Investigating Sexual Assault Claims - Even Private Colleges Are Vulnerable

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A recent Tennessee federal jury case involving a private university reminds the academy of the critical need to balance fairly the interests of the accused and accuser in investigating sexual assault cases. While private colleges and universities are not strictly obligated to follow the 14th Amendment due process restraints as are their public counterparts, their procedures must nonetheless be fair, balanced, and evenly applied. If not, the school can be liable, not just in contract for failing to follow its own rules (whatever they may be), but also in tort if actions taken are not reasonable and cause harm. On this basis, an institution can find itself both remediating a procedural failing and paying unlimited damages for emotional distress and similar non-contractual harms.

The recent case is John Doe v. University of the South, where a federal jury found in favor of a student who alleged that his reputation was damaged in the course of the university’s investigation of rape allegations against him. Although the amount awarded by the jury was only a fraction of the millions of dollars the student originally claimed, the court nonetheless held the school liable under a negligence (personal injury) standard. Doe arose out of an allegation by a female student that John Doe sexually assaulted her on August 30, 2008. The female student complained to the local police department which, in turn, notified the university’s administration. On September 16, 2008, the student made a formal charge of sexual assault against Doe under the university's procedures. Two days later, on September 18, 2008, the dean of students notified Doe that he had been accused of sexual assault and that he was obligated to appear before the university’s Discipline Committee the following day. That committee met as noticed and, after just a few hours, concluded that Doe was guilty as charged. The university presented him with two options: (1) a one semester suspension with the sexual assault on his record, or (2) withdraw from the university for two semesters and no accompanying record. Either way, Doe would be forced to re-apply and be approved by the university’s Admission Committee, if he wanted to continue his studies there. Doe ultimately chose not to reapply to the university and the student who accused Doe left the school for drug and alcohol treatment and did not pursue criminal charges.

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