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Colleges Settle Federal Lawsuits by Students Expelled on Sexual Misconduct Charges

Disciplinary Measures for Sexual Misconduct Charges Come Under Review

I have previously written about a state court decision striking down a public college’s disciplinary procedures as fundamentally flawed and unfair. More recently, two private colleges have made out-of-court settlements in increasingly common federal lawsuits brought against them by students disciplined or expelled over allegations of sexual misconduct.

Last December, Middlebury College in Vermont reached a settlement with a former student – the accused student and accuser were anonymized as John Doe and Jane Doe – who had been accused of sexual misconduct during the fall 2014 semester while studying overseas with the School for International Training (SIT). Middlebury’s student disciplinary policies extend to students’ behavior off-campus.

SIT investigated the complaint, made by a non-Middlebury student also in its program, but dismissed the complaint in December 2014. But even though Middlebury had allowed John Doe to register for the Spring 2015 semester, after his accuser contacted Middlebury and threatened to file a complaint against it with the Department Education, Middlebury launched its own disciplinary hearing, using an outside lawyer to investigate.

Expelled Without Due Process

The investigator, using a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard (recommended by controversial Department of Education guidelines), and her own evaluation of witness credibility and other evidence, found John Doe responsible for sexual misconduct. Without providing a hearing, the school expelled him in August.

The accused student, who consistently maintained innocence of the assault accusations, went to the federal court in Brattleboro, where he noted his exoneration in the SIT investigation and attacked Middlebury’s disciplinary procedures as inherently biased against men. He sought a court injunction ordering the school to let him continue his studies while the case continued, pointing out he would lose an $85,000 job offer if unable to graduate on schedule.

Federal Courts Intervene

Despite the school’s objections, the federal judge agreed the student would be irreparably harmed if not allowed to continue his education, and ordered him re-admitted. Months later, the school and student announced they had agreed to settle the lawsuit. The student will transfer to another school, but other terms of the settlement were undisclosed.

In another federal case last year, a judge in Virginia rebuffed efforts by Washington and Lee University to dismiss the lawsuit another John Doe had brought against it, claiming the school’s sexual misconduct disciplinary proceedings had violated federal education law by discriminating against him based on his sex.

The case involved allegations where a party to an apparently consensual sexual event later develops regrets and describes it as non-consensual. The accused student’s lawsuit alleges he met the accuser at an off-campus party in February, and she accompanied him to his dorm room, and had apparently consensual sex then and on another occasion. After he began seeing another student, however, the accuser broke off with him, and that summer filed a complaint claiming their first encounter had actually been a sexual assault. The school decided to expel him.

The accused student further alleged he was not allowed to have legal counsel during the school’s investigation, which he called rushed and badly managed. He further claimed his accuser was influenced by a lecture given by the university’s chief anti-sex discrimination official shortly before she filed her complaint, which allegedly told students regrets over a past sexual encounter show it was not truly consensual.

The presiding judge found the accused student’s claims raised sufficient doubt about the validity of the school’s disciplinary proceeding to let the case go forward, and set an April trial date. Then this February, a settlement in the case was announced, with no details released.