An appeals court rules in favor of the accused, says college officials appeared to violate “basic fairness.”
Disgraced X- Senator Al Franken
Boston College suspended a male student for a year after he allegedly reached his hand up a girl’s skirt at a dance. The student claims not just that he didn’t do it but that another male student admitted his guilt.
The suspended student, “John Doe,” highlighted that argument in a lawsuit filed against the college. Doe achieved a partial victory in court on Friday, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated a lower court’s ruling against Doe. His claim that the college violated his contractual rights, as well as basic fairness, should proceed, according to Circuit Judge Juan Torruella.
That decision makes sense, given Boston College’s egregious handling of the matter. Not only did the school ignore Doe’s evidence that he was not responsible and that another man had committed the assault, but a dean actively encouraged reluctant adjudicators who were considering a “no finding” verdict to rule against Doe anyway.
It has taken years to litigate the case, which stems from an incident on October 20, 2012. Doe was moving across the dance floor of a cruise ship when a female student, “A.B.,” screamed at him and accused him of sticking a hand up her dress and inserting two fingers into her anus. Security took Doe into custody and handed him over to the police after the ship docked.
Doe claims that A.B. had simply identified the wrong person. Another man was walking right in front of Doe; according to Doe, this man, “J.K.,” turned to Doe after A.B. confronted him and said, “Sorry, dude, that was my bad.” The following day, J.K. texted Doe’s friends to inquire whether he had gotten into trouble.
A swab of Doe’s hands failed to produce forensic evidence that he had assaulted A.B., and he eventually produced video surveillance footage that led the prosecutor to drop the criminal case. But Boston College’s sexual misconduct investigation—conducted under the auspices of the Title IX, the federal statute interpreted by federal Education Department officials to require such procedures—was another matter.
Sexual misconduct charges against Doe were adjudicated by a committee of Boston College professors, administrators, and students. J.K. was forced to answer questions at the hearing, but college officials assured him that he wasn’t under suspicion. He denied having admitted any responsibility, and the adjudicators never reviewed the text messages.
At the time of the hearing, the police had not yet obtained the results of the forensics examination. Doe asked the college to delay taking any action until the forensic report was released, arguing that this was important evidence that would exonerate him. College officials rejected this request and pressed on.
Then something remarkable happened: One member of the adjudicating committee told an associate dean of students, Carole Hughes, that they were having trouble reaching a decision and were considering a “no finding” determination—i.e., that there simply wasn’t sufficient evidence to find Doe responsible. Hughes informed the dean of students, Paul Chebator, and Chebator “discouraged” the adjudicators from taking this course of action.
Doe was ultimately found responsible for indecent assault and battery and suspended for one year. He appealed the finding but was rejected. He returned to Boston College a year later and eventually graduated. After the criminal case collapsed, Doe implored Boston College to revisit the matter. But the administration determined that “the new evidence…an enhanced analysis of the surveillance video from the ship, the results of the forensic tests, and the results of a polygraph test—did not justify reconsideration of Doe’s case.”
The court disagreed. In his ruling, Torruella specifically cited the dean’s decision to influence the adjudicators and officials’ favorable treatment of J.K. as grounds for Doe’s lawsuit to proceed. These aspects of the case violated “the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealings imposed on every contract by Massachusetts law,” according to the court.
The decision was not a total victory for Doe. The judges rejected his claim that Boston College’s Title IX procedures discriminate against men, saying that this was mere conjecture on his part. They also declined to hold the Department of Education itself accountable for encouraging colleges to adopt sexual misconduct policies that violate due process rights.
Now the case will return to the lower court, which will rule on the basic fairness and breach-of-contract claims. Doe is seeking $3 million in damages.