Doe v. University of Connecticut, No. 3:20-cv-092. Temporary restraining order granted January 23, 2020. Hearing on preliminary injunction continued to February 19th.
That procedural due process must be accorded when the state acts to limit constitutionally protected interests seems to be second nature in our conceptions of fundamental fairness, yet it was only a half century ago, a millisecond in the slow emergence and refinement of legal principles, that the centrality of such promises was articulated in Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1975). And since Matthews was decided, there has been ongoing development of principles that will breathe life into its meaning. If it is not enough that due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard, but to be heard in a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner, the contours of the process that must be provided continue to evolve.
Recently a federal district court in Connecticut ordered the state university to reinstate a student suspended based on allegations of sexual assault where the court observed that the university’s process failed to permit the student to present witness testimony tending to negate the accuser’s credibility and failed to permit the submission of questions to the accuser. These deprivations in themselves so distorted the proceedings that relief from the university’s decision was in order.
Doe had been months from graduation when he was accused of sexual assault. Initially the university expelled him, then revised its determination to a two year suspension, subsequent to which the school agreed to consider, but not guarantee, an application for readmission without consideration of credit earned elsewhere.
The court did not decide whether students facing discipline have confrontational rights that include cross examination, an issue of controversy within the federal courts, but focused instead on the school’s failure to permit the submission of some questions to the accuser and the presentation of witness statements helpful to Doe.
The court observed that the potentially catastrophic losses which would follow delay or preclusion of Doe’s education, as well as losses of economic and reputational interests, outweighed the university’s interest in student discipline on these facts. In light of the irreparable nature of the potential losses to Doe, the extraordinary measure of temporary mandatory injunctive relief was substantiated.
While the interests of Doe’s accuser were not insignificant, the court noted, they would not preclude ordering temporary relief, particularly where Doe and the accuser had encountered each other subsequent to the alleged assault without incident.
A full hearing on injunctive relief having been scheduled, the parties have represented to the court that settlement discussions have been undertaken in earnest.
This case is one among several that have within recent months caused federal courts to question the sufficiency of educational institutions’ responses to allegations of sexual assault. Financial pressure has been applied to compel schools’ compliance with federal laws demanding sexual parity. While such measures require close institutional attention to allegations of sexual assault, lest federal financial support be lost, some courts appear to be unwilling to permit an accused’s constitutional interests to be sacrificed in service of financial concerns.