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Title IX & Student Conduct Code Blog

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Can You File a Lawsuit After Losing a Disciplinary Proceeding on Campus?

Colleges and universities bring disciplinary proceedings against students, faculty, and staff for a wide range of reasons. Some involve conduct that could potentially be a criminal violation, such as allegations of sexual assault. Others may involve accusations of online cheating or plagiarism that could violate school codes of conduct but would not constitute a criminal offense.

When a campus proceeding involves an alleged Title IX violation, the school is required to abide by certain rules. In other situations, those same due process protections and other requirements may not apply.

If a student is found responsible for a violation after a disciplinary process, do they have any options to challenge the decision or seek mitigation of the penalties? Can they file a lawsuit and if so, would that change the result? The answers will depend on several factors unique to the situation. An experienced student defense lawyer could evaluate the options available based on the circumstances, but here are some general factors to consider.

Did the School Follow Procedures in the Code of Conduct?

Students who enroll at a college or university and faculty members beginning employment generally must sign or do something that creates an obligation to follow the school’s code of conduct. That is a contractual obligation owed by the student or staff member to the institution.

But contracts create obligations on both sides. The school is also contractually required to abide by the rules.

If the disciplinary proceedings did not follow school policy, then you may have grounds to sue for breach of contract. One of the most important tasks if you are preparing for a disciplinary proceeding or want to challenge the results of a proceeding is to comb through the terms in the institution’s code of conduct. In many situations, schools have considerable latitude in establishing their own procedural rules, but they are obligated to abide by those rules once they establish them and make them part of the contractual arrangement with students and faculty.  

Did the Disciplinary Proceeding Violate Due Process Rights?

Depending on the situation, a student, faculty or staff member in a campus disciplinary proceeding may be guaranteed certain due process protections by law. If the legal protections are not provided or provided inadequately during the disciplinary proceeding, then the person subject to the disciplinary proceeding should have the right to sue for relief.

For instance, Title IX due process rights generally include:

  • The right to a hearing panel that is unbiased and properly trained
  • The opportunity to introduce evidence
  • The opportunity to cross-examine the complainant, respondent, or a witness
  • The right to consult an attorney
  • Correct application of the appropriate standard of proof
  • Evidence disclosure requirements

If a Title IX disciplinary proceeding violates any of the protected due process rights, that provides grounds for a lawsuit. However, the federal rules regarding Title IX due process rights have been subject to change in recent years and are likely to change again when the new regulations are released, so it is important to work with a Title IX attorney experienced in the nuances of this complex area of law.

Campus proceedings that do not involve allegations of Title IX violations may also be required to adhere to at least some due process requirements. In general, the more serious the potential penalty, the more due process protections should be provided. 

For instance, in a  disciplinary hearing at a public university that could result in suspension or expulsion based on violations of disciplinary rules rather than academic requirements, the school generally needs to provide the respondent with the right to receive notice of the charges, the right to learn about the evidence, the right to present their version of events, and the right to have the case heard under a standard set of rules. The school might not have to apply the same rights to a student who faces academic probation for allowing their GPA to slip too low. Due process rights might also be different in a private school setting.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

Courts are sometimes limited in the remedies they can provide. So before filing a lawsuit, it may make sense to first assess your goals and see if there are other ways to achieve those goals. 

For instance, if a student was found responsible for a violation and expelled and an attorney does not believe the student has grounds to challenge based on procedural or other effective legal grounds, the best option might be to try to negotiate a withdrawal opportunity. Instead of having an expulsion on the record, the student’s record would simply report that they withdrew from enrollment. Or if a student received a suspension, an attorney may be able to negotiate a shorter term of suspension or allow the student to continue with classes on a purely remote basis.

If you do file a lawsuit, the court could tell the school that they have to change the ruling, but they might order the school to hold the disciplinary proceedings again but following different procedures. Or the court might spend quite a bit of time debating whether you have grounds to succeed at all because the school will probably file a motion to dismiss your case. A lawsuit can be an expensive and lengthy undertaking, and it may not provide the relief you need in the right time frame. Your attorney can review other options so you can make an informed decision before filing a suit.

Learn More About Protecting Your Rights and Opportunities

While colleges and universities are allowed to exercise a certain amount of control in how they govern the school, they should not be allowed to trample the rights of students, faculty, or staff. If you have lost a disciplinary proceeding, you may have solid ground for a lawsuit and that could be the best way to protect your future opportunities.

However, it is wise to discuss the situation in depth with an attorney experienced in appealing campus disciplinary proceedings so you understand the implications of filing a lawsuit. At Duffy Law, our legal team focuses on protecting the rights of students, faculty and staff with respect to Title IX proceedings and alleged conduct code violations. We invite you to schedule a consultation to learn how we could assist with a lawsuit or other legal action.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.