A potentially groundbreaking Title IX ruling out of Tennessee has extended federal due process rights to students facing sexual misconduct accusations in private universities. While the development seems like a formality that is shocking only for the fact that it needs to happen, it has raised eyebrows in the legal field.
Rhodes College Football Player Expelled, Sues School
This particular Title IX case sounds like many other sexual misconduct allegations: The alleged victim attended a fraternity at Rhodes College with her date, who was a brother at the fraternity and a football player. While there, she drank heavily, used both marijuana and cocaine, and had to be helped out of the party.
Incoherent and incapacitated, she told the friends that picked her up that she had been raped.
News of the incident spread, and advocacy groups for sexual assault victims descended on the Rhodes College campus. Media coverage also contributed to pressure the school into expelling the accused student, who was in his last semester at the college.
The eventual Title IX hearing was rife with problems:
- The alleged victim's lawyer made veiled threats to sue the school if it did not rule against the accused student
- The alleged victim was not allowed to be cross-examined, and was not even present
- The Title IX coordinator presented new evidence without warning or notice during the hearing, and the accused student was not allowed to challenge it
- The hearing board only called witnesses that testified against the accused student
- The alleged victim claimed that one of her female friends set up the alleged rape, but the board never questioned that friend's role in the event
- The only person with direct knowledge of what happened – he had been alongside the alleged victim for nearly the entire party – was not called to testify by the board
Needless to say, the school found against the accused student and expelled him.
He subsequently filed a Title IX lawsuit of his own against the school, claiming that the lack of due process he was given had violated Title IX by discriminating against men.
He filed a motion to keep the school from expelling him while his lawsuit was pending.
Court Extends Due Process Responsibilities to Private Schools
In its ruling that forbade Rhodes College from expelling the accused student, the district court judge repeatedly made reference to a landmark Sixth Circuit case, Doe v. Baum, that required public institutions to take account of an accused student's due process right to cross-examine their accuser. However, while Baum was limited to public institutions, the Tennessee court extended its rule to private schools, as well.
Because the district court is the lowest tier in the federal judicial system, nothing changes for other pending cases. However, appealing a ruling and convincing the appellate court to actively overturn a district court's ruling is far more difficult than convincing it to passively confirm the outcome.
The importance of this ruling should not be understated, and we'll devote our next blog post to explaining why.