More on SUNY-New Paltz Case Before the Second Circuit

July 8, 2009

Late last month, we reported on Holmes v. Poskanzer, et al., a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in which two SUNY-New Paltz students argue on appeal that New Paltz administrators should not enjoy qualified immunity against the student-plaintiffs’ claims of due process violations and retaliation for engaging in protected speech.

After the conclusion of oral arguments in late June, one of the studentsJustin Holmes, who with co-plaintiff Richard Partington III presented the case pro se before the Second Circuit panelcontacted FIRE to clarify the scope of their appeal. In my blog entry, I had classified the issue before the Second Circuit as primarily concerning whether the SUNY-New Paltz administrators named as defendants should enjoy qualified immunity with regard to the district court’s finding that denial of counsel during the student-plaintiffs’ university disciplinary hearingwhile parallel criminal charges stemming from the same incident were pendingconstituted a violation of due process. The district court found that the law regarding the presence of counsel during disciplinary hearings was “far from clearly established,” thus holding that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. However, as Holmes and Partington point out, their brief before the Second Circuit makes additional claims, arguing, among other things, that the lower court failed to properly acknowledge many of their factual allegations when it conducted its legal analysis.

Holmes and Partington argue that the district court committed reversible error by failing to properly weigh their allegations that SUNY-New Paltz administrators acted outside the scope of their official duties in seeking to retaliate against the students for their previous campus activism. (As student activists and elected members of student government, Holmes and Partington were outspoken advocates for various policy reforms, including greater transparency in administrative decision-making.) Specifically, the students argue that the lower court failed to properly consider their allegations that SUNY-New Paltz administrators, among other actions, retaliated against them for their campus activism by “spreading a number of false and highly disparaging comments about plaintiffs” during the election campaign and, as alleged by other faculty, at “secret breakfast meetings” with faculty.

Holmes and Partington further contend that some of the administrators named as defendants deviated from established SUNY-New Paltz policy in several ways throughout the hearing processfor instance, by speaking with outside parties during the deliberations, not following official procedures, and failing to involve a student member of the hearing panel in the processand they believe that the district court did not sufficiently address these allegations in its due process analysis. Because of these and other alleged oversights, and because of the fact that the district court dismissed their claims instead of granting Holmes and Partington an opportunity to amend their complaint, the students conclude that the Second Circuit should overturn the dismissal of their claims and remand their case back to the district court for further proceedings.

Readers interested in a closer look at the case are encouraged to check out WikiPaltz’s coverage, which includes detailed documentation of the initial incident sparking the university disciplinary hearing and criminal proceedings. Holmes’ personal account of his experience arguing before the Second Circuit panel is also compelling reading.

Of course, we’ll keep you posted.

Schools:  State University of New York – New Paltz