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Law School Case Brief

Doe v. Allee - 30 Cal. App. 5th 1036, 242 Cal. Rptr. 3d 109 (2019)

Rule:

When a student accused of sexual misconduct faces severe disciplinary sanctions, and the credibility of witnesses (whether the accusing student, other witnesses, or both) is central to the adjudication of the allegation, fundamental fairness requires, at a minimum, that the university provide a mechanism by which the accused may cross-examine those witnesses, directly or indirectly, at a hearing in which the witnesses appear in person or by other means (e.g., video conferencing) before a neutral adjudicator with the power independently to find facts and make credibility assessments. That factfinder cannot be a single individual with the divided and inconsistent roles.

Facts:

John Doe, formerly an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California (USC), appeals from the trial court's denial of his petition for writ of administrative mandate, by which Doe sought to set aside his expulsion. USC, a private university, expelled Doe after respondent Dr. Kegan Allee,, sued in her official capacity as Title IX investigator for USC, and, ultimately, Dr. Ainsley Carry, in his official capacity as USC's vice-provost for student affairs, found that Doe engaged in nonconsensual sex with another USC student, Jane Roe, in violation of the university's student conduct code.

Doe argues that he was denied a fair hearing because respondents (principally Dr. Allee) were biased, and because USC's student disciplinary procedure is fundamentally flawed, in that it provides no mechanism for a party accused of sexual misconduct to question witnesses before a neutral fact finder vested with power to make credibility determinations. While the appellate court concludes that Doe failed to meet his burden of proving the respondents were actually biased against him, the appellate court also concludes that USC's disciplinary procedure failed to provide a fair hearing; more specifically, holding that when a student accused of sexual misconduct faces severe disciplinary sanctions, and the credibility of witnesses (whether the accusing student, other witnesses, or both) is central to the adjudication of the allegation, fundamental fairness requires, at a minimum, that the university provide a mechanism by which the accused may cross-examine those witnesses, directly or indirectly, at a hearing in which the witnesses appear in person or by other means (such as means provided by technology like videoconferencing) before a neutral adjudicator with the power independently to find facts and make credibility assessments. USC's disciplinary review process failed to provide these protections and, as a result, denied Doe a fair hearing. Therefore, the court reversed the trial court's denial of Doe's petition.

Issue:

Did a private university's disciplinary procedure, which provided no mechanism for an accused to question witnesses before a neutral factfinder, deny the accused a fair hearing?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment and remanded with instructions. When a student accused of sexual misconduct faces severe disciplinary sanctions, and the credibility of witnesses (whether the accusing student, other witnesses, or both) is central to the adjudication of the allegation, fundamental fairness requires, at a minimum, that the university provide a mechanism by which the accused may cross-examine those witnesses, directly or indirectly, at a hearing in which the witnesses appear in person or by other means (e.g., videoconference) before a neutral adjudicator with the power to find facts and make credibility assessments independently. That fact finder cannot be a single individual with the divided and inconsistent roles. In the current case, the student did not have a fair hearing. The case turned on witness credibility, yet there was no in-person hearing, and the Title IX investigator, who had divided and inconsistent roles, exercised her unfettered discretion to chart the course and scope of the investigation and to determine credibility in questionable ways.

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