College Sexual Misconduct and Civil Liability

Civil Liability of the Accused Student

Civil liability is the obligation of one party to pay damages to another party. The sexual-misconduct civil liability that an accused student may owe to the accuser would be what the law calls tort liability, which is simply liability for a wrong that harms another. The specific tort that a student committing sexual misconduct commits depends on the acts. A sexual assault or knowingly infecting another with a sexually transmitted disease could create battery liability. Voyeurism, posting sexual images in retaliation (revenge porn), and sexual blackmail could create invasion of privacy liability. Telling damaging sexual falsehoods about another could create defamation liability. Outrageous sexual misconduct causing severe distress could create civil liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. College sexual misconduct can lead to these and possibly other tort liabilities, requiring the student committing misconduct to pay money damages to the victim student.

Civil Liability of the Accuser Student

Civil liability can go both ways, though. When a student falsely accuses another student of college sexual misconduct, then the false accuser may owe tort liability to the falsely accused. The specific tort that a student falsely accusing another student of sexual misconduct commits would ordinarily be defamation liability. Oral (spoken) defamation the law also calls slander. Written (electronic or print) defamation the law also calls libel. A false accuser who acts outrageously, causing severe distress to the falsely accused, could create civil liability for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A false accuser could end up paying money damages to the falsely accused student.

Civil Liability of the School

Colleges and universities can also face civil liability relating to college sexual misconduct, either to the accuser (victim) student or to the falsely accused student. These claims are more complex, involving statutory and constitutional law, and government immunity. Without going into the details, victim students may have claims that the school deliberately disregarded sexual assault or other sex discrimination against them, acted with gross negligence, and violated their constitutional rights. Students whom another student falsely accuses may claim that the school failed to provide them with due process to prove those allegations false. Falsely accused students may also have defamation and other tort or constitutional claims. In short, the law can hold both accuser and accused, and even the school, civilly liable for wrongs committed before or during a college sexual misconduct proceeding.

Administrative Proceedings

What process, though, determines those civil liabilities? Colleges and universities charge the violation of their sexual-misconduct policies in school administrative procedures. Those administrative proceedings determine the accused student's future at the school, not the civil liability of any party to any other party. The outcomes may be nothing, or may be anything from a reprimand to counseling, loss of privileges, suspension, expulsion, and degree withholding or revocation. College and university administrative proceedings do not directly determine the civil liability of the accused student to the accuser, or for that matter of a false accuser to an innocent accused or of a school to an accuser or accused. The question in sexual-misconduct administrative proceedings is the accused student's ability to persist in the degree program and, if able, the terms or conditions that the proceeding may impose.

Civil Liability in Court

State and federal courts, not college and university administrative proceedings, determine parties' civil liability to one another. A victim student may sue, likely in state rather than federal court, a student who commits sexual misconduct against the victim, to win a civil judgment for the wrongdoer to pay the victim money. Likewise, a student whom another falsely accused of having committed college sexual misconduct may sue the false accuser in state court, to win a civil judgment for the false accuser to pay the innocent student money. Collecting money judgments from students can be difficult or impossible, making those lawsuits less likely. Insurance does not generally cover sexual misconduct. But lawsuits either way are possible. Students suing their college or university tend to do so in federal court because of the constitutional rights and federal statutory claims involved.

The Effect of Administrative Proceedings

A charge, rather than a finding, of college sexual misconduct generally has no effect on civil liability in court. A charge involves an allegation of misconduct, not the allegation's proof. A college or university administrative charge of misconduct would likely not even be admissible in court.

However, an administrative finding of college sexual misconduct could, depending on the administrative procedures and the court forum's law, determine whether the defendant in the court proceeding owes civil liability. The law of what lawyers call claim preclusion varies from state to state. Recent scholarship nonetheless confirms that courts tend to apply a flexible standard for whether an administrative decision determines the litigation outcome in court. That standard looks at factors including whether the school acted in a judicial capacity, adjudicating student rights in a trial-like manner, and giving the student a full and fair opportunity to participate.

Thus, if accuser and accused contest college sexual misconduct in a full and formal administrative hearing, where the school permits each side to call witnesses and cross-examine witnesses on the other side, then the results of that formal, trial-like administrative proceeding could potentially bind accuser and accused in a later court proceeding for civil liability. The law of claim preclusion varies and is more complex than just indicated. But the point is that an accused student should not take a formal administrative proceeding lightly. Not only could that student's educational future be at stake, but the student could also face resulting civil liability in a later court proceeding. That court proceeding would still need to determine the prevailing party's damages, which administrative proceedings do not determine. But the administrative result could potentially determine whether the accuser or accused can get damages at all.

Retain Premier Representation

The principle to draw from the above information is that if you face college sexual misconduct charges in an administrative proceeding, then you should be putting your best defense forward in that proceeding rather than risking civil liability later. And to do so, to put on your best administrative case, you need the representation of national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm. Attorney Lento's expert skills, extraordinary commitment, and strategic knowledge gained from many years of representing students nationwide, mean that you can trust attorney Lento with your defense of college sexual misconduct charges. Retain attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm today by calling 888.535.3686 or going online.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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