A year ago, Urbana-based U.S. Judge Colin Bruce warned the University of Illinois about the sham nature of its student disciplinary proceedings. Now, a Chicago-based federal appeals court has issued a broadside exposing universities that embrace kangaroo-court tribunals to serious liability.
The unanimous decision came in the case of a former Purdue University student — identified only as John Doe — who was suspended from school for one year and stripped of his ROTC scholarship after a former girlfriend complained he groped her one evening while she slept.
A Purdue dean imposed the punishment because, she explained, John Doe was “not a credible witness,” while his alleged victim, Jane Doe, “is a credible witness.”
Writing for the court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett found the characterizations unpersuasive.
“It is particularly concerning that (the dean and members of the disciplinary panel) concluded that Jane was the more credible witness — in fact, that she was credible at all — without ever speaking to her in person. Indeed, they did not even receive a statement written by Jane herself, much less a sworn statement. It is unclear, to say the least, how (the dean and her associates) could have evaluated Jane’s credibility,” she wrote.
In addition to noting Purdue’s irregular disciplinary procedures, the three-judge panel said it was “plausible” that John Doe was a victim of sex discrimination because of institutional pressure to find male students accused of sexual improprieties to be guilty.
Joining Barrett in her 30-page decision were fellow Justices Amy St. Eve and Diane Sykes.
The dispute between John Doe and Jane Doe did not involve strangers. Indeed, the evidence showed they enjoyed an intimate relationship that began in the fall of 2015 and included “15 to 20” instances of consensual sexual intercourse.
Even though Jane Doe alleged that in November 2015, John Doe groped her while she slept, the two continued to date until January 2016. John Doe vehemently denied allegations of wrongdoing, pointing out that during the Christmas 2015 holidays, Jane Doe “texted him and talked to him,” “sent his family a package of homemade Christmas cookies” and “invited him to her room when they returned to school in January.”
John Doe’s lawsuit alleged that Purdue’s disciplinary procedures violated his constitutional rights and that Purdue violated federal Title IX protections against sex discrimination by “imposing a punishment infected by sex bias.”
John Doe lost at the trial-court level when a federal magistrate dismissed the case for “failing to state a claim,” meaning that he did not show thatthe university’s proceedings deprived him of “either liberty or property.”
Reversing the trial judge, the appeals court found that Purdue’s flawed disciplinary process “deprived (John Doe) of a protected liberty interest: his freedom to pursue naval service, his occupation of choice” by invoking fundamentally unfair procedures in the following ways:
— While giving John Doe notice of the complaint, it denied him access to the evidence against him.
— Two of the three panel members hearing his case acknowledged they had not read the investigative report, suggesting “they had decided John was guilty based on the accusation rather than the evidence.”
There was another stunning evidentiary lapse in addition to those practices.
As part of the disciplinary process, John Doe spoke to investigators who prepared a report that he was not allowed to see. In his interview, John Doe vehemently denied the accusations. Barrett noted that “to John’s disappointment,” he subsequently learned that the report prepared by the investigators “falsely claimed that he had confessed to Jane’s allegations.”
John Doe is seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief to clear his student disciplinary record.
The appeals court noted that “John may face problems of proof” and "the fact finder might not buy the inferences that he’s selling."
“But his claim should have made it past the pleading stage,” the court found.
Courts all across the country have issued rulings critical of university disciplinary procedures in cases like that of John Doe. The decisions are placing universities in danger of being hit with large money judgments if they do not take corrective action.
The case in which Bruce issued his warning to the UI also involved a male student charged with sexual improprieties involving a female student. In that dispute, the male met an intoxicated female at a bar in 2016 and took her back to his apartment, where they engaged in sexual intercourse. She subsequently claimed that she was too intoxicated to consent, while he said her actions were voluntary.
The male student was suspended from the UI for 2½ years.
Bruce dismissed the case because the male student — another John Doe — suffered no “property loss.” But he noted that the UI denied Doe a “meaningful opportunity to be heard” and urged it to “adopt a more fair and thorough procedure for handling sexual assault claims in the future.”