In Yu v. Vassar College, No. 13-CV-4373 (RA)(S.D.N.Y. 2015), Vassar College was granted Summary Judgment in an action brought by a male student expelled for sexual misconduct. The decision of the court provides an excellent analysis of the legal concepts encountered in these cases and highlights the difficulties that plaintiffs’ attorneys will have in challenging student conduct decisions by higher educational institutions. For these reasons, I have written a summary of this case. Additionally a link to the court’s decision is provided at the end of this summary.
Xiaolu “Peter” Yu, an undergraduate student at Vassar College, was expelled for violating Vassar’s sexual misconduct policy. He sued Vassar asserting gender discrimination under Title IX and various state law claims. Following completion of discovery Vassar College filed a Motion for Summary Judgment which was granted by the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Yu and the woman who asserted she had been sexually assaulted had differing versions of the events that resulted in Yu’s expulsion. Yu claimed the encounter was consensual and the Complainant was the initiator, whereas the Complainant claimed that Yu forced her to have sexual relations with him and that her ability to consent was severely impaired by alcohol that evening (Yu had also been drinking that evening).
In its decision granting Vassar’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the court vigorously examined the facts of the case (including the processing of the complaint through Vassar’s disciplinary procedures). The court (while recognizing that there has been an ongoing robust discussion about how colleges can best address the problem of sexual assault) stated that “[t]he Court’s role, of course, is neither to advocate for best practices of policies nor to retry disciplinary proceedings.” The court stated that its role was to determine whether Vassar College (1) discriminated against Yu on the basis of gender or (2) otherwise violated a provision of state law.
(1) Title IX Gender Claims.The court examined plaintiff’s Title IX claims in accordance with the two standards recognized by the Second Circuit in the context of university discipline: (A) claims of erroneous outcomes due to a flawed proceeding, and (B) claims of selective enforcement. The court further noted that in order to prevail under Title IX the plaintiff was required to demonstrate that gender bias was a motivating factor behind the erroneous outcome or the selective enforcement.
A. Erroneous Outcome. The court found that there was no material factual issue to support a finding that the disciplinary hearing was flawed that would have resulted in an erroneous outcome (or that any alleged flaws were due to gender bias). The court further opined that it was not its role (absent a flawed process and gender discrimination) to second guess the decision, credibility determinations and factual conclusions of Vassar’s hearing panel. Some of the court’s noteworthy findings on this issue were the following:
1. A private college is not subject to constitutional due process requirements, but it may not arbitrarily or capriciously dismiss a student;
2. The allegation that the hearing panel was not impartial was rebutted by the fact that conflicts checks were conducted prior to the hearing;
3. There is no authority for how much time must be given for a student to prepare for a hearing, citing a case that found that one day notice was not inadequate;
4. It is not a procedural flaw to require that questions be directed through the Chair of a hearing panel;
5. Title IX investigators are not prohibited from testifying at a disciplinary hearing;
6. Witnesses in a disciplinary hearing are not required to be placed under oath;
7. Lay witness opinions and observations about a person’s intoxication is permissible; and
8. A detailed written finding is not required to be provided as a part of the notice of the outcome of a hearing panel’s decision.
The court further found that there was no evidence that the outcome was the result of gender bias. No statements by institutional representatives/officials were presented that showed that the process was influenced by gender, and no information was presented that there was a pattern that “‘males invariably lose’ when charged with sexual misconduct at Vassar.” The significant findings of the court in making this determination were the following:
1. The court found that there was no gender bias by the hearing panel in its assessment of the information that was received as a part of the hearing process. In making this determination the court again indicated that it was not the court’s role to second guess the hearing panel’s determination of the weight and credibility of the information that it received, noting that it was the court’s role to consider whether the determinations was motivated by gender bias—which the court found was not the case.
2. Vassar’s policy towards incapacitation due to alcohol and its use of a reasonable person standard is gender neutral and thus does support a claim of gender discrimination;
3. Both parties were given the opportunity to make use of counseling services to provide assistance with the disciplinary process-thus gender bias was not present.
B. Selective Enforcement. To support a claim of selective enforcement under Title IX a claimant needs to demonstrate that the initiation of the process or the severity of the penalty was affected by gender and that a similarly situated women would not have been not have been subjected to the same treatment. The court found on various grounds that plaintiff was not able to identify any evidence that raised a triable issue to support his selective enforcement claims.
II. State Law Claims. Among the claims raised were breach of contract, deceptive business practices, estoppel and reliance, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. The court addressed each of these claims in a concise manner and found respectively that: (1) Vassar followed its procedures and did not breach its contract with plaintiff; (2) by following its disciplinary procedures Vassar did not engage in deceptive business acts; (3) the estoppel claim was also not triable as Vassar followed its procedures and did not treat men differently that women; (4). there was nothing extreme or outrageous about Vassar’s conduct that would support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (5) the negligence claim failed as a matter of law because New York does not recognize a cause of action for negligent prosecution.
The decision of the court is found here: http://cases.justia.com/federal/district-courts/new-york/nysdce/1:2013cv04373/413874/106/0.pdf?ts=1427923654