Legal Updates


A DUE PROCESS REMINDER

October 23, 2019

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (with jurisdiction over Wisconsin) recently found that Purdue University violated a student’s due process rights under the United States Constitution when it disciplined the student for alleged sexual violence. John Doe v. Purdue University, et al., No. 35-3565 (7th Cir. 2019).

John Doe and his alleged victim were both students in Purdue’s Navy ROTC program. They began dating in the fall of 2015, and had a consensual sexual relationship.

The alleged victim’s behavior became increasingly erratic over the course of their relationship and, ultimately, she attempted suicide in front of John Doe. John Doe reported her suicide attempt to two resident assistants and an advisor. The alleged victim became upset with John Doe for reporting her and the relationship came to an end.

For a period of time things were quiet between John Doe and the alleged victim. However, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April of 2016), the alleged victim reported that she had been sexually assaulted by John Doe while they were dating.

Purdue’s Dean of Students/Title IX Coordinator notified John Doe of the allegations against him and informed John Doe that Purdue had decided to investigate the alleged victim’s claims, even though she had not filed a formal complaint. Purdue ultimately found that John Doe was guilty of sexual violence, suspended him for one academic year, and imposed conditions on his readmission to the university. As a result, John Doe was also expelled from the Navy ROTC program, which terminated his ROTC scholarship. This effectively brought John Doe’s plan to pursue a career in the Navy to an end.

John Doe filed a lawsuit, claiming that Purdue and several university officials (1) violated the Due Process Clause by using constitutionally flawed procedures to determine his guilt and punishment; and (2) violated Title IX by imposing a punishment that reflected gender bias.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals began its analysis by considering the procedural due process that Purdue had afforded to John Doe. John Doe alleged that he was punished pursuant to a process that failed to satisfy even the minimum standards of fairness required by the Due Process Clause. Specifically, John Doe alleged the following deficiencies:

(1) He was not provided with the investigative report or any of the evidence on which the decision makers relied in determining his guilt and punishment, pursuant to then-applicable procedures (only by chance was he able to see a redacted version of the investigative report, which falsely indicated that he had confessed to the sexual violence);

(2) His alleged victim did not appear before the committee charged with determining his guilt and punishment;

(3) He had no opportunity to cross-examine the alleged victim,

(4) Neither Purdue’s Dean of Students/Title IX Coordinator nor the committee charged with determining John Doe’s guilt and punishment ever talked to the alleged victim in person;

(5) The alleged victim did not write the statement (much less a sworn statement) submitted to the committee charged with determining his guilt and punishment (the statement was written by the Director for the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education);

(6) Purdue’s Dean of Students/Title IX Coordinator was in charge of both the investigation (the individuals who conducted the initial investigation reported to her) and adjudication of the case (the committee charged with determining his guilt and punishment also reported to her);

(7) The committee charged with determining his guilt and punishment was biased against him (two members of the committee candidly said they did not read the investigative report and the one member who did asked John Doe accusatory questions that assumed his guilt); and

(8) The committee charged with determining his guilt and punishment refused to allow John Doe to present any evidence, including witnesses (neither character witnesses nor his roommate, who would have presented exculpatory evidence).

The Seventh Circuit initially concluded that John Doe could not prevail on his Due Process Clause claim simply because the procedures that were followed in his case were unfair, even if they were. The Court noted that “[t]he Due Process Clause is not a general fairness guarantee; its protection kicks in only when a state actor deprives someone of ‘life, liberty or property.” As a result, the Court concluded that it was necessary to first determine whether John Doe had a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest (such as a right to continue his education at Purdue) when he was charged with and ultimately found guilty of sexual violence.

The Court concluded that Purdue’s finding of guilt and the punishment imposed implicated a protected liberty interest because it impaired John Doe’s freedom to pursue naval science as his occupation of choice. Accordingly, the Court found that it was appropriate to determine whether Purdue used fundamentally unfair procedures to determine his guilt and punishment. In this regard, the Court found that Purdue was required to follow relatively formal procedures to provide John Doe with sufficient procedural due process. The Court also concluded that the process employed by Purdue to determine John Doe’s guilt was woefully deficient.

Although the issues in this case, in part, concern the due process rights afforded college students, the Seventh Circuit also noted that “[h]igh school students (and, for that matter, elementary school students) have a property interest in their public education because state law entitles them to receive one.” Therefore, public school district officials must account for due process issues whenever they consider disciplining a student up to, and including, terminating a student’s right to attend school through, for example, expulsion.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision as to Purdue and accompanying reminder that public school students have a property interest in their education highlights the importance of due process protections in the investigation and adjudication of student discipline matters. For example, public school district officials should give consideration to the fact that students may be entitled to one or more of the following:

(1) Sufficient separation between the fact finder(s) and individual(s) ultimately charged with determining guilt and punishment;

(2) The accused should be provided with notice of the allegations against him or her and afforded the opportunity to respond;

(3) The investigator(s) and individual(s) charged with determining guilt must hear from everyone who reasonably might be expected to have information that is relevant to the charges presented;

(4) The evidence must support the allegation(s); and

(5) The fact finder(s) and individual(s) ultimately charged with determining guilt and punishment must be free of bias.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author, Attorney Tony J. Renning (email: trenning@strangpatteson.com; telephone: 844.833.0823), or your Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, s.c., attorney.

 

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