University’s motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part.
In one of the most significant rulings about basic fairness at private university, a Massachusetts federal judge allowed a student’s breach of contract claims to move forward against Brandeis University. The ruling spoke not only to the specific facts of the Plaintiff’s case, but also to the broader importance of fundamental fairness in campus sexual misconduct proceedings. For this reason, the opinion is of great significance to advocates for campus due process.
In this case, Plaintiff was disciplined for sexual misconduct after his ex-boyfriend accused him of having had “numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions” with him over the course of their nearly two-year relationship. Brandeis found him responsible for sexual misconduct for, among other things, having awoken his then-boyfriend up by kissing him while he was asleep, as well as for staring at his body while the two were using a communal bathroom. Plaintiff alleged that the process by which he was found guilty was a “secret, inquisitorial” process in which he had no opportunity to confront his accuser or the witnesses against him, and in which he did not even learn the specific factual bases for the charges against him until after he had been found responsible.
In considering Plaintiff’s complaint, Judge Dennis Saylor held that the court must look not only at the specific contractual promises that Brandeis made to its students, but also at “whether it provided ‘basic fairness’ to the student.” On this point, Judge Saylor found Brandeis’ process to be lacking:
[Plaintiff] was charged with serious offenses that carry the potential for substantial public condemnation and disgrace. He was required to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense. He was ultimately found “responsible,” and received a penalty that may permanently scar his life and career. Under the circumstances, the complaint plausibly alleges that the procedures employed by Brandeis did not provide him with the “basic fairness” to which he was entitled.
Judge Saylor took a particularly dim view of Brandeis’ use of a single-investigator system to resolve complaints of sexual misconduct:
The dangers of combining in a single individual the power to investigate, prosecute, and convict, with little effective power of review, are obvious. No matter how well-intentioned, such a person may have preconceptions and biases, may make mistakes, and may reach premature conclusions.
Significantly, the opinion also addressed the broader issue of how campuses should handle claims of sexual misconduct, emphasizing that the goal of securing justice for victims cannot justify denials of due process:
Brandeis appears to have substantially impaired, if not eliminated, an accused student’s right to a fair and impartial process. And it is not enough simply to say that such changes are appropriate because victims of sexual assault have not always achieved justice in the past. Whether someone is a “victim” is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning. Each case must be decided on its own merits, according to its own facts. If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.