Last week, the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York shot down Syracuse University’s attempt to dismiss the Complaint of “John Doe,” who sued the university for unfairly expelling him in 2017. This is a major victory for Allen Law LLC’s client, John Doe, who is represented by attorneys Michael Thad Allen of Allen Law LLC and Julie Burt of the Law Office of Julie E. Burt, LLC.
John Doe’s Title IX Claims and Contract Claims Will Go Forward
Judge Brenda Sannes, an Obama appointee, rejected Syracuse’s arguments that its policies and Student Code could not be enforced as contractual promises. John Doe also sued Syracuse under Title IX, arguing that the school had come to an erroneous outcome by expelling him after an unfair and biased University Conduct Board hearing, but Syracuse did not contest John Doe’s Title IX claims at the motion to dismiss phase.
John Doe argued that his campus court hearing was unfair and did not comply with Syracuse’s own policies. He was not even allowed to hear what his accuser said against him at the hearing, and Syracuse also refused to let him see a copy of her original complaint.
Universities must apply preponderance
The most important part of Judge Sannes’ decision concerns the preponderance of the evidence standard. Syracuse argued that its promise to apply the “preponderance of the evidence” standard is not “specific” enough and is too vague and general to be enforceable as a contract with students.
In New York, the policies, handbooks, and student codes published by the university are binding contracts with students. John Doe argued for the simple position that a university like Syracuse should be held accountable for not following its own rules.
The Judge rejected Syracuse’s argument and sided with John Doe. The promise to apply a preponderance of the evidence standard “is not, as the Syracuse Defendants argue, a non-actionable statement of general policy that students will be treated, for example, in a ‘fundamentally fair’ manner,” she wrote. Where a university applies “a result-driven determination,” it fails to apply the standard. Where its decisions are “result driven” rather than rationally based on the evidence – such as in this case, where the campus court refused to address contradictory versions of the accusing student’s account – the university is not applying “preponderance.” Instead, this cavalier approach to evidence simply favors one side over the other, regardless of what the evidence shows.
Colleges and universities, whether they disregard the rights of complainants or of the accused in disciplinary proceedings, all too frequently take a willy-nilly approach to evidence. In the rare instances when plaintiffs have the resources to sue them, universities defend themselves by arguing that they are entitled to weigh evidence however they wish, so long as they follow their procedures consistently.
In short, colleges and universities argue that it’s okay to have a kangaroo court so long as the kangaroos abide by university rules (although they don’t even do that often enough).
Judge Sannes’ opinion is an important warning: Universities can no longer take a haphazard, arbitrary approach to evidence and then hide behind formal procedures to justify any result they wish.
Judge Sannes’ opinion should be welcomed by victims’-rights advocates no less than by those who champion the rights of the accused. It is a clear signal to the so-called campus judiciaries that they must take evidence seriously.
There has been ferocious controversy over whether campus courts should apply “preponderance” or the stricter, “clear and convincing” evidence standard. Sometimes this debate overlooks a larger problem that Judge Sannes’ opinion addresses head on. All too frequently, campus bureaucrats do not even weigh the evidence at all. Changing the standard of evidence won’t matter if evidence isn’t even taken seriously.
It should not be controversial to want campus disciplinary decisions to be based on what the evidence shows. That should be what we all want for victims and for the accused alike.
Syracuse’s Failure to Follow Its Own Rules
Among other contractual policies, Syracuse promises to notify students of the charges filed against them, but it did not notify John Doe of the specific charges against him.
Syracuse promises students to issue no-contact orders in writing and expects both parties subject to them to have no contact with one another. In John Doe’s case, however, Syracuse issued a no contact order secretly, applying the order only to him but notifying only the complainant. It never told John Doe about it until he was notified that he had violated it.
Syracuse’s rules for disciplinary proceedings also promise to conclude campus court hearings within 60 days or provide a written explanation for the delay and its cause. But in John Doe’s case, Syracuse took almost twice that amount of time, delaying his expulsion until the last days of finals week in May 2017. Syracuse never explained why it took so long, causing John Doe to spend tuition on a yet another wasted semester before Syracuse threw him out and deprived him of his degree.
Syracuse’s Menagerie of Kangaroo Courts
John Doe’s lawsuit is one of nearly half a dozen brought against Syracuse. Each has inevitably involved the same investigators and hearing officers, coordinated by its Title IX Office directed by Sheila Johnson-Willis.
The conservative political organization Project Veritas has captured Defendant Sheila Johnson-Willis on film shredding the United States Constitution in response to a young woman posing as a student and claiming to be “triggered” by Constitutional rights. It is easy enough to dismiss Project Veritas as an organization out to score political points, but it is equally hard to imagine any circumstances under which a campus Title IX Coordinator in charge of adjudicating complaints among students could be justified in shredding the Bill of Rights. Syracuse later promoted Ms. Johnson-Willis.
Syracuse has demonstrated a determination to protect the same personnel taking the same arbitrary approach to evidence as it expells student after student. It is unsurprising that this has resulted in a steady stream of lawsuits against Syracuse, as students seek to protect their education and their rights with experienced higher education attorneys.