Tag: sexual

University Procedure for Sexual Misconduct Allegations Declared Unconstitutional (7th Circuit)

On 28 June 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled unanimously, in the case of Doe v. Purdue University, No. 17-3565 (7th Cir. 2019), that the procedure used by Purdue University to adjudicate a claim of sexual misconduct violated the student’s rights under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and that the people involved had displayed signs of discrimination on the basis of sex contrary to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The judgment of the Court was written by Judge Amy Coney Barrett who is believed to be President Trump’s next nominee for the US Supreme Court in case there is another vacancy on the bench.

In Doe v. Purdue University, No. 17-3565 (7th Cir. 2019), the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit reviewed the magistrate Judge’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit for failing to state a claim. In this mode of review, the Court was obliged to recount the facts as the claimant had described them, drawing every inference in his favor. The Court was not concerned with the question whether the allegations were true but only whether the claimant was entitled to relief if they were in fact true (p2). Consequently, the claimant’s rights under the Due Process Clause and Title IX were violated only if everything he had said were true.

The claimant brought lawsuit against Purdue University after the University had suspended him and imposed conditions on his readmission. This decision was prompted by an accusation of sexual misconduct by a fellow student which was adjudicated by Purdue University according to its internal procedure. Due to the suspension, the claimant was expelled from the Navy ROTC program, preventing him from pursuing a career in the Navy (p1).

Under its internal procedure, Purdue University appointed two investigators to examine the complaint against the claimant. The investigators prepared a report based on the complaint, a written statement submitted by the claimant and an interview with him. When the report was complete, a three-member panel was appointed which was supposed to recommend further actions based on the report and hearing from the parties. The claimant was called to appear before the panel but had not been provided with the report for review. Only moments before the hearing, he was given a redacted version of the report which falsely claimed that he had admitted the wrongdoing. The report also contained other deficiencies. The accuser neither showed up for the hearing, nor submitted any statement (pp4-5).

During the hearing:

“Two members of the panel candidly stated that they had not read the investigative report. The one who apparently had read it asked John accusatory questions that assumed his guilt. Because John had not seen the evidence, he could not address it. He reiterated his innocence and told the panel about some of the friendly texts that Jane had sent him after the alleged assaults. The panel refused John permission to present witnesses, including character witnesses and a roommate who would state that he was present in the room at the time of the alleged assault and that Jane’s rendition of events was false” (p5).

Following the hearing, the claimant was informed that he had been found guilty of sexual misconduct and suspended for one academic year. He appealed to Purdue’s Vice President for Ethics and Compliance but to no avail. In response, he sued seeking injunctive relief under Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908) to remedy the 14th Amendment violation and for discriminating on the basis of sex contrary to Title IX. The magistrate judge dismissed the constitutional claim, holding that the Due Process Clause did not apply because the disciplinary proceedings had not deprived the claimant of either liberty or property, and the discriminatory claim, holding that the claimant had not alleged facts sufficient to show discrimination on the basis of sex (pp7-8).

The US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit first stated that:

“The Due Process Clause is not a general fairness guarantee; its protection kicks in only when a state actor deprives someone of “life, liberty, or property.” U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 1. The threshold question, then, is whether John lost a liberty or property interest when he was found guilty of sexual violence and punished” (p8).

The Court saw no ‘property interest’ in this case. However, it found that:

“John’s failure to establish a property interest does not doom his claim, however, because he also maintains that Purdue deprived him of a protected liberty interest: his freedom to pursue naval service, his occupation of choice. To succeed on this theory, John must satisfy the “stigma plus” test, which requires him to show that the state inflicted reputational damage accompanied by an alteration in legal status that deprived him of a right he previously held” (p11).

The ‘stigma plus’ test was satisfied in this case based on the argument that:

“Purdue inflicted reputational harm by wrongfully branding [the claimant] as a sex offender; that Purdue changed his legal status by suspending him, subjecting him to readmission requirements, and causing the loss of his Navy ROTC scholarship; and that these actions impaired his right to occupational liberty by making it virtually impossible for him to seek employment in his field of choice, the Navy” (p12).

Having recognised that Purdue University deprived the claimant of a liberty interest, the Court turned to the question of procedural fairness of the process that resulted in the claimant’s suspension:

“John’s circumstances entitled him to relatively formal procedures: he was suspended by a university rather than a high school, for sexual violence rather than academic failure, and for an academic year rather than a few days. Yet Purdue’s process fell short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension. “[D]ue process requires, in connection with a suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.” Goss, 419 U.S. at 581. John received notice of Jane’s allegations and denied them, but Purdue did not disclose its evidence to John. And withholding the evidence on which it relied in adjudicating his guilt was itself sufficient to render the process fundamentally unfair” (pp16-17).

Furthermore:

“Sermersheim and the Advisory Committee’s failure to make any attempt to examine Jane’s credibility is all the more troubling because John identified specific impeachment evidence. […] Sermersheim and the Advisory Committee may have concluded in the end that John’s impeachment evidence did not undercut Jane’s credibility. But their failure to even question Jane or John’s roommate to probe whether this evidence was reason to disbelieve Jane was fundamentally unfair to John” (p18)

At this point, the Court moved to examine the claim for discrimination under Title IX which provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial
assistance” (20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)). The Court immediately accepted that Title IX was applicable because Purdue University received federal funding and the claimant had been excluded from participation in an education program through suspension. The issue was whether there had been discrimination on the basis of sex (p24).

Based on the contents of the complaint, the Court found the following examples of bias against the claimant:

  • “Sermersheim chose to credit Jane’s account without hearing directly from her”;
  • “[Sermersheim’s] basis for believing Jane is perplexing, given that she never talked to Jane”;
  • “the majority of the panel members appeared to credit Jane based on her accusation alone, given that they took no other evidence into account”;
  • “[the majority of the panel members] made up their minds without reading the investigative report and before even talking to John”;
  • “[the majority of the panel members] refused to hear from John’s witnesses, including his male roommate who maintained that he was in the room at the time of he alleged assault and that Jane’s rendition of events was false” (pp28-29).

Consequently, according to the Court:

“It is plausible that Sermersheim and her advisors chose to believe Jane because she is a woman and to disbelieve John because he is a man. The plausibility of that inference is strengthened by a post that CARE put up on its Facebook page during the same month that John was disciplined: an article from The Washington Post titled “Alcohol isn’t the cause of campus sexual assault. Men are”.” (p28).

As a result, the Court found that “taken together, John’s allegations raise a plausible inference that he was denied an educational benefit on the basis of his sex.” Given the nature of review, the case was remanded back to the District Court for a full trial (p30).

The case of Doe v. Purdue University, No. 17-3565 (7th Cir. 2019) is significant for at least two reasons. First, it makes clear that Universities cannot use flawed process to punish students accused of sexual misconduct. Given the grave nature of such accusations and possible consequences if the accused is found guilty, Universities must adopt a fair model of proceedings. This ruling comes amid a wider discussion on what such proceedings should look like. In 2017, the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos withdrew old Obama Administration guidance on Title IX, which had been criticised as favouring alleged victims over accuser’s procedural rights, and proposed new rules requiring a fair process for both sides (Inside Higher Ed). Secondly, the case offers an insight into the type of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett would be. The ruling in Doe v. Purdue University, No. 17-3565 (7th Cir. 2019) confirms that she is likely to have a traditionally conservative view on many issues, including the frictions between the rights of the accused and of the accuser.

Justice Kavanaugh Joins SCOTUS

On the night of 6 – 7 October Judge Kavanaugh was officially confirmed by a 51-49 majority of the US Senate as a new Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was considered a swing vote, voted ‘present’ therefore opposing the candidacy. Another Republican swing vote, Susan Collins of Maine, aligned with a Republican majority after a forceful defence of Judge Kavanaugh on the Senate floor the day before. The Republicans also picked up one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia who is facing a tough re-election fight in his deeply red state. The vote comes after weeks of investigations and hearings concerning sexual misconduct allegations against Judge Kavanaugh put forward by 3 different women, among which was that of Dr Christine Blasey Ford, which was a subject of a special Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (summary of allegations: Business Insider UK). In the last days of the process, many Senators saw protesters roaming the Senate halls demonstrating both their support and opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This also included many examples of disorderly behaviour leading to hundreds protesters being arrested (The Guardian). The opposition to Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation was based on a whole range of arguments, from those related to his judicial record, through the non-disclosure of old communication records, to those concerning sexual misconduct allegations and his short temper. On the other hand, the Republicans complained that the Democrats were adamant to derail the confirmation process with malicious behaviour from the start and none of their arguments had any merits. At the end of the day, however, Judge Kavanaugh has been dully confirmed and will now join the other 8 Justices of the Supreme Court who have already returned to work from their summer break.

The appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is bound to create a reliable originalist majority for the first time in almost 80 years, i.e. since Justice Owen Roberts abandoned the originalist approach in the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937) thereby ending the so called Lochner era in the Court’s jurisprudence. Although since 1937 the Court has seen periods with a majority composed of Republican-appointed Justices, they have not been consistently originalist in their judicial philosophies. It was the appointment of Justice Scalia to the bench by President Reagan in 1986 that brought the originalist philosophy back from the exile to the mainstream. Since then, other originalists have been appointed to the Court, including Justice Thomas (1991), Chief Justice Roberts (2005), Justice Alito (2006), Justice Gorsuch (2017) and now Justice Kavanaugh. Although the originalism of Chief Justice Roberts is admittedly less rigorous than that of Justice Thomas, and in the incoming years he might be even moving more towards the centre, it seems that the current Court is bound to be concerned with the original meaning of the Constitution more than at any other point within the last 80 years.

These changes to the composition of the Supreme Court will have a profound impact on a whole range of cases which are likely to reach the Court in this term. Firstly, on the subject of the 2nd Amendment, the Court might be asked to decide what types of firearms are covered by the 2nd Amendment and whether the Amendment applies to all public spaces in addition to one’s home. In this respect there appears to be a circuit split between the 9th and the 7th Circuit Courts of Appeals (Peruta v. County of San Diego, 824 F.3d 919, 939 (2016) v Moore v Madigan (USDC 11-CV-405-WDS, 11-CV-03134; 7th Cir. 12-1269, 12-1788)). Secondly, on the never-ending issue of ObamaCare, the Court will likely be asked to resolve the question whether the ObamaCare’s Individual Mandate (and possibly other parts of the statute with it) has been rendered unconstitutional by The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017 which eliminated the tax/penalty for not complying with it. At this point, several Red States are suing claiming that the elimination of the tax has rendered the Individual Mandate unconstitutional as now, in the absence of any tax attached to it, it could only be construed as an exercise of the Congress’s power to regulate inter-state commerce which was already declared invalid by the US Supreme Court in its famous 2012 case (Texas Tribune). However, the lawsuit goes even further and claims that the Individual Mandate is inseverable from the rest of the law, or at least from its certain parts, such as the community rating, and if it is in fact struck down by the Court, it might drag other parts of the ObamaCare with it. Given that the Trump Administration decided not to defend the lawsuit, the case is now bound to proceed further up the ladder towards the Supreme Court (The Atlantic). Thirdly, the Court might be asked to rule whether the DACA programme (and its rescission via executive action) is constitutional. The Trump Administration announced in 2017 that it would rescind the DACA programme altogether as incompatible with federal immigration laws on the books. However, on 3 August 2018, a DC District Court ruled in the case of Trustees of Princeton University v United States (1:17-cv-02325-JDB) that the rescission of DACA was unlawful because the Administration did not supply the Court with any valid reason for its decision. Now an appeal in this case is expected by the Trump Administration. Fourthly, also on the immigration subject, the Court might be asked to finally resolve the question of the legality of the so called sanctuary cities. In 2017 the Department of Justice decided to withdraw funding from cities refusing to cooperate with the federal government in respect of immigration enforcement and in March 2018 it sued the State of California for its sanctuary policies. On the other hand, in return, two of California counties sued the Department of Justice claiming that such a withdrawal of funds was unconstitutional and persuaded a local District Court as well as the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to grant an injunction (The Washington Post). Fifthly, the Court is likely to be asked again to rule on the constitutionality of affirmative action as last decisions on this subject have been extremely closely decided with Justice Kennedy always casting the deciding vote. So far there is no case pending before any federal court concerning affirmative action, however, there have been some moves by the Trump Administration to limits its impact, such as reversing President Obama’s policy on affirmative action in schools (NY Times) or investigating the impact of affirmative action programmes at the Harvard University on the Asian-American minority admissions (CNN). Finally, the Court will most likely, again, deal with abortion. On 4 May 2018 the State of Iowa passed into law in the so called ‘heartbeat’ Act banning abortions as soon as fetal heartbeat could be detected, which usually happens around the sixth week into pregnancy, which now constitutes the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Immediately, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in the Polk County District Court for a declaration of unconstitutionality as well as an interim injunction against the law which was granted on 1 June 2018 (Des Moines Register). The case is now being considered on its merits but regardless of the Court’s decision, it is bound to be appealed and eventually end up before the Supreme Court. Overall, given the multitude of important issues which await consideration by the US Supreme Court, the new originalist majority of the Court might leave a unique legacy for decades to come.