A federal appeals court ruled Friday that a student accused of sexual assault at Purdue University may have been discriminated against in the adjudication of his case -- another rebuke for an institution that was allegedly biased in its campus rape proceedings.
The panel of three judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously found that an anonymous student accused of groping and touching his ex-girlfriend without consent may have faced a biased investigation and hearing.
This opinion comes as rules around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal sex antidiscrimination law, are in flux. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in 2017 pulled Obama administration guidance around Title IX largely credited with providing protections for sexual assault survivors, but seen by advocates for accused students as giving them insufficient due process protections. The DeVos Education Department replaced them with new draft regulations unpopular among rape-prevention activists.
Students accused of or found to have committed sexual assault have brought numerous lawsuits challenging the findings or the processes colleges used to judge them, and the Purdue ruling is the latest in a series of findings siding with the accused. The Purdue ruling does not mean that the student, known as John Doe in court filings, will ultimately be successful in his lawsuit against Purdue, but it does clear the way for his case to be heard on the merits by a trial court.
Doe and his alleged victim, also anonymous in court records, dated in 2015. In November of that year, the female student woke up to Doe touching her over her clothes without her permission, which she told him was not acceptable. According to the female student, Doe confessed to her that he had touched her genitals while she was sleeping earlier that month.
The female student reported Doe for sexual assault in April 2016. The court opinion notes that the same month, the university’s department for supporting victims of sexual violence, the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education, posted a Washington Post article on Facebook with the headline “Alcohol isn’t the cause of campus sexual assault. Men are.”
Doe learned about the accusations against him from a letter from Katherine Sermersheim, the associate vice provost, dean of students and Title IX coordinator. He was suspended from the campus Reserve Officers' Training Corps program and barred from all buildings where the female student had classes.
He denied all the allegations against him and gave the investigators text messages that he believed disputed the female student’s account. The investigators sent a report of the alleged incidents to a panel of three people charged with making a decision in the case.
But Doe said he was not given a copy of this report before a hearing on his case, and was only provided a few minutes to review a redacted copy given to him by an ROTC representative.
Doe appeared before the three-person panel, but the female student did not, according to court filings. Two members of the group allegedly stated they had not read the report, and the third apparently asked questions of Doe that already presumed his guilt. Doe said he could not speak to any of the evidence against him in the report because he had not seen a full version.
Doe was found responsible for the alleged assault and was suspended for a year and required to complete training on sexual violence before being allowed back at Purdue. He appealed the decision multiple times and failed, and eventually sued, alleging that university was prejudicial against men. Doe, who intended to pursue a career in the U.S. Navy, also resigned from ROTC, which had a zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault.
Purdue did not respond to request for comment on the appeals court's ruling.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote in the opinion for the three judges that withholding evidence from Doe in the proceedings was enough to make the process “fundamentally unfair.”
“To satisfy the due process clause, a hearing must be a real one, not a sham or a pretense,” Barrett wrote, referencing the fact that two members of the panel had apparently not read the investigative report -- inferring that they had made a decision against Doe based on the accusation and not evidence.
The panel had also not allowed Doe to present any of his witnesses, or required Doe to be present at the hearing, which Barrett wrote was also biased. Barrett referenced that some institutions have made rulings in favor of sexual assault victims to avoid negative press.
“A … university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in favor in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, not withstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex,” Barrett wrote.