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Court Feels "Compelled to Express ... Dismay at [SUNY Buffalo's] Cavalier Attitude Toward Petitioner's Due Process Rights"

"We remind respondent -- and all other colleges and universities, particularly state-affiliated institutions -- of their unwavering obligation to conduct student disciplinary proceedings in a manner that comports with fundamental notions of due process for the accused, that renders determinations consistent with the facts, and that respects the presumption of innocence to which all students are entitled."

The opinion in Hill v. SUNY Buffalo, decided a week ago by a New York appellate court:

Petitioner, an undergraduate student at respondent State University of New York at Buffalo, commenced ... [this] proceeding to annul respondent[ SUNY Buffalo's] determination that he possessed weapons and engaged in harassment. Respondent sanctioned petitioner with 50 hours of community service, two years of disciplinary probation, and exclusion from on-campus housing. We agree with petitioner that the record is devoid of any evidence, much less substantial evidence, to support respondent's determination. Instead, respondent's determination rests exclusively on a "seriously controverted" hearsay statement, and that does not, as a matter of law, constitute substantial evidence. We therefore annul the determination, grant the petition, and direct respondent to expunge all references to this matter from petitioner's school record.

We decline respondent's invitation to remit this matter for a new hearing in light of its failure to transcribe the disciplinary hearing. Annulment and expungement is the prescribed remedy for an administrative determination that is unsupported by substantial evidence, and it would be anomalous if respondent was afforded a new opportunity to establish petitioner's culpability based on its own procedural error in failing to transcribe the initial hearing.

Finally, we are compelled to express our dismay at respondent's cavalier attitude toward petitioner's due process rights in this case, and we remind respondent -- and all other colleges and universities, particularly state-affiliated institutions -- of their unwavering obligation to conduct student disciplinary proceedings in a manner that comports with fundamental notions of due process for the accused, that renders determinations consistent with the facts, and that respects the presumption of innocence to which all students are entitled.

Zach Greenberg (FIRE) has the details:

The case involves an undergraduate student at UB, Tyrone Hill, who was found responsible for harassment and for possessing a weapon. According to Hill, he was receiving a ride home from his UB football teammate, Zachary Lefebvre, when a group of freshman football players taunted Lefebvre, prompting Lefebvre to get out of his truck to approach them. During this time, a UB student called the police about a man with Lefebvre's features holding a gun in a truck. The police report describes the driver exiting the truck and pointing a gun at the group, causing them to run off.

The police identified Lefebvre as the suspect, who allegedly denied the charges by claiming Hill had brandished the gun. The police then searched Lefebvre's pickup truck, found an Airsoft gun, and charged him for possessing a gun on school grounds. They questioned Hill about his involvement, who told them he did not see a gun during the altercation. The police declined to charge Hill.

A UB administrator then summoned Hill to a meeting about the incident. The administration confronted Hill about Lefebvre's accusation that Hill had the gun and the police report, where he reiterated that he did not see a gun. Despite the police declining to charge Hill, the school found him responsible for harassing the players by brandishing a gun at them and possessing a weapon on school grounds, resulting in a two-year suspension. After UB denied his appeal, Hill filed suit against the university in New York state court.

In his complaint, Hill lays out a litany of due process defects with UB's hearing process. Hill alleges UB did not notify him of the charges prior to meeting with administrators, refused to provide the full names of witnesses, disallowed cross-examination, and prohibited the active assistance of counsel during his hearing. Additionally, Hill accuses UB of neglecting to transcribe the hearing and preventing him from accessing evidence reviewed by the appellate panel. All of this, he alleged, hindered his ability to present a meaningful defense to the allegations and resulted in an erroneous determination.

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  • jdgalt1||

    Do we know what legal reasons the judge had for his findings? Because it would be great if he has set a precedent that can be relied on nationwide, but somehow I'd be surprised if he has.

  • great Unknown||

    It's called "due process", it's in the Constitution, and I don't recall a single final ruling, in any state, that is contrary to this decision. But it certainly takes away the "ignorance" defense in NYS if educational institutions claim qualified immunity.

  • Rigelsen||

    Some courts have accepted the defense argument (on the part of the colleges/universities) that suspension and even expulsion are just administrative matters and not actual takings and thus students need not be afforded meaningful due process. Fortunately, the worm seems to be turning.

  • ||

    Which might be a legitimate argument if each credit stands on its own. For example, if you purchase a prepaid meal plan (like from Blue Apron) with 100 meals for $500, if, after 50 of the meals, the company decides it doesn't want to do business with you, it could refund you $250 and you haven't really been harmed. But since college credits are basically worthless without the degree, a school really screws over a student if it punishes him like this. Especially when you consider that it'll make it very difficult to get into a new school.

  • AmosArch||

    Good thing he wasn't accused of annoying a female in anyway this time, like pinching their rear end. Then he'd really be screwed.

  • Longtobefree||

    Meaningful defense? Why would the school allow a meaningful defense? He might get off.

  • BillyG||

    Schools need to remember The Trial by Franz Kafka is not a How-To guide for conducting themselves.

  • Eddy||

    And the university couldn't rely on the real-world justice system because...

  • great Unknown||

    ...truth is a white male patriarchal construct.

    What did I win?

  • Eddy||

    Win? What's with that white-supremacist individualism? You mean "obtained through the work of the Collective."

  • Eugene Volokh||

    Eddy: I share some of the skepticism about university disciplinary systems; but I'm not sure that "rely[ing] on the real-world justice system" is quite the right solution.

    Say that you're running a company, and someone says one of your employees threatened a coworker (or a customer) at gunpoint. The police investigate, and declined to charge the person -- perhaps because they and the prosecutor concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Better that ten guilty people go free," they tell you, "than that one innocent person go to prison; and we think that there's only an 80% chance, not, say, a 95% chance, that this person is guilty." (I'm not saying that's true in this particular case, but I take it you're talking more broadly about how institutions should deal with such charges.)

    Would you say, "I rely on the real-world justice system, so I'm not going to fire or even suspend this person, because there's not enough evidence to prove the case against him beyond a reasonable doubt. Better that ten dangerous employees stay on the job, than that one innocent employee be wrongly disciplined"? Or, if not, why do you think the university context is so sharply different from the employment context?

  • Soronel Haetir||

    A business is a vastly different situation than a public school. A public school (university or otherwise) should be bound by all the restrictions that come with any government action. If that is too confining then perhaps governments shouldn't be in the business of running such schools.

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    "Better that ten guilty people go free," they tell you, "than that one innocent person go to prison; and we think that there's only an 80% chance, not, say, a 95% chance, that this person is guilty."

    Bad analogy. If I own the company, they might tell me that there's a 5% chance the the person is guilty, and I might choose to fire the person. We certainly don't want to allocate government benefits like that.

    And schools are completely botching this, as should be expected. At the university of Cincinnati, a woman accused a man of rape. Then his friend accused her of rape. The woman wasn't allowed to argue that her allegation was motive for her accuser to lie.

    And at Indiana University they apparently have signs in the restrooms that say, "drunk consent is not consent." Women who get drunk and choose to consent then file complaints with the university, and are shocked when the complaints get dismissed.

  • Eddy||

    In principle, I wouldn't rely solely on the outside justice system to deal with personnel issues and the like.

    I wouldn't question the wisdom of having the campus "judiciary" deal with low-grade vandalism, public drunkenness, and so on, even though these things could in theory be offloaded onto the criminal justice system.

    My issue is with the reliability of the campus justice system, I suppose mainly in sexual assault cases but major cases in general.

    At least where felonies are concerned, I know the universities, even the state universities, can set up a parallel "justice" system to supplement the real-world system. I'm simply not convinced the universities are set up to handle felony cases.

    And one temptation if they have their own system for felonies is to handle such felonies internally without getting the real-world justice system involved. So either they're smearing students as felons with inadequate evidence or diverting actual felons into a system where the most that can happen is the felonious student gets thrown off campus, rather than put behind bars.

    I suppose that if they could face reality and classify their athletes as employees it would be more of an employer/employee situation, but again, talk about temptation, the athletics people would probably want to handle felonies in-house which would put a normal person into the criminal system.

  • Eddy||

    Of course, with employees the employer often has to have its own system of discipline - if discipline is too lax an employee's crimes might be imputed to the employer itself. And maybe even activity that is perfectly legal - like being friends with someone who likes waving guns at people - is too risky to put up with in an employee.

    As the residential college model gets limited to certain specific students and areas of study, and online study increases, the incentive to monitor students like employees will keep getting less.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    OTOH, as the SJW's take over of academia advances, the motive for monitoring students for the least hint of unapproved of interests or associations will keep getting greater. So it could go either way.

  • Eugene Volokh||

    I appreciate the government / private actor distinction that the comments point to, and I can see why it would justify some constitutional due process constraints on certain government actors, or other such restraints, even if not constitutionally compelled. But do they really justify the full panoply of the constraints of criminal procedure, such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt?

    Let me make a simple change to the hypothetical: You're running a government workplace, say a county hospital. Otherwise, the facts are the same: Someone says one of your employees threatened a coworker (or a customer) at gunpoint. The police investigate, and declined to charge the person -- perhaps because they and the prosecutor concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. "Better that ten guilty people go free," they tell you, "than that one innocent person go to prison; and we think that there's only an 80% chance, not, say, a 95% chance, that this person is guilty." (I'm not saying that's true in this particular case, but I take it you're talking more broadly about how institutions should deal with such charges.)

    How would you react? And should public university student discipline decisions be differet?

  • Hatcher||

    Should they be different? Yes, the relationship is different. At a University, I'm the customer. At the hospital, I'm the employee. The actual or implied contractual relationship is different.

  • David Bremer||

    Okay, fine, keep fighting the hypothetical.

    Same basic facts, except now you run the library and the allegations involve two library patrons. In other words, Patron A says Patron B pulled a gun out in the middle of the stacks and threatened him. Police say there's a 80% chance Patron B did pull the gun. Do you tell Patron B that he/she is to stay out of the library?

    And where does this scenario end. For example, what if two patrons make the same claim? Three? Ten? At what point do you kick the person out, even if they have never been convicted of any crime?

  • TwelveInchPianist||

    Let's make the hypothetical fit a little better. I run a county hospital with a large employee activist contingent attempting to use my organization as a vehicle to change the way society views sexual assault. I attempt to provide fair process for my employees, but because I'm a county hospital and not a court, I suck at it.

    Every time my process finds an employee "not responsible", there are large protests claiming that the procedure was botched, and the protesters may well be correct. (Because my process is secret, nobody has any clue whether or not my process has any degree of fairness whatsoever.)

    And every time my process finds an employee "responsible", I get sued. Again, because I suck at adjudicating rape cases, often the suits have merit. Sometimes I have to settle.

    After a while, my hospital has upwards of a hundred administrators adjudicating employee rape cases, and it distracts from treating patients. At what point do I say, hey, let's let the pros handle this?

  • Don Nico||

    They are quite different EV. As government employees, workers can only be fired for cause. Therefore, they would typically being described as violating the institutional policy as described in the employee handbook. If they employee is a represented employee, they are entitled to representation by their union.

    There are typically not evidentiary rules except that the government institution would want to protect itself against a wrongful dismissal law suit.

    If the employer is NOT a government organization, the employee is almost certain to be at-will. S/he can be fired for any reason except an illegal reason.

    Students at a public university are not protected by state employment law except as they are actually employed by the university.

  • PublicName5||

    There's nothing some sufficiently good jokes can't smooth over, right? Like, they forgot to "do due" process? :) :)

  • y81||

    Good for the court. Thank God universities aren't permitted to govern themselves--it's clear that they are about the most totalitarian and oppressive institutions in America today.

  • ||

    That's true of pretty much any institution run by leftists.

  • FlameCCT||

    Seriously? I wonder if the so-called administrators are ready to kick out a bunch of students for having "Airsoft" guns on campus. Seriously, how many students have paintball "guns" as they hurt more than plastic pellets.

  • ReaderY||

    It seems an interesting clash of cultures. The court of appeals' precedents appear to be coming from prison discipline cases. The university hearing appears pretty normal for university hearings these days. The floor the appeals court expected as a basic matter seems quite a bit above most university administrators' ceilings.

    It says something about our culture that prisoners routinely expect to be entitled to more due process than university students.

    That said, the decision appears to open a door to reversing practically every state university disciplinary hearing back to the statute of limitations. The appeals court said a university has to keep transcripts of its hearings if it wants to avoid having them summarily reverses. And keeping transcripts seems so far outside the expectation level for state university disciplinary hearings it's quite possible no state university has done if.

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