Wednesday, September 27, 2017
In its opinion in Doe v. University of Cincinnati, a Sixth Circuit panel affirmed a district judge's grant of a preliminary injunction against the university suspension of student John Doe. The university suspended graduate student John Doe after a finding of a sexual offense in a Title IX hearing at which the complaintant did not appear.
Using the well-established criteria for procedural due process claims, Judge Richard Griffin's relatively succinct opinion found that the risk of erroneous deprivation of Doe's acknowledged interest was great. Doe claimed that his inability to cross-examine the complaintant in a context in which the basic issue was one of credibility - - - a choice of believing Doe's assertion that the sex was consensual and Jane Roe's complaint that it was not consensual - - - was a fundamental flaw. The court agreed, even though the university had no ability to compel Jane Roe's appearance. The court also found the time lapse troubling: the university waited a month after the complaint to interview Jane Roe, four months after that to notify John Doe, and four months after that to hold the hearing.
The court did consider the potential for "emotional trauma" to Jane Roe, but concluded that when there is an issue of credibility, there must be a mutual test of credibility as part of the process "where the stakes are this high." The court did seek to qualify its rationale as not requiring John Doe be allowed to cross-examine Jane Roe during the hearing:
However, we emphasize that UC’s obligations here are narrow: it must provide a means for the ARC [the university’s Administrative Review Committee] panel to evaluate an alleged victim’s credibility, not for the accused to physically confront his accuser.
The University has procedures in place to accommodate this requirement. A month before the ARC hearing, Mitchell informed Doe and Roe that they could “participate via Skype . . . if they could not attend the hearing.” Doe did not object to Roe’s participation by Skype, and he does not object to this practice on appeal. To the contrary, the record suggests that he or one or more of the ARC panelists in fact appeared at the hearing via Skype. What matters for credibility purposes is the ARC panel’s ability to assess the demeanor of both the accused and his accuser. Indisputably, demeanor can be assessed by the trier of fact without physical presence, especially when facilitated by modern technology.
The court's opinion added that it was "sensitive" to the "competing concerns" of the case: the goal of reducing sexual assault is more than laudable, it is necessary; but the elimination of "basic procedural protections" may not be a "fair price" to achieve that goal.
These "competing concerns" are likewise the subject of debate as controversial Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos has acted to rescind the previous guidelines for educational institutions dealing with sexual assault based in part on the perceived "deprivation of rights" for accused students. While the new memo does not mandate cross-examination (unless it is provided to one party and then must be provided to both), no doubt the Sixth Circuit's opinion in Doe v. University of Cincinnati will be used to bolster Secretary de Vos's decision.