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Judge Says Basketball Star Dez Wells’ Suit Against Xavier U. Will Proceed

By March 13, 2014

As my colleague Susan Kruth reported last summer, college basketball star and current University of Maryland student Dez Wells sued Xavier University after it expelled him for sexual assault in spite of the local prosecutor’s public statements that the evidence did not support the accuser’s allegations. Wells’ complaint (PDF) alleged 11 counts, the majority of which have now survived Xavier’s motion to dismiss. Federal judge Arthur Spiegel issued an order (PDF) yesterday allowing the following claims to proceed against both Xavier and its president, Rev. Michael Graham: breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, four counts of libel, and negligence. In addition, Wells’ claims under Title IX for discrimination on the basis of sex and deliberate indifference will proceed against the university.

The underlying theory of Wells’ case is that Xavier used him as a scapegoat to prove to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that it was cracking down on sexual assault claims after OCR investigated the university for violations of Title IX in 2012. At this stage of the litigation, all Wells had to do was convince the judge that he had a plausible claim that Xavier expelled him to placate OCR. As Judge Spiegel put it:

The Court finds that taking all inferences in favor of Plaintiff, as it is required to do in its consideration of a motion to dismiss, Plaintiff’s erroneous outcome theory survives Defendants’ challenge. Plaintiff’s Complaint puts Defendants on adequate notice that he contends they have had a pattern of decision-making that has ultimately resulted in an alleged false outcome that he was guilty of rape. Whether Plaintiff can unearth adequate evidence to support such claim against further challenge remains to be seen. His Complaint, however, recounts Defendants having rushed to judgment, having failed to train UCB members, having ignored the Prosecutor, having denied Plaintiff counsel, and having denied Plaintiff witnesses. These actions came against Plaintiff, he contends, because he was a male accused of sexual assault.

The case will now move into the discovery phase, during which time Wells will seek the evidence he will need to prove Xavier’s liability. But according to Judge Spiegel, one thing is already clear:

[I]t appears to the Court that the UCB [University Conduct Board] here, a body well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault. Such conclusion is strongly bolstered by the fact that the County Prosecutor allegedly investigated, found nothing, and encouraged Defendant Father Graham to drop the matter.

FIRE has been arguing that university judiciaries are ill-equipped to handle such serious allegations for years, starting with the case of Caleb Warner. Warner was expelled from the University of North Dakota for sexual assault, a decision the school refused to reconsider after the police issued a warrant for his accuser’s arrest for filing a false police report. Warner’s expulsion was reversed only after FIRE’s intervention.

As any college administrator will tell you, school disciplinary hearings are not designed to be the strict equivalent of a criminal trial. But branding someone a rapist without the benefit of meaningful due process protections betrays the fundamental principles of justice. And because courts are often very deferential to internal school disciplinary procedures, when a sitting judge nevertheless publicly casts doubts on those internal procedures, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility that serious reform may be needed. If Wells’ case and the associated public scrutiny for college disciplinary hearings for sexual misconduct inspires positive changes by Xavier and others, then his contribution to collegiate life will extend far beyond the basketball court. FIRE will be watching his case closely.

Image: Gallagher Student Center, Xavier University - Flickr