A federal appeals court has ruled that a Purdue University student was potentially discriminated against during campus sexual assault proceedings against him, ruling that withholding evidence could have made the process “fundamentally unfair” and setting the stage for a trial.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the case involved a Purdue known only in court documents as John Doe who faced allegations from a former girlfriend. She said that she woke up with Doe touching her, something she told him to stop doing. She says that Doe later informed her that he had, at one point, touched her genitals while she was asleep.
Doe was reported in April 2016, and it didn’t take long for the proceedings to turn Kafkaesque.
Doe says that he denied the sexual assault allegations and turned over text messages that supported his case — namely, that she continued the romantic relationship long after the alleged attack. A report was sent to a three-person panel at Purdue, but Doe was denied access to the report until before his hearing.
A redacted copy was given to him by a representative of his campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, of which he was once a member. (He was suspended from the program during the Title IX sexual assault hearing and couldn’t enter any buildings where the accuser had classes.) However, he could only review the copy for a few minutes.
When he appeared before the panel, two members allegedly said they hadn’t read the report and one asked him questions that presupposed he was guilty. He also wasn’t allowed to present witnesses.
The suit also alleges that, since he had no access to the full version of the report, he had no way to defend himself. He was, unsurprisingly, found responsible for the assault and appealed the decision multiple times with no luck — hence the lawsuit.
Doe is claiming that Purdue’s process is prejudicial against men, a violation of both the 14th Amendment and Title IX. A lower court judge disagreed, dismissing the lawsuit.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously agreed that the case at least deserves to go to trial.
Writing for the court, potential Trump Supreme Court pick Judge Amy Coney Barrett said that withholding evidence from the accused — a common thing in campus sexual assault proceedings — was enough to make the proceedings “fundamentally unfair.”
“To satisfy the due process clause, a hearing must be a real one, not a sham or a pretense,” Barrett wrote.
“A … university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in favor in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, not withstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex,” she wrote.
The court also found it unnerving that Doe was not allowed to present any witnesses and that Katherine Sermersheim — the associate vice provost, dean of students and Title IX coordinator at Purdue — said that she found the accuser to be a credible witness when the panel hadn’t even talked to her.
Barrett wrote that “in a case that boiled down to a ‘he said/she said,’ it is particularly concerning that Sermersheim and the committee concluded that Jane was the more credible witness — in fact, that she was credible at all — without ever speaking to her in person. Indeed, they did not receive a statement written by Jane herself, much less a sworn statement. It is unclear, to say the least, how Sermersheim and the committee could have evaluated Jane’s credibility.
“Sermersheim and the Advisory Committee’s failure to make any attempt to examine Jane’s credibility is all the more troubling because John identified specific impeachment evidence. He said that Jane was depressed, had attempted suicide, and was angry at him for reporting the attempt,” the ruling continued.
“His roommate — with whom Sermersheim and the Advisory Committee refused to speak — maintained that he was present at the time of the alleged assault and that Jane’s rendition of events was false.
“And John insisted that Jane’s behavior after the alleged assault — including her texts, gifts, and continued romantic relationship with him — was inconsistent with her claim that he had committed sexual violence against her.”
“John sued the university and several of its officials, asserting two basic claims,” said the federal court. “First, he argued that they had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by using constitutionally flawed procedures to determine his guilt or innocence. Second, he argued that Purdue had violated Title IX by imposing a punishment infected by sex bias.
“A magistrate judge dismissed John’s suit on the ground that he had failed to state a claim under either theory. We disagree. John has adequately alleged violations of both the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX,” the court added.
“Purdue has carefully reviewed the court of appeals decision, which affirms in part and reverses in part the district court’s prior dismissal of John Doe’s complaint,” the school said in a statement.
“We understand and respect the appellate court’s decision, recognizing that it was bound by legal procedure to accept each of John Doe’s allegations as true. The university stands ready to now answer those allegations and looks forward to the opportunity to present its evidence.”
If what John Doe alleged about his treatment is true, good luck with that.
The since-rescinded Obama-era Title IX rules regarding campus rape allegations — which instituted the “preponderance of the evidence” standard for dealing with sexual assault cases — were bad enough. It’s even worse when a school makes a mockery of the proceedings. Inside Higher Ed noted that “[s]tudents accused of or found to have committed sexual assault have brought numerous lawsuits challenging the findings or the processes colleges used to judge them.”
If other schools have been running kangaroo courts like Purdue is alleged to have done, expect to see a whole lot more.
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