After Ruling, Select Due Process Claims to Proceed in Student Lawsuit Against University, Administrators

July 31, 2015

Many students who believe they were denied due process in campus sexual assault proceedings have turned to the courts, alleging that they were deprived of critical rights and, often, that they were victims of sex discrimination in violation of Title IX. On the whole, those cases have been an uphill battle for plaintiffs, although a recent decision in a case involving the University of California, San Diego took a very robust view of public university students’ due process rights, potentially improving the legal landscape for future plaintiffs. Meanwhile, others proceed.

One of the cases currently working its way through the courts is Tanyi v. Appalachian State University, currently before the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. On July 22, the federal judge hearing that case ruled on the university’s motion to dismiss, partially granting and partially denying that motion. The decision in Tanyi is remarkable in several ways, both with regard to the claims it dismisses and those it allows to survive.

The Tanyi case stems from a September 2011 group sexual encounter between former Appalachian State University football player Lanston Tanyi, his roommate, and a female student identified in the pleadings only as “Student A.” Tanyi and his roommate claim the encounter was consensual; Student A claims it was not. Shortly after that encounter, another female student—”Student B”—came forward to allege that Tanyi was one of several “big and black” student athletes who raped her in April 2011. According to Tanyi’s complaint, he “had no idea who she was.”

On September 23, 2011, Tanyi learned he was being charged by the university with various forms of sexual misconduct stemming from the claims of both Student A and Student B. His first hearing, on Student A’s allegations, took place on October 18, 2011. At that hearing, Tanyi and his roommate were tried together. The university assigned them a philosophy graduate student as their advisor; Student A was assigned a licensed attorney. They were found responsible and Tanyi was suspended for eight semesters.

Tanyi immediately appealed on the grounds that he was entitled to a separate hearing from his roommate, who—unlike Tanyi—had a prior disciplinary record at the university. The university granted his request for a new, separate hearing, at which he was later found not responsible and allowed to return to campus.

The university held a hearing on Student B’s allegations, at which Tanyi was also exonerated. However, after a Facebook post by Student A alleging that the university was attempting to protect its football players from rape allegations garnered significant media attention, Student B appealed the university’s ruling and the university granted her a new hearing. The night before the second hearing, Tanyi learned that Student B was adding an allegation that he had harassed her in the weeks leading up to her appeal. At the second hearing, Tanyi was again exonerated of the sexual assault charges, but was found responsible on the new harassment charge. On the basis of that finding, he was banned from playing football for App State. Although he finished out his college football career at Colorado State University, Tanyi alleges he was also denied an opportunity to play for the NFL because the Carolina Panthers rescinded an invitation to their training camp after learning of “conduct” issues in his background, which, according to him, could only be the rape allegations.

Tanyi’s complaint alleges the university deprived him of his constitutionally protected due process rights and discriminated against him on the basis of his race and, in violation of Title IX, on the basis of his gender.

The court dismissed Tanyi’s Title IX sex discrimination claim, suggesting that such claims continue to be an ineffective way for accused students to obtain recourse from the courts. As legal observer Alison Frankel noted in an April article for Reuters, both strict pleading standards and the fact that “Title IX (as it has been interpreted by courts) does not permit plaintiffs to establish discrimination by showing that policies have a ‘disparate impact’ on certain groups” have meant that Title IX claims have thus far proven to be non-starters for accused students seeking legal recourse for allegedly flawed hearings. The court also dismissed Tanyi’s claim of racial discrimination.

With regard to Tanyi’s due process claims, the court stated in no uncertain terms that public university students have constitutionally protected due process rights that universities must take into account. The court noted that “students at public universities maintain protected property interests in their continued enrollment” and, significantly, that “[s]tudents facing school discipline also possess a liberty interest in their reputations.”

In ruling on Tanyi’s individual due process claims, the court set a high bar for what actually constitutes a due process violation in the university setting. In particular, the court dismissed a number of Tanyi’s specific due process claims, holding:

  • The fact that Tanyi’s advisor was a philosophy graduate student while Student A had a licensed attorney did not violate his due process rights, since no “intricate knowledge of the law or extensive legal training” was necessary to represent him in a campus proceeding.
  • The joint hearing with his roommate, who had a prior disciplinary record, was not prejudicial enough to violate his due process rights.
  • The fact that one of the members of Tanyi’s hearing panel had previously found against his roommate in a prior proceeding was not prejudicial enough to violate his due process rights.
  • Disclosure of exculpatory witnesses is not required in student proceedings.

The court did find, however, that several of the university’s actions were egregious enough for Tanyi’s due process claims to survive the university’s motion to dismiss—which means that, in the court’s estimation, Tanyi had alleged a plausible claim for relief.

First, the court held that the university had not offered a legitimate reason for re-opening Student B’s case. In defense of its actions, the university cited the Office for Civil Rights’ 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter, which requires that if a university allows accused students to appeal its decisions in Title IX cases, it must allow accusers to appeal as well. Importantly, the court rejected the university’s justification, holding:

The right to appeal is not equivalent to the right to a new hearing, however. In civil proceedings, although “the trial judge must be allowed wide discretion in granting a new trial,” new trials should only be ordered “if the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence…or substantial errors occurred during the proceedings.” Thus, a clearly articulated substantive basis must exist for granting a new trial. Otherwise, as Tanyi argues, ASU could simply order a new misconduct trial whenever the university did not prevail— which is exactly what is alleged here.

[Internal citations omitted.]

Because the university “failed to articulate a legitimate reason for re-hearing Student B’s rape allegations,” the court allowed Tanyi’s procedural due process claim to move forward on that ground.

The court also allowed Tanyi to proceed with a substantive due process claim stemming from the university’s decision to re-open Student B’s case—a decision Tanyi claims was made solely because of the bad press the university received surrounding the rape allegations. Taking Tanyi’s claims as true (as a court must for the purposes of deciding a motion to dismiss), the university’s decision was “arbitrary” and “motivated by bad faith.”

The court also held that Tanyi received inadequate notice of Student B’s new harassment claim against him, holding that “[t]he essence of due process is the opportunity to be heard ‘at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner.’”

In addition to naming the university in his lawsuit, Tanyi also individually named three Appalachian State University administrators. Ordinarily, government officials acting in their official capacities are entitled to “qualified immunity” against personal liability so long as their actions do not violate “clearly established” law of which a reasonable person in the official’s position would be aware. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). The court held, however, that several of Tanyi’s claims against the individual App State administrators—those concerning the inadequate notice of the harassment charge and the re-opening of Student B’s case—did potentially implicate clearly established constitutional rights and, thus, could not be dismissed at this stage on grounds of qualified immunity.

While this decision is hardly a resounding victory for due process rights on campus, it is a positive decision in several regards. The court’s affirmation of not only a student’s property interest in continuing university enrollment but also a student’s liberty interest in his or her reputation is helpful in framing the argument that the harm caused to a student by a finding of responsibility in a sexual misconduct case—even, perhaps, one that does not result in expulsion—is very real. And while the dismissal of some of the plaintiff’s claims is disappointing (we would have liked to see, for example, a more thorough investigation of the school’s alleged failure to disclose exculpatory evidence), it is significant that several of these claims have been allowed to proceed to the next stage of litigation. Finally, the court’s refusal to dismiss some of the claims on qualified immunity grounds is critical, as it puts public university administrators on continued notice that they may face personal liability for depriving a student of his or her due process rights.

We will keep you apprised of developments in this case as it proceeds.

Schools:  Appalachian State University