Federal Judge Finds Former College President Personally Liable in Student-Conduct Case

September 7, 2010

A former public-university president who unilaterally dismissed a student may be held personally liable for legal damages, a federal court in Atlanta ruled last week.

The case involves Ronald M. Zaccari, a former president of Valdosta State University, and T. Hayden Barnes, who, as a sophomore in the spring of 2007, had protested plans to build parking garages on the campus by, among other things, posting fliers and a collage that referred to a "memorial parking deck." That May, Mr. Zaccari informed Mr. Barnes in a letter that he presented a "clear and present danger" and had been administratively withdrawn from Valdosta State.

Mr. Barnes appealed to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and in early 2008, as the process stalled, he sued in federal court. A few days later, the regents overturned his expulsion, but Mr. Barnes pursued the lawsuit with support from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

"It was no longer about getting Hayden back in school," said Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for the group, "but rather righting the clear wrong that had been committed against him."

On Friday a federal judge said that Mr. Zaccari, who discounted the opinions of counselors and fellow administrators that Mr. Barnes was not a threat, violated his due-process rights. Courts generally expect public universities to give students some type of notice and afford them a hearing before taking any disciplinary action.

Mr. Zaccari also disregarded advice from university lawyers about those requirements, wrote Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. "The undisputed facts show that Zaccari ignored the lawyers’ warnings that withdrawing Barnes would require due process."

By violating "clearly established" law, the judge said, Mr. Zaccari is not protected under the sovereign immunity constitutionally granted to state institutions.

The ruling also found the regents liable for breach of contract, because the university did not follow policies and procedures in its student handbook, which the judge determined to be a binding agreement between students and the board. Courts differ on the legal standing of such documents, but Judge Pannell was clear: "The VSU Student Handbook provided to Barnes upon enrollment constituted a valid, written contract."

The case will now proceed to a damages phase, as the court determines how much, if anything, Mr. Barnes is owed.

The Georgia system declined to comment on pending litigation. And a lawyer representing Mr. Barnes, Robert Corn-Revere, declined to discuss the damages his client would request. Mr. Barnes never returned to Valdosta State but graduated from Kennesaw State University and is now enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

FIRE, meanwhile, declared it had won a victory against the authoritative whims of administrators everywhere. "There might be a sense in a small state school," Mr. Creeley said, "that you can run the place like a fiefdom without fear of consequence."

Using the Label ‘Threat’

Mr. Barnes was dismissed from Valdosta State a few weeks after the shootings at Virginia Tech. At that time, university judicial systems were already becoming less legalistic, and students’ due-process rights were eroding, said Gary Pavela, a lawyer who frequently consults with colleges. Changes in policy and perspective after the tragedy at Virginia Tech have further jeopardized students’ rights, he said.

"It’s a great temptation to seize upon the fears that arose out of Virginia Tech and apply the label of ‘threat’ or ‘perceived threat,’ and then use it to get rid of people who bother us," said Mr. Pavela. "We are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves in thinking we can dispense with due process."

At Valdosta State, Mr. Zaccari had discussed Mr. Barnes’s actions with staff members who typically compose a threat-assessment team: a counselor, a police officer, a lawyer, and student-affairs administrators.

Decisions about how to proceed when a student’s conduct has raised concern are inevitably tricky, said Allen W. Groves, dean of students at the University of Virginia, who is also a lawyer.

"Obviously you’re always trying to see where the line falls," Mr. Groves said. Even when a student is perceived as a threat, "those due-process rights don’t go away," he said. "There has to be some opportunity to be heard."

Several lawyers characterized the Valdosta State case as the tale of an outlier president, as well as a reminder to follow due-process procedures. One saw it as a victory for midlevel staff members, like the ones who had recommended against dismissing Mr. Barnes.

"A dominant administrator can too easily ram something through," said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. "Let the people who know what they’re doing do their job."

Schools: Valdosta State University Cases: Valdosta State University: Student Expelled for Peacefully Protesting Parking Garages