Friday, June 30, 2023

Conn Supreme Court Allows Defamation Suit by Defendant in Yale Sexual Assault Case to Go Forward Citing Lack of Procedures in Title IX Hearing

Aaron Keller, Conn. Justices Nix Absolute Immunity In Yale Hearings, Law360

In a stinging high court indictment of Yale University's internal sexual misconduct hearings, the Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday unanimously held that the elite college's proceedings are not quasi-judicial in nature and that absolute immunity does not immediately protect an accuser from an accused student's defamation and tortious interference claims.

Answering several certified questions from the Second Circuit, Connecticut's highest state court said a lower form of privilege, qualified immunity, does apply to the private college's internal hearings. However, the accused student who challenged those proceedings, Saifullah Khan, defeated that lower immunity and should have survived a federal district court judge's dismissal of his claims against his accuser, according to the opinion.***

The opinion reopens a path for Khan, who was acquitted of criminal sexual assault charges, to pursue claims against his accuser, the college and its administrators.

"We are mindful of these concerns and sensitive to the need to encourage alleged victims of sexual assault to report their abuse to the appropriate authority at any institution of higher education, free from fear of intimidation and retribution," [Judge] Mullins wrote.

But the court also said investigations without "adequate procedural safeguards" can lead to unfair outcomes, noting a "competing public policy that those accused of crimes, especially as serious a crime as sexual assault, are entitled to fundamental fairness before being labeled a sexual predator."

Aaron Keller, Conn Court Ruling May Force Colleges to Rethink Title IX Hearings, Law360

A Connecticut Supreme Court opinion critical of a Yale University sexual misconduct proceeding will likely cause colleges to scramble to examine whether criminal-law-style adversarial processes should be added to Title IX hearings where they typically don't appear and arguably don't belong, several experts told Law360.

The Connecticut Supreme Court's opinion, issued Friday, held that a student accused of sexual assault, Saifullah Khan, could pursue a defamation lawsuit in Connecticut federal court because the underlying Yale proceeding was not quasi-judicial. The state Supreme Court, answering certified questions from the Second Circuit, said absolute immunity did not apply to Yale's proceeding due to its lack of procedural safeguards. ***

Anne M. Coughlin, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said the Connecticut high court's opinion will "be studied and cited by every university in the country." "It was just astonishing to me," she said. "The very thing the court singles out as flaws … are the very reforms that people wanted to put in place in order to encourage women to report in the university setting."

Coughlin suggested that some colleges might even "panic" to check their Title IX procedures and send them "back to the drawing board" in light of the decision.

Stanford Law School professor Michele Dauber called the decision "terrible." "This court, comprised of five men and just two women, will chill reporting of campus sexual assault in Connecticut and perhaps beyond," she said. "Around the country, students alleging assault are being terrorized by the very real fear that they can be sued for defamation when they make a report of sexual assault to their colleges," Dauber said. "Title IX procedures are already humiliating and grueling for complainants. Now, thanks to this decision, reporting can result in a complainant being dragged through years of litigation by their accused perpetrator."***

Nancy Chi Cantalupo, an associate dean and professor at Wayne State University Law School who was the primary drafter of American Bar Association recommendations for improving student misconduct hearings, said social science research suggests the opposite of what the Connecticut Supreme Court found necessary.

"Adversarial proceedings do not result in better fact-finding in these cases," she said. "This assumption that adversarial proceedings are more fundamentally fair — I don't think those are borne out by the research. It's an indication that the court is relying on platitudes that have been unquestioned in the legal system for centuries." She said the presumption favoring cross-examination is rooted in "stereotypes about victims lying."***

Tracy A. Thomas, the Seiberling chair of constitutional law at the University of Akron School of Law, agreed that the opinion might spur colleges to treat sexual misconduct hearings like adjudications.

Some schools may struggle, she said, because many perceive their educational mission as one of guidance and mentorship, not of retribution and punishment. The opinion is "really going to hold the process to a higher standard, more like a judicial standard," she said.

Thomas said the Connecticut decision was "probably the right decision," but she, like many others, feared that it may open the door for unscrupulous defendants or their surrogates to abuse cross-examination techniques.

But getting the process right in the eyes of the courts will protect accusers, she noted. "It actually helps victims," she said. "A good process is good for everybody. It would have helped more facts come out." [And, according to the CT Supreme Court, a quasi-judicial proceeding would have immunized the victim against a defamation claim].

Courts, Education, Violence Against Women | Permalink


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