In a ruling sure to reverberate on college campuses across the nation, a California appeals court unanimously reversed the trial court’s ruling in Doe v. Univ. of Southern California.  In Doe, a student (“Doe”) sued the University of Southern California (USC), claiming that its hearing procedures were inadequate and the record was insufficient to support the imposed disciplinary action.  The trial court found that USC’s procedure for investigation and discipline of Doe was fair.  The appeals court disagreed.

In brief, the court held that USC failed to provide the accused sufficient notice of the charges; did not afford the accused a fair hearing; and relied on insufficient evidence to support its findings of code violations.   The original incident at USC involved a female student who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a group of men at a fraternity party.  USC’s office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards (SJACS) investigated the complaint, and found that Doe violated nine sections of the student conduct code, including the section prohibiting sexual assault.  Doe appealed the findings to USC’s appeals panel, which found insufficient evidence of sexual assault, but that Doe had violated two sections of the student conduct code.  Doe received a suspension and other discipline as a result of the violations.  Thereafter, Doe challenged the appeals panel’s decision in court.

The appeals court noted a number of concerns with USC’s adjudication “procedures.”  First, the court found that Doe did not receive adequate notice in that he “was not apprised of the factual basis of the accusations against him; [instead] he was given only a list of code sections, a date, and [the complainant’s] name.”  In addition, the court was troubled by the fact that USC “began its investigation by pursuing one theory of discipline (sexual assault), but imposed discipline based on a wholly different theory (encouraging or permitting battery and endangering a student by abandonment).”  As a result, the court reasoned that Doe did not have an opportunity to defend himself against the university’s “new” theory, which ultimately led to his disciplinary sanctions.

There were other issues as well – the appeals court took notice that there was no actual hearing.  USC’s process included an investigation that entailed interviewing witnesses and a written report with recommended penalties, an opportunity for Doe to respond to the charges orally and in writing, and Doe’s right to appeal the initial findings to a 3-member panel.   The court disagreed that this process met the requirements for a fair hearing, finding that Doe did not have access to all of the evidence (including all witness statements) considered by USC’s decision-makers, while the complainant did receive all such statements.  Although USC argued that Doe was provided with a fair hearing because he “had access to information submitted by the other witnesses and an opportunity to respond to that evidence–had he requested it,” the court rejected these arguments,  noting that requiring the accused student to request access to evidence did not satisfy the requirements of due process.   The court further admonished USC for not providing Doe with an opportunity to appear directly before the decision-making panel to rebut evidence against him.  Lastly, the court assessed the evidence relied upon to discipline Doe and found USC’s findings were not sufficiently supported by the evidence on the record.    

Although not binding in Connecticut, the court’s ruling highlights the need for colleges and universities to provide both an adequate Title IX complaint and response process, and a fair hearing for the accused student.  We are already seeing a rise in cases across the nation filed by students – like Doe – who are accused of sexual assault, but claim that they were deprived of a fair hearing.  It is important that the fundamental tenets of due process are preserved – adequate notice of the charges against the accused, equivalent access to evidence, an opportunity to be heard and to respond to evidence, and rights to appeal by the party aggrieved by the decision.

The full text of the court’s decision may be found here.