Parker Hall at the University of Buffalo (Credit: Davidhar / Wikicommons)

New York court chastises University at Buffalo in ruling for student in due process case

By July 12, 2018

On July 6, a New York court ruled that the State University of New York at Buffalo violated the due process rights of a student found responsible for misconduct by the school. The decision criticizes UB’s failure to afford due process rights and reminds universities of the importance of ensuring fundamental fairness in their disciplinary proceedings.

The case involves an undergraduate student at UB, Tyrone Hill, who was found responsible for harassment and for possessing a weapon. According to Hill, he was receiving a ride home from his UB football teammate, Zachary Lefebvre, when a group of freshman football players taunted Lefebvre, prompting Lefebvre to get out of his truck to approach them. During this time, a UB student called the police about a man with Lefebvre’s features holding a gun in a truck. The police report describes the driver exiting the truck and pointing a gun at the group, causing them to run off.

The police identified Lefebvre as the suspect, who allegedly denied the charges by claiming Hill had brandished the gun. The police then searched Lefebvre’s pickup truck, found an Airsoft gun, and charged him for possessing a gun on school grounds. They questioned Hill about his involvement, who told them he did not see a gun during the altercation. The police declined to charge Hill.

A UB administrator then summoned Hill to a meeting about the incident. The administration confronted Hill about Lefebvre’s accusation that Hill had the gun and the police report, where he reiterated that he did not see a gun. Despite the police declining to charge Hill, the school found him responsible for harassing the players by brandishing a gun at them and possessing a weapon on school grounds, resulting in a two-year suspension. After UB denied his appeal, Hill filed suit against the university in New York state court.

In his complaint, Hill lays out a litany of due process defects with UB’s hearing process. Hill alleges UB did not notify him of the charges prior to meeting with administrators, refused to provide the full names of witnesses, disallowed cross-examination, and prohibited the active assistance of counsel during his hearing. Additionally, Hill accuses UB of neglecting to transcribe the hearing and preventing him from accessing evidence reviewed by the appellate panel. All of this, he alleged, hindered his ability to present a meaningful defense to the allegations and resulted in an erroneous determination.

In a terse opinion, the Supreme Court of the State of New York found for Hill, stating that the “record is devoid of any evidence, much less substantial evidence, to support respondent’s determination.” Further, the court ordered UB to annul its ruling and expunge Hill’s record — a remedy necessitated by the UB’s disregard of his due process right, since “it would be anomalous if respondent was afforded a new opportunity to establish petitioner’s culpability based on its own procedural error in failing to transcribe the initial hearing.” The court concluded with a note about due process in higher education.

Finally, we are compelled to express our dismay at respondent’s cavalier attitude toward petitioner’s due process rights in this case, and we remind respondent—and all other colleges and universities, particularly state-affiliated institutions—of their unwavering obligation to conduct student disciplinary proceedings in a manner that comports with fundamental notions of due process for the accused, that renders determinations consistent with the facts, and that respects the presumption of innocence to which all students are entitled.

This decision serves as a reminder that due process is an essential component to any fair system of adjudication. The right to notice, the opportunity to be heard, and the presumption of innocence are designed to elicit truth and achieve correct outcomes in campus tribunals, where a student’s substantial time and financial commitments to their education hangs in the balance. When universities disregard these rights, their determinations lose a great deal of credibility. That’s one reason why rudimentary due process protections are constitutionally required at all public universities.

We are glad to see the court hold UB to its constitutional obligations. We hope this ruling encourages universities to ensure fundamental fairness in their campus tribunals by affording due process rights to students accused of misconduct.

Schools: State University Of New York – University at Buffalo