In 2015 we saw a bit of judicial intervention in campus sexual assault disciplinary actions. However, in one of the first cases in 2016, in which a court was requested to take action relating to a campus sexual assault disciplinary proceeding, a United States District Court in Kentucky assumed the more traditional stance of deferring to institutional proceedings. In this case the court issued a decision dismissing (without prejudice) plaintiff’s request for an injunction enjoining the University of Kentucky (“UK”) from proceeding with a sexual misconduct disciplinary hearing. The court further granted UK’s Motion for Abstention.
The central issue in this case, Doe v. University of Kentucky et al, was whether the court would recognize plaintiff’s claims of constitutional violations by UK and grant injunctive relief in a matter arising from a disciplinary hearing brought against Doe by UK based on allegations of sexual misconduct. Doe filed his action and sought injunction relief after UK scheduled a third disciplinary hearing after the first two were overturned on appeal by Doe in accordance with UK’s disciplinary process. The basis of Doe’s action was there were constitutional due process and equal protection flaws in UK’s policies and procedures governing sexual misconduct disciplinary hearings.
Relying upon the doctrine of abstention established by Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) the court concluded that it was precluded from adjudicating the case. The abstention doctrine is one ” … that warrants against federal court interference with pending state judicial proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances” and should be invoked when there are state proceedings that are:
- currently pending;
- involve an important state interest; and
- will provide the federal plaintiff with an opportunity to raise his or her constitutional claims.
As to the first element, over plaintiff’s objection, the court found that the UK student disciplinary proceeding is a pending “state proceeding” covered by Younger in that it is ” … akin to a criminal prosecution and resembles the state enforcement action the Supreme Court has found appropriate for Younger abstention.”
The court also found that the second Younger element, whether the proceedings involves an important state interest, was met as UK has an immense and vital interest in eliminating sexual misconduct on its campus.
The court determined that the third element, whether Doe will have an opportunity to raise his constitutional challenges in the UK proceeding, was also met. This finding was grounded in UK’s policy that allows Doe to appeal any finding to an appeals board and present any constitutional challenges.
The court also found that there was not a basis to recognize an exception to Younger abstention (namely was the proceeding brought in bad faith or for the purpose of harassment, or the relied upon statute or policy is flagrantly unconstitutional). The court based this decision on the fact that Doe had not shown any evidence of bad faith or harassment and had merely made ” … bare assertions that the University is using Doe as an example.” The Court further noted that under federal law (Title IX) once UK received a complaint that Doe had engaged in sexual misconduct UK was required to initiate disciplinary proceedings. The constitutionally challenge also failed because UK’s Sexual Misconduct Policy did not fall within that narrow exception (that the policy as flagrantly and patently violative of express constitutional prohibitions in every clause, sentence and paragraph, and in whatever manner and against whomever an effort might be made to apply it).
Based upon Younger abstention the court dismissed Doe’s request for equitable relief without prejudice while using language that public institution’s should find heartening and memorable:
Younger abstention is a means by which the federal courts, as a matter of comity, refrain from acting so as not to “unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States … [u]nder our system of judicial federalism, it would be inappropriate for the Court to interfere with the University’s disciplinary system, and, therefore, the Court will dismiss Doe’s claims for equitable relief without prejudice.
Although a noteworthy case, it most likely is of limited value as most lawsuits about campus disciplinary systems are commenced after a disciplinary matter has come to a conclusion within an institution (not while they are still pending). However, counsel for public institutions and also counsel for students at public institutions need to be aware of this case and its potential rewards and challenges.
Thank you for reading this, let me know what you think!