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Right to Cross-Examine Witnesses in University Disciplinary Proceedings

The Sixth Circuit reaffirms this, including for sexual assault accusations, in a case against the University of Michigan; and the court also allows plaintiff to proceed with his claim that the process was biased against him because of his sex.


From Friday's Doe v. Baum, written by newly-appointed Judge Amul Thupar and joined by Judge Julia Smith Gibbons:

[I]f a public university has to choose between competing narratives to resolve a case, the university must give the accused student or his agent an opportunity to cross-examine the accuser and adverse witnesses in the presence of a neutral fact-finder. Because the University of Michigan failed to comply with this rule, we reverse….

Here's an excerpt from the facts:

John Doe and Jane Roe were students at the University of Michigan. Halfway through Roe's freshman and Doe's junior year, the two crossed paths at a "Risky Business" themed fraternity party. While there, they had a drink, danced, and eventually had sex. Two days later, Roe filed a sexual misconduct complaint with the university claiming that she was too drunk to consent. And since having sex with an incapacitated person (unsurprisingly) violates university policy, the administration immediately launched an investigation. Over the course of three months, the school's investigator collected evidence and interviewed Roe, Doe, and twenty-three other witnesses. Two stories emerged.

Doe told the investigator that Roe did not appear drunk and that she was an active participant in their sexual encounter…. Roe remembered the night differently. According to her, she was drunk and unaware of her surroundings when she and Doe went to his room….

[T]he twenty-three other witnesses did not offer much clarification. Almost all of the male witnesses [chiefly Doe's fraternity brothers] corroborated Doe's story, and all of the female witnesses [chiefly Roe's sorority sisters] corroborated Roe's….

Given the students' conflicting statements, the investigator concluded that the evidence supporting a finding of sexual misconduct was not more convincing than the evidence offered in opposition to it. The investigator did note, however, that Witness 2 might have been a more credible witness because she had no prior connection to Doe, Roe, or their respective Greek organizations. But because Witness 2 only observed Roe after the sexual encounter had ended, the investigator concluded that she could not address the relevant question—Roe's level of intoxication during the encounter or what signs of intoxication she manifested at that time. So after three months of thorough fact-finding, the investigator was unable to say that Roe exhibited outward signs of incapacitation that Doe would have noticed before initiating sexual activity. Accordingly, the investigator recommended that the administration rule in Doe's favor and close the case.

Roe appealed. She argued that the evidence did not support the investigator's findings and asked the university to reconsider. The case went up to the university's Appeals Board, and a three-member panel reviewed the investigator's report. After two closed sessions (without considering new evidence or interviewing any students), the Board reversed. Although the Board found that the investigation was fair and thorough, it thought the investigator was wrong to conclude that the evidence was in equipoise. According to the Board, Roe's description of events was "more credible" than Doe's, and Roe's witnesses were more persuasive. As a result, the university set the investigator's recommendation aside and proceeded to the sanction phase. Facing the possibility of expulsion, Doe agreed to withdraw from the university. He was 13.5 credits short of graduating….

An excerpt from the court's reasoning:

Due process requires cross-examination in circumstances like these because it is "the greatest legal engine ever invented" for uncovering the truth. Not only does cross-examination allow the accused to identify inconsistencies in the other side's story, but it also gives the fact-finder an opportunity to assess a witness's demeanor and determine who can be trusted. So if a university is faced with competing narratives about potential misconduct, the administration must facilitate some form of cross-examination [in front of the fact-finder] in order to satisfy due process….

That is not to say, however, that the accused student always has a right to personally confront his accuser and other witnesses. Universities have a legitimate interest in avoiding procedures that may subject an alleged victim to further harm or harassment. And in sexual misconduct cases, allowing the accused to cross-examine the accuser may do just that.

But in circumstances like these, the answer is not to deny cross-examination altogether. Instead, the university could allow the accused student's agent to conduct cross-examination on his behalf. After all, an individual aligned with the accused student can accomplish the benefits of cross-examination—its adversarial nature and the opportunity for follow-up—without subjecting the accuser to the emotional trauma of directly confronting her alleged attacker. Cf. Maryland v. Craig (1990) (holding that where forcing the alleged victim to testify in the physical presence of the defendant may result in trauma, the court could use an alternative procedure that "ensures the reliability of the evidence by subjecting it to rigorous adversarial testing" through "full cross-examination" and ensuring that the alleged victim could be "observed by the judge, jury, and defendant as they testified")….

Judge Ronald Gilman concurred in part and dissented in part on this point:

Although I agree that Doe's due process rights were violated when he was not permitted the opportunity to engage in any form of cross-examination of the witnesses against him, I disagree with the majority about the scope of cross-examination mandated by the United States Constitution in this context… [W]hen witness credibility is at issue, the accused must have an opportunity for at least a "circumscribed form" of cross-examination where he or she is allowed to submit questions to the trier of fact, who will then directly pose those questions to the witnesses…. And because Doe was not provided with even this level of cross-examination, I agree that his due process rights were violated.

I recognize that a case might arise where the Constitution requires more than [such indirect questioning], but we should address that issue only if and when it arises. We need not—and should not—resolve it today because we have been given neither the facts nor the arguments necessary to conduct an adequate analysis. I therefore believe that we should refrain from imposing on all universities a rigid requirement to provide students facing expulsion with an opportunity to have a representative cross-examine adverse witnesses.

The majority also concluded that Doe had sufficiently alleged sex discrimination by the university, so that this claim shouldn't be thrown out at the current motion-to-dismiss stage (though the majority didn't opine on what should happen after discovery, when more facts would have been developed, and the university would move for summary judgment):

Doe has pointed to circumstances surrounding his disciplinary proceedings that, accepting all of his factual allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, plausibly suggest the university acted with bias based on his sex.

Around two years before Doe's disciplinary proceeding, the federal government launched an investigation to determine whether the university's process for responding to allegations of sexual misconduct discriminated against women. When news of the investigation broke, student groups and local media outlets sharply criticized the administration. The federal government's investigation and the negative media reports continued for years, throughout the Board's consideration of Doe's case.

This public attention and the ongoing investigation put pressure on the university to prove that it took complaints of sexual misconduct seriously. The university stood to lose millions in federal aid if the Department found it non-compliant with Title IX. The university also knew that a female student had triggered the federal investigation and that the news media consistently highlighted the university's poor response to female complainants. Of course, all of this external pressure alone is not enough to state a claim that the university acted with bias in this particular case. Rather, it provides a backdrop that, when combined with other circumstantial evidence of bias in Doe's specific proceeding, gives rise to a plausible claim.

Specifically, the Board credited exclusively female testimony (from Roe and her witnesses) and rejected all of the male testimony (from Doe and his witnesses). In doing so, the Board explained that Doe's witnesses lacked credibility because "many of them were fraternity brothers of [Doe]." But the Board did not similarly note that several of Roe's witnesses were her sorority sisters, nor did it note that they were female. This is all the more telling in that the initial investigator who actually interviewed all of these witnesses found in favor of Doe. The Board, by contrast, made all of these credibility findings on a cold record.

When viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to Doe, as we must, one plausible explanation is that the Board discredited all males, including Doe, and credited all females, including Roe, because of gender bias. And so this specific allegation of adjudicator bias, combined with the external pressure facing the university, makes Doe's claim plausible. Indeed, other courts facing similar allegations have reached the same result.

The dissent disagrees, taking a deep and thoughtful dive into the factual record to conclude that there is "no basis to reasonably infer" that Doe was a victim of gender discrimination. But when viewed against the backdrop of external pressure, the Board's decision to discredit Doe's fraternity brothers in part because they were fraternity brothers, while not holding Roe's witnesses to the same standard, is basis enough at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Of course, anti-male bias is not the only plausible explanation for the university's conduct, or even the most plausible. The university might have been unaffected by the federal investigation or the media's criticism, and the significance of the Board's decision to disregard Doe's witnesses' statements might be overblown. And as the dissent points out, the Board might have ruled the way it did because it believed Witness 2's testimony was more credible.

But alternative explanations are not fatal to Doe's ability to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Doe's allegations do not have to give rise to the most plausible explanation—they just have to give rise to one of them.

As this case proceeds and a record is developed, evidence might very well come to show that today's inference is the least plausible of the bunch. Certain allegations that we must assume are true might be proven false. And with the benefit of exhibits, testimony, and cross-examination, a fact-finder may conclude that the inferences we were required to draw in Doe's favor are simply untenable. But these possibilities cannot affect this court's evaluation of Doe's complaint. Our job is simply to ensure that Doe is not deprived of an opportunity to prove what he has alleged unless he would lose regardless. Because Doe has alleged facts that state a plausible claim for relief, we reverse the district court's decision to dismiss his complaint. Whether he will ultimately succeed is a question for another day.

On this point, Judge Gilman dissented outright:

Doe crucially fails to link general pressure on the University of Michigan to the particular proceedings that he faced. Nor does Doe allege any facts suggesting a pattern of discriminatory behavior by the University in its response to sexual-assault allegations, or that he made any sexual-misconduct complaints himself that the University ignored …. There is also no allegation here that the investigator faced individualized criticism for her handling of previous sexual-assault claims and subsequently manifested hostility toward Doe …. In fact, the investigator here found in favor of Doe, and Doe acknowledged that her investigation was "thorough." …

[T]he majority reasons that "when viewed against the backdrop of external pressure, the Board's decision to discredit Doe's fraternity brothers in part because they were fraternity brothers, while not holding Roe's witnesses to the same standard, is basis enough at the motion-to-dismiss-stage." But the majority's observation about the Appeals' Board's alleged disparate treatment of the witnesses is not borne out by the record….

To start with, the Appeals Board discussed statements from only two of Roe's sorority sisters, although additional sorority sisters provided statements that were contained in the investigator's report. The record reflects the following evaluation by the Appeals Board: ["]Two witnesses who know [Roe] reported that they observed [Roe] drinking from the wine bag at [Doe's] fraternity and also reported that they perceived she was intoxicated for a variety of reasons (very energetic when she's drunk; inhibitions were lowered; and speech that was 'not completely clear,' contained 'occasional slurs,' and occasionally trailed off at the end of sentences).["]

The Appeals Board provided no further discussion of these statements that would suggest that it was relying on them beyond its observation that Roe's statements were "corroborated by other witnesses, particularly by Witness 2's observations of [Roe's] behavior and physical condition immediately after the sexual encounter." And this observation by the Appeals Board leads directly to the biggest weakness in both Doe's and the majority's position: the Appeals Board's decision to credit the testimony of Roe and Witness 2 (and subsequently to find Doe responsible for sexual misconduct) was based on the considerations that (1) Witness 2 spent significant time with Roe following Roe's sexual encounter with Doe, and (2) Witness 2 had no connection to Doe, Roe, or their respective Greek institutions….

Whether the statements made by Roe's sorority sisters were credible was not discussed. The Appeals Board's decision instead shows that the statements by Doe and his witnesses were disfavored only as compared to the statements of Roe and Witness 2, and that there was no categorical preference shown for or against statements by fraternity brothers versus sorority sisters, or for or against statements by men versus women as such. The Appeals Board also noted that Witness 2's observations were further corroborated by two witnesses who helped Roe into a vehicle outside the fraternity house and who, like Witness 2, had no connection to Doe or Roe.

I therefore find no basis to reasonably infer that the Appeals Board declined to rely on the statements made by Doe and his witnesses simply because they were men….