Campus Due Process Litigation Tracker

Doe v. DiStefano, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 76268 (D. Colo. May 7, 2018)

School type: Public
State: Colorado
Federal Circuit: Tenth
Decision primarily favorable to: Student
Stage of litigation: Motion to dismiss
Keywords: Due process

University’s motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part.

Plaintiff was expelled from the University of Colorado at Boulder in August 2014 over findings that he had sexually assaulted two female students on separate occasions. Plaintiff sued the university for violation of his due process rights and demanded that it purge an adverse notation from his transcript.

The university received complaints that Plaintiff had raped two female students (“Jane Doe 1” and “Jane Doe 2”) and suspended him immediately without an investigation, before assigning the investigative duties to Alexandra Tracy-Ramirez. After interviewing the female students and 10 witnesses, Tracy-Ramirez concluded that Plaintiff had sexual intercourse with one female student when she was intoxicated, and that he forced himself on the other. The university permanently expelled Plaintiff and placed a notation on his transcript stating that he had violated the university’s sexual misconduct policies.

When analyzing constitutional due process questions, a court must follow two steps: “the first asks whether there exists a liberty or property interest which has been interfered with by the State; the second examines whether the procedures attendant upon that deprivation were constitutionally sufficient.” Ky. Dep’t of Corr. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454 (1989).

There was no challenge to Plaintiff’s claim that he had a property interest in his continued public education, but the court held that Plaintiff’s claim that he had “a protected liberty interest in his good name, reputation, honor and integrity” was not supported by case law. The court therefore dismissed Plaintiff’s claims to the extent that they were based on a liberty interest in his reputation, but allowed them to proceed on the property interest claim.

The court rejected the university’s argument that “a public entity’s failure to follow its own policies . . . cannot state a procedural due process violation,” since it “would essentially mean that public institutions could escape procedural due process liability so long as their stated procedures meet the due process standard, regardless of whether the institution actually follows those procedures.”

Plaintiff also alleged that the university violated his due process rights by placing the burden on him to prove his innocence. The court recognized that the locus of the burden of proof is “normally not an issue of federal constitutional moment” outside of the criminal context, but held that it could be evidence of bias, and that bias could constitute a due process violation: “Plaintiff’s accusations, taken together, create a plausible inference of bias against those accused of sexual misconduct.”