An unnamed Boston College alumnus and his parents got a judgment vacated by the First Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday that had previously granted summary judgment in favor of the University in regards to a lawsuit brought by the alumnus. The alumnus was originally suspended for three semesters over a sexual assault allegation while he was a student at the University, and the alumnus is seeking $3 million in damages and an expunged disciplinary record.
When the district court rendered the initial decision in summary judgment, that meant that a single judge could make the decision on the case based only on indisputable facts. If there is a factual dispute, that requires a jury trial. The appeals court ruled that this case is, in fact, a case based around disputed facts—here those facts surround the administration’s impact on the alumnus’s disciplinary hearing.
The lawsuit alleged a breach of contract in regards to how the alumnus, referred to as “John Doe” in court documents, was disciplined when he was accused of sexual assault while on a boat cruise sponsored by the AHANA+ Leadership Council (ALC) in 2012. The result of the vacated judgment is that a jury will hear the trial in District Court in early 2019, which would be the first jury trial over such an issue since the Obama administration reinterpreted Title IX doctrine in 2011 to give the federal government the authority to “dictate the specific procedures that colleges must use to adjudicate student-on-student sexual allegations.” Typically, jury trials have not taken place since most cases have been either dismissed or settled long before a case could reach the jury trial stage of this process—a stage that is difficult to reach in the first place.
The named defendants in the lawsuit are BC’s Board of Trustees, former Dean of Students Paul Chebator, former Executive Director for Planning and Staff Development Carole Hughes, Program Manager in the Office of Residential Life Catherine-Mary Rivera, former Executive Vice President Patrick Keating, and Vice President for Student Affairs Barb Jones.
Of the named administrators, only Jones and Hughes still work at BC. Hughes is now the senior associate dean for Student Affairs and director of graduate student life in the Office of Graduate Student Life.
The reason this issue requires a jury trial, ultimately, is that the facts in dispute between the two sides specifically relate to a conversation between the administrators about Doe’s disciplinary hearing: Doe believes that conversation was decisive, the University believes that contact was incidental to the decision, and the appeals court judges do not believe that the issue is so clear that it can be ruled upon in summary judgment.
According to previous Heights reporting, “In fall 2012, at the time of the incident, John Doe was a first-semester senior who was on the reporting staff of The Heights.” The alumnus was reporting on the ALC event for The Heights as a first-semester senior when he was accused of committing sexual assault. As he walked away from the incident, another student—referred to in court documents as “J.K.”—allegedly said “Sorry dude, that was my bad.” “John Doe” was then arrested and charged with sexual assault.
The case against “John Doe” was also a criminal one at one point. After video, DNA, and circumstantial evidence were taken into account, as well as a favorable polygraph test and J.K. exhibiting what previous Heights reporting calls “behavior demonstrating consciousness of guilt,” all charges were dropped.
The case also existed as a BC disciplinary proceeding, subject to the rules of the University and seperate from the criminal case. The Administrative Hearing Board, an entity made up of administrators and students that, although no longer utilized, was previously charged with hearing cases like this one, heard the case with both the accuser, identified by the court as “A.B.,” and Doe present. The lack of privacy involved in the hearing process is a specific reason why the University no longer utilizes the board as arbiter of discipline in these types of situations.
A.B. accused Doe of sexual assault, but Doe was found guilty of indecent assault, even though according to the record he was not informed that he could be found guilty of this charge. Emails released by the University to the plaintiffs showed that J.K. was used as a witness against Doe, denying Doe’s allegation that J.K. tacitly acknowledged the assault. In addition, J.K. “received immunity from the college,” and Hughes told the hearing panel to put J.K. “at ease,” according to an article published by K.C. Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College who chronicles Title IX litigation.
According to the decision written by First Circuit judge Juan R. Torruella, who presided over the case with Bruce M. Selya and William J. Kayatta, Jr., when deliberations on Doe’s fate began, the board had trouble coming to a decision and considered making a “no finding” determination. That means that neither an innocent or guilty verdict would be issued. When Rivera informed Hughes of this, Hughes reached out to Chebator, who said that although “no finding” determinations had been made in the past, “he ‘discourage[d] them.’”
In the end, Doe was found guilty of indecent assault, and his own appeal fell on deaf ears as well. It is noted in Torruella’s decision that upon Doe’s graduation in 2014, his parents brought the issue to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., who promised to review the incident. He passed that responsibility on—eventually a review was carried out by Jones, who decided there was not enough evidence for the case to be revisited despite the video evidence now available.
This led to the lawsuit being filed. $3 million in damages are being sought, but initially Doe had little success in court. District Court Judge Denise Casper, who will preside over the jury trial if it takes place next year, ruled that the video evidence was ambiguous, not exculpatory, and that BC did not “breach its contractual obligations,” according to Johnson’s article. She also stated that the discussions that occurred between Rivera, Hughes, and Chebator did not have an effect on the disciplinary decision.
On appeal, the University’s arguments did not hold up. Although the part of the original decision granting summary judgment in favor of BC in regards to Jones’s review and any gender bias were upheld, the judges presiding cited unfair process, the conversation between the three administrators, the way J.K.’s existence and immunity was handled, and the lack of privacy involved in the hearing in ruling that no summary judgment could be reached, sending the case back to district court for a jury trial.
Nora Field, BC’s deputy general counsel, sees the decision in a positive light.
“The University is pleased that the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the University on nearly every issue,” Field wrote in an emailed statement to The Heights. “While the Court found that there were two very narrow triable questions of fact, we are confident that a jury would find that there was no lack of fairness in the University’s disciplinary process or decision in this case.”
According to Johnson, this case is unique.
“There have been a couple hundred of these lawsuits all over the country since the policy change in 2011, but this is the first appeals court decision dealing with a breach of contract question,” Johnson said.
If the appeals court had ruled in BC’s favor, it would have set a precedent preventing any type of limitation in terms of how colleges can be regulated if they do not follow their own procedures, according to Johnson.
“The thrust of BC’s violations are that they did not follow its own rules and in particular that the deliberations weren’t done privately,” he said.
Johnson noted that this case is special because, in his opinion, “almost certainly [BC] got it wrong,” whereas other cases have been more vague and unclear in terms of what a verdict should be. If BC had won the case, it would have had wide-ranging ramifications.
“In some ways, a decision for the college here would have provided an opening … It would be hard to imagine what set of facts a college could not have survived,” Johnson said.
The fairness issue is also precedent-setting in the eyes of Johnson, since in the past fairness hasn’t been a convincing argument in these sorts of cases.
Update (6/13/18, 11:32 a.m.): This story has been updated to include BC Deputy General Counsel Nora Field’s statement. At the time this article was originally published, University officials could not be reached for comment.
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor