared to show Boemeester touching Katz’s neck, that fact and that fact alone was enough to expel him, regardless of his intent. All three justices seemed extremely skeptical of this line of argument—as, eventually, did Arias-Young, when she tried to parry hypotheticals offered by the panel by saying that they differed from the “facts of this case.”

Eventually, Arias-Young’s assertions that the university didn’t need to consider the context as long as it had a video collapsed under its own weight. Justice Bigelow asked if—as seemed to be the logical application of her argument—anytime one USC student placed his hand on another student’s neck in what might (or might not) have been a forceful manner, he’d have to be expelled. Arias-Young’s response? “I guess it would depend on what it is.” But she had spent the previous five minutes arguing exactly the opposite—that the context in such cases didn’t matter, and therefore Boermeester didn’t deserve hearing.

Arias-Young’s time at the podium concluded with a complement from Bigelow—the USC lawyer had argued a good case, but the university was in a tough position given the recognition by five state appellate courts as to what the law required when adjudicating Title IX allegations. As a result, Bigelow predicted, USC was “probably” going to lose.

That sense was reaffirmed when Boermeester’s lawyer, Mark Hathaway, had five minutes in rebuttal—and didn’t receive one question from the panel. (Hathaway had opened the oral argument by urging the court to heighten the rights of accused students facing indefinite interim suspensions, but the panel didn’t seem terribly interested in doing so.)

If the panel follows through with its tentative opinion—as, based on the oral argument, all three justices appeared inclined to do—this would be a major victory, both because of the high-profile coverage the expulsion received and because USC’s procedures are particularly egregious in this area. The decision, though, would only reverse Boermeester’s discipline. The court can’t negate the rumors and stigma that affected his reputation, or restore his senior season of eligibility, or his chance at playing in the NFL.

As Justice Bigelow stated at the hearing, Boermeester had “a bright future.” In this respect, Boermeester’s ongoing battle provides a reminder of the enduring effect that unfair Title IX tribunals can have on accused students.

Likely Win for University in Ninth Circuit Appeal

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments in an appeal filed by an Arizona State University graduate student, Paul Schwake, who was found guilty of sexual misconduct by ASU—harming his post-university career as a researcher. It seems likely, though far from certain, that the university will prevail, though both parties got tough questions. The most striking aspect of the hearing was the performance of Judge Milan Smith, a Bush nominee, who repeatedly misrepresented the record to claim that Schwake had no case.

The specifics of this case were a little unusual because Schwake was a PhD student, doing research in a lab. So too was his accuser, with whom he had a brief romantic relationship. When the accuser filed her complaint, ASU (which was under an investigation from the Lhamon-era OCR for another case) imposed swift punishment, carrying about a barebones investigation that deemed Schwake responsible without (allegedly) considering his exculpatory evidence. The university also denied Schwake all access to his lab (ruining his experiments), rather than simply ensuring that he did his research when the accuser wasn’t there. Word on campus allegedly spread about his fate, harming his reputation; according to the complaint, one ASU professor, Thomas Seager, told his class that Schwake had been “convicted” and referenced specific details about the case.

Under ASU policy (and Arizona law), since the investigation had recommended expulsion, Schwake was entitled to a hearing, with significant procedural protections—protections he planned to use. Rather than give Schwake a chance to defend himself (and, perhaps expose how shoddy ASU’s investigation had been), ASU manipulated the procedures. A university administrator downgraded Schwake’s punishment so that he no longer was threatened with expulsion. He therefore also was no longer entitled to have a hearing. He asked for a chance to appeal this decision; no forum existed to hear his appeal. He then received his PhD., although he remained banned from campus.

The case went before Judge Steven Logan, an Obama nominee, who sided with ASU in a short, uninspiring opinion. Logan dismissed the due process sections of the complaint on grounds of qualified immunity, claiming that accused Arizona students have no property or liberty rights associated with continued enrollment in grad school. He dismissed the Title IX section of the complaint with scant analysis.

The appeal took a circuitous route to the Ninth Circuit. Schwake appears to have had financial problems, and parted ways from his original lawyer. Eventually, Aaron Block took the case pro bono, provided supplementary briefing, and argued very effectively. The panel included Judges Kim Wardlaw (Clinton nominee), Milan Smith (W. Bush nominee), and Patrick Bumatay (Trump nominee).

According to Judge Smith, this was an open-and-shut case—Schwake’s complaint didn’t even belong in court. Dripping with condescension in deeming Schwake “upset” with the outcome, Smith explained  that the student had entered into a settlement with ASU: in exchange for receiving his degree, he forfeited the right to any disciplinary hearing. (Smith even suggested that the non-existent settlement gave Schwake access to his lab, a false claim that seemed to bewilder even ASU’s lawyer.) Second, to the extent Schwake’s reputation was harmed, it came about because he filed the lawsuit, not due to anything that ASU did.

The only problem? Smith was wrong on both counts. No settlement existed (ASU had changed the punishment unilaterally), and Schwake’s reputational harm, as documented in his complaint, predated the filing of the lawsuit. (The idea that a student harmed by his university can be blamed for reputational damage caused by filing a lawsuit to address the harm is, in and of itself, a strange argument.)

Even when presented with the facts, however, Smith didn’t back down, announcing that Schwake should have, like Texans at the Alamo, refused the “settlement.”

Finally, in his rebuttal, Block read the section of the complaint confirming that no settlement occurred. Smith then, wildly, suggested Schwake should have refused his degree if he wanted a hearing. But even in Schwake had done so (and Smith didn’t explain how a student could refuse a degree that the university had already conferred), ASU would have been under no obligation to give him a hearing. Because Schwake’s punishment still wouldn’t have been expulsion, no hearing would have occurred.

This is a close case, and reasonable people could disagree on which side should prevail. (The amended complaint was not a model of clarity.) But Smith’s performance was an embarrassment. He spent several minutes pontificating about imagined facts that weren’t actually before him, and every exchange between the judge and lawyers on each side was a waste of time since he presumed two key facts (a settlement, and that Schwake’s reputational harm only coming from his lawsuit) that the record contradicted.

All that said, since Smith is a near-certain vote for ASU, the university will prevail if it receives the votes of either Wardlaw or Bumatay. Wardlaw, a very liberal Clinton nominee, would seem an unlikely vote for Schwake, but at least she asked fair questions of both sides, and seemed somewhat receptive on the Title IX count. (Relatively little discussion occurred on due process at the hearing.)

In this exchange, for instance, Wardlaw pressed ASU’s lawyer, Michael Goodwin, on Seager’s conduct, and what that said about the integrity of the university’s system. “There seems to be something wrong with the process,” she noted, where ”there’s some rogue professor talking about the details of [the investigation] to students in his class.”

Wardlaw also went through the complaint in some detail and highlighted what could be the strongest evidentiary points for the accused student. She likely won’t vote with him, but at least she was fair in the oral argument.

The strongest point for Schwake came in an exchange between Goodwin and Judge Bumatay, who spoke much less frequently than his two colleagues. Bumatay asked why the case wouldn’t survive a motion to dismiss if all accused males were found guilty. Goodwin responded that even if ASU did find all accused males guilty, it wouldn’t be a sign of gender discrimination. Judge Bumatay seemed skeptical.

If Schwake prevails, this fairly detailed colloquy between Judges Warclaw and Bumatay, and Goodwin would seem to explain why. Both judges seemed open to the idea that, at least at the pleading stage, the case should move forward on Title IX—though Goodwin would counter that Schwake’s gender discrimination facts were weaker than those of the Oregon students who lost in the only other Ninth Circuit accused student appeal.

The likeliest outcome? A 3-0 win for ASU. (Bumatay didn’t give an impression of an eagerness to be a lone dissenter in this case.) But there’s an outside chance of a limited 2-1 victory on Title IX for Schwake. And, either way, Judge Smith’s performance in the oral argument was deeply unfortunate.

Cautious Optimism for Accused Student in Critical Eighth Circuit Appeal

Today featured the second of what likely will be five oral arguments in accused student appeals during the 2019-2020 session of Eighth Circuit, which covers Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Minnesota. (Ironically, between 2011 and 2019, the Circuit hadn’t heard any appeals from accused student Title IX cases.) Today’s appeal, involving a decision from the University of Arkansas, seems likely to yield the most important decision of the five. The panel included Judges Steven Colloton (W. Bush), Bobby Shepherd (W. Bush), and Ralph Erickson (Trump).

Even in the world of dubious Title IX guilty findings, the Arkansas case stood out. The accuser claimed she was incapacitated and therefore couldn’t have consented to sex—but the police officer to whom she reported (she also wanted to pursue criminal charges) found her non-credible, and an Uber driver who drove her to the accused student’s apartment couldn’t corroborate her story either. Arkansas’ Title IX investigation ended with a not-guilty finding—which she appealed to a hearing panel. At that point, the accuser modified her theory of the offense to force and/or incapacitation—and Arkansas not only allowed her to do so, but refused the accused student’s request for clarifying information. (The accuser, by this point, had organized campus protests suggesting Arkansas was indifferent to rape, upping pressure on the university to reach a guilty finding.) At a hearing in which the campus investigator didn’t appear, the police officer testified on behalf of the accused student, and no direct cross-examination occurred, the accused student was found guilty by a 2-1 vote. The university’s own finding, however, couldn’t say whether he ever knew the accuser was incapacitated, and the school allowed the student to graduate. It was almost as if UA simply wanted a guilty finding to appease the campus protesters.

The student sued, seeking to remove the Scarlet Letter from his transcript. The case drew Judge P.K. Holmes, an Obama nominee. In the recent article on campus Title IX litigation from Sam Harris and me, we identified Holmes’ decision in this case as one of the two worst federal decisions in this area since 2011. Holmes conceded there might be a due process claim to cross-examination—but suggested it was trumped by the anti-crossexamination provisions of the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. He didn’t explain why OCR guidance was more important than the Constitution, or why guidance rescinded before the events of the case even occurred was relevant to his analysis. Holmes saw little problem with the accuser changing her story in the middle of the process, suggesting that UA simply allowed more information to come to the attention of the hearing panel. And he dismissed the Title IX count with scant analysis, even doubting whether the accused student—in a case where two of the four UA decisionmakers had found him not guilty—had sufficient evidence to cast doubt on the correctness of the finding. He also granted qualified immunity to UA administrators, but this issue didn’t come up in the Eighth Circuit oral argument.

Heather Zachary argued the case (very effectively) for Doe; Joseph Cordi argued for Arkansas. The panel asked many more questions of Arkansas’ case than Doe’s; Shepherd and Erickson (in particular) seemed more sympathetic to Doe, while Colloton was harder to read. Zachary’s opening section of argument proceeded almost without interruption, but for friendly questioning from Judge Shepherd on whether the district court might have improperly drawn inferences in favor of the university in a motion-to-dismiss ruling.

 

Questioning of Cordi, by contrast, was much sharper, and focused on three issues: lack of notice (due to the shifting claims of the allegation); cross-examination; and gender bias under Title IX. In general, Cordi seemed less well-prepared than did Zachary, though, in fairness, he also received tougher questions.

To begin with, and in sharp contrast to Judge Holmes at the district court, all three of the Eighth Circuit judges seemed skeptical of the wisdom of UA’s guilty finding, above and beyond the need to accept the facts in the complaint. This colloquy involving Cordi and Judges Colloton and Erickson set the tone:

 

Shepherd also seemed troubled that UA had, in effect, shifted the burden of proof to Doe—requiring him to prove consent, rather than requiring the university to prove a lack of consent.

 

Cordi was repeatedly pressed on the issue of notice—a point of vulnerability for the university given UA’s allowing the accuser to change her theory of the offense, and given that Doe was found guilty even though UA acknowledged he didn’t know of the accuser’s alleged incapacitation. This exchange came with Judge Colloton.

 

In what was clearly the most encouraging section of the oral argument for Doe, Judge Erickson sharply rebuked Cordi’s fact-free suggestions that it was wholly implausible, to appease campus protesters, that a university (or, he added, any other entity) would seek to find accused males guilty. (One wonders what academic environment Cordi has been witnessing the past eight years.) Erickson cited the #metoo/believe-all-women agenda to show the absurdity of Cordi’s claim. If Erickson were to apply this sentiment in an opinion, he would join Amul Thapar and Amy Barrett as Trump nominees to aggresively side with accused students.

 

This exchange, between Cordi and Judges Erickson and Colloton, got to the heart of the accused student’s Title IX argument given the specifics of his case–a guilty finding coupled with a punishment that seemed very light if UA actually believed in the merits of its finding. Noting the campus pressure to do more on behalf of female complainants, Colloton wondered, “Why wouldn’t it be plausible that they’ll say, ‘Well, we’re going to have to find more men responsible and maybe we’ll go light on the punishment to kind of smooth things over?'”

 

It seems possible, however, that the panel will not reach the cross-examination count, as seen in the closing section of the argument between Judge Colloton and Zachary. Colloton faulted Zachary for not pleading specific questions that were unasked in the UA hearing, which, of course, Zachary couldn’t do because Arkansas withheld the transcript of the hearing from Doe.

 

The overall take: all three members of the panel (and especially Erickson and Shepherd) seemed to believe that Arkansas wrongly found Doe guilty. All seemed at least somewhat dubious that UA had provided Doe with sufficient notice. And Colloton and Erickson (the latter strongly) seemed skeptical of the district court’s Title IX rationale. They didn’t telegraph their ruling, however, and anything from a 3-0 win to a 3-0 loss seems theoretically possible. But a win for Doe seems the likelier outcome, in what has the potential (if so) to be a very important ruling.

Johnson & Wales: The Disciplinary Panel That Thought Alike

A district court recently denied summary judgment to Johnson & Wales University in a lawsuit filed by an accused student, clearing the case for trial. (Since issuance of the Obama-era Dear Colleague letter, only two trials in this area have occurred—Boston College and Brown—both ending in victories for the accused student.) The trial will focus on whether JWU’s handling of the case violated an explicit promise of fair treatment for the accused that its procedures provided.

As Judge Mary McElroy noted in her ruling, this matter was unusual in that the student’s lawyer, James Erhard, made “his case for an unfair proceeding virtually entirely on facts put forth or acknowledged by JWU itself.” That material included affidavits justifying their guilty votes filed by the three members of the JWU disciplinary panel: Assistant Director of Clubs Elizabeth Zmarlicki, Assistant Director of Residential Communities Caitlin Codding; and Culinary Associate Instructor Tim Brown, whose job, he says, “enables him to shape the pastry chefs of tomorrow.” Each member of the panel appears to be an at-will employee, as opposed to students or tenured faculty who might have been less susceptible to feeling pressured by the school. Zmarlicki and Codding had never previously served on a Title IX tribunal.

At a minimum, this was an ambiguous case. The accuser, identified in court documents as Mary Smith, waited months before coming forward, alleging sexual assault in the fifth and sixth examples of sexual contact in a long-extinguished relationship. Even then, the charges were initiated not by her, but by her boyfriend, B.K., who then was allowed not to testify at the hearing because he served as Mary’s advisor. Unlike many campus cases, the accused student, identified here as John Doe, vehemently denied the first alleged incident even occurred—and seemed to have support for that proposition from his roommates. And as to the second, which John maintained was consensual, even Mary, according to the JWU complaint report, “was not sure if what occurred was considered sexual assault.”

The affidavits from the three JWU panel members offered identical sentiments and, often, language—suggesting that they either collaborated on the documents after the fact or exhibited a degree of groupthink that raises questions about the fairness of the proceedings.

According to Zmarlicki, her training led her to approach the case “without any predisposition or bias,” allowing her to reach a decision with “an open mind.” Codding said that she too approached the case “without any predisposition or bias,” allowing her to reach a decision with “an open mind.” What about Brown? He affirmed that he approached the case “without any predisposition or bias,” allowing him to reach a decision with “an open mind.” The three JWU employees did not explain how they came up with the exact same formulation to describe how they approached to the case. (Couldn’t one of them, at least, have used synonyms to make things less obvious?) The university’s position is that outsiders must trust that when these JWU employees said, using the exact same words, that they acted without bias and with open minds, they actually did so: JWU neither recorded nor kept a transcript of the hearing.

Zmarlicki testified that the panel asked “probative” questions of both John and Mary, but she didn’t say what any of those questions were. According to Codding, the panel asked “probative” questions of each student, but she, too, couldn’t identify any of those questions. And Brown? He recalled the panel asking “probative” questions of John and Mary—questions that his affidavit didn’t detail. Again, couldn’t one of the panelists have come up with another word to describe their questioning strategy?

How did each panelist reach the decision? Zmarlicki affirmed that despite having “considered carefully the fact that John Doe and Mary Smith admitted that they had engaged in consensual sexual intercourse before the two evenings at issue,” she made a “careful assessment” to conclude that John was nonetheless guilty—because John was “consistently vague” and Mary provided “specific details.” Codding, despite having “considered carefully the fact that John Doe and Mary Smith admitted that they had engaged in consensual sexual intercourse before the two evenings at issue,” made a “careful assessment” to conclude that John was nonetheless guilty—because John was “consistently vague” and Mary provided “specific details.” And Brown? Despite having “considered carefully the fact that John Doe and Mary Smith admitted that they had engaged in consensual sexual intercourse before the two evenings at issue,” he made a “careful assessment” to conclude that John was nonetheless guilty—because John was “consistently vague” and Mary provided “specific details.” If this trio were JWU students, they would have been brought up on plagiarism charges.

Zmarlicki claimed that the panel engaged in a “lengthy” deliberation (but couldn’t recall the “precise duration” of their discussions). Codding also deemed the deliberations “lengthy” but couldn’t recall the “precise duration” of their discussions. And Brown? The panel deliberated for a “lengthy” period of time—but he couldn’t remember the “precise duration” of their discussions. These statements make no sense: according to their affidavits, each panelist approached the case in the exact same way and responded to the evidence presented in the hearing identically. If their affidavits are truthful, their deliberations should have taken 60 seconds.

Beyond the absurdity of three people affirming their fairness by using the exact same words, over and over again, to describe what were purportedly their personal recollections, the absence of the complaining witness, B.K., from the affidavits was striking. All three panelists said they read the case file. So they knew that Mary’s new boyfriend filed the original complaint and was a key witness in the case. Yet none expressed concerns that they never heard from him. Nor did they seem worried that they hadn’t been able to hear from John’s roommates, whose versions of events backed John, not Mary. None of the affidavits explain why the panel members didn’t press JWU officials to ensure they heard from all relevant witnesses despite each of them claiming they operated with a “fair mind.”

Perhaps JWU simply assumed a summary judgment win was inevitable. Now, however, the school is left with a trial on a record claiming that three people, from three different parts of the university, described the case and their actions regarding it in identical ways. A legal strategy that presents their own decisionmakers as either mindless automatons or so uncertain of the facts that they needed to have their recollections written by someone else seems like a bad look for any university.

Trump-Nominated Judge Likely Swing Vote on Oberlin Case

A divided Sixth Circuit panel considered the latest accused student appeal—in a case from Oberlin College. So far, Trump appellate nominees (Thapar, Barrett, and St. Eve in their opinions, Carson in oral argument) have been strongly sympathetic to upholding the rights of accused students. In the Oberlin panel, by contrast, oral argument suggests that a Trump nominee—Chad Readler—is the swing vote.

Among the federal victories for universities, the Oberlin district court opinion, penned by Judge Solomon Oliver (a Clinton nominee), stood out as among the most troubling. The accused student had unusually strong evidence (Oberlin revealing a 100% guilty rate in adjudications, statements from the former Title IX coordinator who was promoted to dean, the accused student’s own Oberlin advisor tweeting out how he believed “survivors,” an OCR inquiry opened against Oberlin a few months before his case). The student also had favorable circuit precedent which cautioned district courts to grant university motions to dismiss on these issues only if the student lacked a “wing and a prayer” (in Baum’s language) of winning, and which stressed the importance of the kind of statistical evidence (Miami) that the Oberlin student possessed.

The Oliver decision, unusually for a motion to dismiss, construed debates over most of these questions in Oberlin’s favor. The 100% guilty rate, for instance? Not a problem, according to Oliver, since there were many cases in which the accused student ultimately didn’t get punished (because the accuser chose not to go ahead with the adjudication, not due to anything Oberlin did). The opinion itself appeared on PACER just after midnight on April 1, almost as if it was rushed to release by March 31.

The panel hearing the appeal consisted of Judges Readler, Raymond Kethledge (W. Bush), and Ronald Gilman (Clinton). Judge Readler hadn’t handled any campus due process case; Judge Kethledge had stayed the order in the Michigan case for the UM president to appear personally in court to defend his university’s policies but hadn’t addressed the substance of the university’s policies. Judge Gilman, by contrast, had issued a concurrence that was in effect a dissent from the due process section of Baum; and had dissented from the Title IX section of the opinion. As Judge Julia Smith Gibbons noted in a concurrence, Gilman seemed to demand summary judgment standards for the motion to dismiss, at least for accused students in Title IX cases.

Gilman didn’t speak in the Baum oral argument, but he asked the first question in yesterday’s hearing—and each of his three questions of the accused student’s lawyer, Chris Muha of KaiserDillon in Washington DC, made clear he intended to apply the spirit of his Baum dissent rather than the actual ruling in Baum to this case. This comment, for instance, featured Gilman downplaying the significance of the 100 percent conviction rate by (very oddly) holding that in cases where the student filed a complaint but did not go forward, Oberlin had actually “a lot of times . . . exonerated” the male student.

 

There was, it’s worth noting, nothing in the complaint to suggest that Oberlin “exonerated”—or even investigated—students who didn’t go through the formal hearing process; in these cases, it seems as if the accusing student chose not to go forward with her complaint. (That Gilman at one point referred to the district court judge as “Judge Solomon” gave a sense of how much he had grappled with the actual record in the case.) The Gilman standard would allow schools that return guilty findings against every male student who’s charged to nonetheless avoid gender bias lawsuits as long as a small number of female accusers choose (for reasons unrelated to university policies) not to seek formal adjudication.

With Gilman a near-certain vote for the school (he asked no questions of Oberlin’s lawyer), the accused student will need the votes of both Kethledge and Readler to prevail. Judge Kethledge seemed deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) of the briefing filed by Oberlin:

 

A bit later, Kethledge commented that he wasn’t personally criticizing Oberlin’s lawyer, Aaron Herzig, who simply had to play the (presumably very bad) “hand” he was dealt.

 

Kethledge also probed the question of whether former Title IX coordinator Raimondo’s decision to appoint as the accused student’s advisor a college dean who tweeted out that he believed “survivors” might suggest a bias in the process.

 

In perhaps the most ominous passage from the oral argument for Oberlin, Kethledge implied that the district court opinion had gotten it wrong by focusing on the gender bias evidence in a “silo” fashion rather than examining it in its totality.

In another favorable comment for the accused student, Kethledge expressed skepticism about the Gilman/Oliver standard that cases where the accused student chose not to go forward with her complaint show a lack of gender bias in cases where an adjudication did occur. Why, he wondered, should Oberlin get “credit” for a decision that had nothing to do with the acts or policies of a college administrator?

 

And in the argument’s most interesting section, Kethledge—implicitly, perhaps, picking up on the arguments offered by Judge Barrett in the Purdue decision—wondered what was contrary to “common sense” about reasoning that an egregiously wrong decision by the school might, in and of itself, suggest a degree of gender bias in the outcome.

 

At that point Judge Readler jumped in, commenting on a factual anomaly of the case—Oberlin’s decision to return a guilty finding based on incapacitation, even though the accuser’s claim was sexual assault by force, and she described an event where she was very much aware of what was occurring. This point aroused Judge Kethledge’s interest as well.

 

Readler’s questions tended to be more informational, making it harder to get his read on the case than Kethledge or Gilman. (He ended the argument, for instance, to asking what specific evidence existed of gender bias for the second prong of the erroneous outcome claim.) If Readler joins a Kethledge opinion, however, this case could yield a significant decision. Given that a dissent, either way, seems a near-certainty, it may be some time before we know.

Judge McElroy, Fairness, and Johnson & Wales

This year has featured a number of important breach of contract victories for accused students in New England. An accused student from Boston College prevailed in the first post-Dear Colleague letter jury trial, in September. In a detailed ruling, Judge Alfred Covello denied summary judgment to Yale in the Jack Montague case, prompting the university to settle. And a settlement also occurred in the Quinnipiac College case after Judge Janet Arterton denied summary judgment to the school (on Title IX grounds as well). Another denial of summary judgment occurred in the Bard lawsuit, although Judge George O’Toole didn’t offer a written opinion outlining his rationale.

The latest university to experience a denial of its breach of contract summary judgment motion was Jonson & Wales University, in Providence; Judge Mary McElroy issued a ruling late Tuesday afternoon on the motion. The facts of the case: A male and female student had a brief, casual sexual relationship. Many months later, the female student’s new boyfriend told the JWU police that her final two encounters with her ex-boyfriend were nonconsensual. The female student elected not to file Title IX charges—only to change her mind a few months later.

The case contained an unusual number of unfair elements. Perhaps most seriously, JWU allowed the boyfriend—who was, after all, the person who filed the original complaint—to serve as the female student’s hearing advisor, thus shielding him from questioning by the disciplinary panel. The accused student wasn’t allowed to take a copy of the accuser’s 18-page statement for review before the hearing. He couldn’t submit questions to be asked of the accuser. The complaint suggested that the preponderance standard was inherently unfair given the other procedural shortcomings of the JWU system. And after the inevitable guilty finding ensued, JWU (for reasons it didn’t explain) denied to the accused student’s lawyer a copy of the training materials given to the disciplinary panelists. The appeal was denied (Doe claimed he had new exculpatory evidence), and Doe sued.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge John McConnell. JWU didn’t even try to dismiss the breach of contract claim, focusing instead on the Title IX count. McConnell seemed troubled by JWU’s refusal to turn over the training materials. More broadly, he noted that, given the facts of the case as alleged in the complaint, he could “find no reason at all as to why . . . the result was Mr. Doe’s expulsion. The only inference that one could draw from that considering all the facts is that gender played a role.” This was one of the broadest Title IX holdings of the dozens of accused student lawsuits that have survived a motion to dismiss their Title IX count. But the May 2018 ruling attracted comparatively little attention, perhaps because McConnell delivered it from the bench.

The hearing on JWU’s summary judgment motion was delayed to accommodate Doe’s lawyer, James Ehrhard, who had a trial in another case. Shortly thereafter, McConnell turned the case over to the newly-confirmed Nancy McElroy, originally an Obama nominee who was confirmed earlier this year as part of a package deal between the White House and Senate Democrats.

At oral argument last month, McElroy seemed dubious about the Title IX count (which, given relevant First Circuit precedent, is very difficult for an accused student to meet in any case). Her ruling suggested that Doe would need a “smoking gun” or highly unusual statistical evidence to prove a sufficient degree of gender bias.

The ruling’s breach of contract section, however, provided a complete victory for the accused student—and with language that resembled McConnell’s broad Title IX rhetoric from the motion to dismiss decision.

In its briefs, JWU urged near-total deference by the court to university decision-making. And although the JWU procedures had promised Doe “every reasonable effort to be fair to all involved” and a resolution that was “prompt, fair and impartial,” university filings implied this language was superfluous, and the circumscribed procedures that Doe received in the case were all to which he was entitled. The university expanded on this point in a four-page single-spaced letter informing the court of the recent First Circuit Boston College decision (BC II), which it argued “mandated federal restraint.”

Judge McElroy disagreed. In so doing, she relied heavily on the First Circuit’s 2018 Boston College (BC I) decision, in which a panel with no overlap to the BC II panel articulated a much less deferential role for the federal judiciary in determining whether fairness case should proceed to trial. The BC II case, she argued, “presented a very different situation” than the JWU matter.

“’Fair,’” McElroy correctly noted, “is not a term with a commonly accepted definition. It is conclusory: its precise meaning fluctuates with the context in which it is used.” Accordingly, the specifics of the case at hand mattered—and, indeed, procedures that might be fair in the context of a plagiarism allegation might not be in the context of a Title IX adjudication. Did fairness require the types of procedural protections—notice, access to relevant evidence, ability to submit questions of adverse witnesses—that JWU denied to Doe? McElroy concluded that “in the context of an uncounseled college junior, facing the frightening and very serious prospect of possible expulsion from school, in a case of contrary ‘he said/she said’ allegations, a reasonable juror could determine that the meaning of ‘fair’ includes being provided more protections than Doe alleges he received.”

McElroy addressed the matter in greater detail in an extended footnote. “It appears,” she observed “that JWU put a significant burden on Doe to ascertain the details of the process, rather than provide him with a detailed description.” For instance, “a reasonable jury could find that requiring Doe to discern what questions he should ask (e.g., could he propound written questions before Ms. Smith was interviewed by the panel or after she gave a statement; could he make an opening or closing statement, what would constitute ‘personal knowledge’ by a witness, would a roommate sleeping in the room close to the bathroom who heard nothing be a witness ‘with personal knowledge,’ etc.), is unfair when students are strangers to such a process and rely entirely on what is told to them to inform their understanding of what they are up against.” Her conclusion? “A reasonable juror could decide that it is not ‘fair’ to require a student who knows little or nothing to figure out what s/he does not know in order to ask productive questions.”

McElroy therefore offered a broad definition of fairness that relied on a common sense application of the concept. In this respect, her ruling joins a handful of cases—Brandeis, Amherst, George Washington, Notre Dame, Yale—where courts, encountering a complaint of a seemingly innocent student arbitrarily found guilty, have shown scant deference to the university finding and instead have stressed the need for a truly fair adjudication.

Barring a settlement, the case will now proceed to trial—which would make it the third post-Dear Colleague letter accused student trial, after the BC case and the January 2020 scheduled trial in the Bard case.