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Due process legal update: UC Santa Barbara found in contempt of court

In a remarkable step, a judge in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court has found the University of California, Santa Barbara in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court decision regarding the rights of an accused student in a campus sexual misconduct proceeding.

In December 2017, Judge Donna Geck of the Santa Barbara County Superior Court ordered UCSB to reinstate a student whom it had expelled for allegedly stalking his ex-girlfriend and directed the university to reconsider the student’s appeal.

UCSB expelled the student, identified in court proceedings as John Doe, after a university investigator found it was more likely than not that Doe had followed his ex-girlfriend on campus, directed a third party to send her threatening text messages and phone calls, and arranged to attend a formal at her sorority for the purpose of disturbing her and her boyfriend.

As is all too common in these cases, UCSB rendered its decision without granting Doe a hearing or an opportunity to confront his accuser. Instead, UCSB’s investigator, Brian Quillen, interviewed the parties and a number of witnesses separately before issuing a report finding Doe responsible.

Doe appealed the decision, and was, at that point, given an appeal hearing at which he and other witnesses testified and evidence was presented. However, in upholding the investigator’s decision, the appeals board considered “only the evidence in the Title IX investigator report,” and did not consider the evidence presented at the appeal hearing, as required by UCSB policy.

Finding that UCSB had not complied with its own policies, Judge Geck ordered UCSB to reinstate Doe and to reconsider his appeal using not only the investigator’s report, but all the evidence presented at the appeal hearing.

In February 2018, the appeals panel convened again to reconsider its decision in Doe’s case. The panel once again rejected Doe’s appeal and dismissed him from the university. The revised appeal decision included introductory language stating that the panel had now considered all the evidence from the appeal hearing. But the actual decision itself was “identical in every respect to the original Appeal Decision,” according to an August 2018 court order finding UCSB in contempt of the court’s December 2017 ruling. According to the court, the new language indicated “that the panel did not genuinely reconsider the case, but simply added language that would make the original decision look like a truly reconsidered decision.”

This time around, Judge Geck made clear that she did not trust the appeals panel to once again reconsider Doe’s case, since that panel “does not appear to be inclined” to “independently review the evidence” and make its own decision. As a result, she ordered UCSB to vacate entirely the finding of responsibility against Doe and to re-admit him as a student effective Fall 2018.

If UCSB wishes to pursue the stalking charges against Doe, she held,

[I]t must select an [appeals] panel that consists of no members of the [appeals] panel that issued decisions in February 2017 and February 2018, or any other University administrator involved with John Doe’s case. A new [appeals] panel must conduct an entirely new proceeding and may not rely on the record before the prior panel.

This case is a perfect illustration of why due process is so critical not only for accused students, but also for victims. More than a year and a half after the university’s initial decision to expel Doe, he is still on campus — not because of any shortcomings in his accuser’s complaint, but because the university has repeatedly failed to afford him the procedural protections necessary to ensure a fair and reliable outcome. All parties benefit when findings of responsibility are obtained only after a thorough and trustworthy process.

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