California Court Overturns Campus Sexual Assault Finding.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman recently issued a decision ordering University of California San Diego (UCSD) to set aside its findings and sanctions against a student who was disciplined for sexual assault.  This case has been the subject of a bit of “chatter” in the media.  Some people are asserting that this decision may represent a new front in defending male students from sexual assault allegations.  Other folks are asserting that this case is an outlier and is of no effect in relation to universities’ handling of sexual assault cases.

Neither side is entirely correct in their assessment of this case.  This case will be of limited national value as it was issued by a County of San Diego Superior Court and the basis of the review was applicable California law (not federal non-discrimination law and traditional contract based actions).  However, it is not fair to say that this case is an outlier.   What this case does appear to represent is a court’s willingness to overturn a disciplinary decision when there are compound facts that give an appearance that a university (whether public or private) has acted unfairly and in an arbitrary and capricious manner in arriving at its findings and sanctions.

In overturning UCSD’s decision and sanction, the court found that: (1) the hearing was unfair; and (2) there was a prejudicial abuse of discretion.

In determining that UCSD’s hearing was unfair the court found the following defects:

  • the university unfairly limited the sanctioned student’s right to cross-examine the primary witness against him (the female student who made the sexual assault allegation);
  • the female student’s placement behind a barrier during the hearing unfairly prevented the accused student from “confronting” the only witnesses against him, the female student who made the accusation (the court was troubled that she was not visible to the accused student);
  • UCSD’s failure to present as a witness an administrator who investigated the allegations and concluded in a report, that was relied upon in the hearing panel’s findings, that an assault had occurred (which denied the accused student of his right to confront the investigator or the summary conclusions reached in the investigator’s report that a sexual assault occurred); and
  • the panel appeared to improperly give weight to, and drew an adverse inference from, the accused student’s exercise of his right against self-incrimination at the hearing.

The court also determined that the evidence did not support the hearing panel’s finding that the accused student was responsible for committing sexual assault. The court used a standard of review under California law that gave deference to UCSD’s hearing panel. The standard used was whether there was relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the hearing panel’s decision, and that the court must uphold the decision and not assign its own weight to evidence where the inferences drawn from the evidence by the hearing panel are plausible.  Even using this deferential standard the court found that the substantial evidence at the hearing did not support the finding of non-consensual sexual activity.

The court arrived at this conclusion based on three items.  First, was the hearing panel’s reliance on an investigatory report without giving a meaningful opportunity for the accused student to challenge its contents (as was mentioned previously). Second, the female student’s own testimony at the hearing did not indicate that digital penetration occurred and her testimony did not indicate that she objected to the sexual contact. Third, the court found that the narrative of the sequence of events that day did not demonstrate non-consensual behavior.

Lastly, the court found that there was unfairness relating to the imposition of the penalty. The court was troubled by the fact that after the accused student appealed the finding and penalty UCSD increased the penalty without an explanation (this was actually done following two successive appeals).   Judge Pressman ruled that the increased sanctions were an abuse of discretion (the standard of review used) and even he went so far as to state that the increased sanctions were punitive towards the accused student for the mere fact that he appealed the decision of the hearing panel.

At this point in time it is not known if UCSD will appeal this court’s decision.  However, the court’s ruling gives the appearance that there are significant difficulties with how this case was handled by the UCSD administration and an appeal might prove unsuccessful.

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