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Court Says Students Can Be Sued for Defamation Based on Statements Made During Title IX Investigation

In a move that dismayed victims’ rights organizations and gratified some free-speech civil liberties organizations, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a student was not immune from defamation proceedings based on statements she made during the course of a Title IX disciplinary proceeding at Yale University.

Writing for the Court, Justice Raheem L. Mullins observed at the outset that accusations made during the course of a criminal trial were immune from civil action for defamation. The question in this case hinged on whether Title IX disciplinary proceedings afforded an accuser similar immunity.

What Happened in the Case

The case, Saifullah Khan v. Yale University, stemmed from a 2018 Title IX investigation and disciplinary proceeding at Yale. A female student, referred to as Jane Doe during the lawsuit, accused the respondent Khan of committing sexual assault. The incident in question occurred in 2015, and Khan alleged that the sexual actions that occurred were consensual. 

Yale initiated disciplinary proceedings and prosecutors also charged Khan with criminal sexual assault. Yale suspended Khan and stayed campus proceedings while awaiting the outcome of the criminal trial. In 2018, the jury acquitted Khan of all criminal charges and he was allowed to resume studies. But soon after, new allegations arose after the school newspaper reported about the case. Yale initiated a new hearing and Jane Doe, who had graduated by this point, provided a statement to the school through a teleconference. She was not under oath when making her statement.

At the end of the hearing, Yale found Khan responsible for sexual misconduct and expelled him. Khan then filed a civil suit against the university and the student who had accused him. Against Doe, he alleged defamation and tortious interference with a contract.

Accusing Student Argued She Was Immune from Liability

Jane Doe, the complainant who accused Khan of sexual assault, asserted that she should have absolute immunity from liability for any false statements made during the campus disciplinary proceedings because the process had been “quasi-judicial” and similar to a court proceeding. The federal district court agreed and dismissed the complaint against Doe. Khan filed an appeal, arguing that a proceeding held by a non-government entity cannot be considered quasi-judicial and that therefore, proceedings held by a private university were not shielded by absolute immunity.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that the matter should be determined by the Supreme Court of Connecticut and sent the case on for that court to determine:

  • Whether a proceeding held before a non-government entity could ever be considered quasi-judicial for purposes of granting absolute immunity
  • What requirements must be satisfied to gain quasi-judicial status for a non-government proceeding
  • If a non-government proceeding could be considered quasi-judicial, whether the Title IX proceeding held by Yale University met the qualifications to be considered quasi-judicial with immunity for participants

It would be almost another two full years before the Connecticut Supreme Court issued answers.

Court Finds Both Parties’ Arguments Compelling

Justice Mullins announced that both parties had presented “compelling” arguments. He pointed to amici briefs indicating the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and the reluctance of victims to report incidents. According to the briefs, victims say that they are afraid to report sexual assault due to concerns about confidentiality, feelings of shame or embarrassment, the desire to avoid letting friends or family know about an incident, and “fear of not being believed.”

The Court stated that they were sensitive to the need for students to be able to report abuse to college authorities without fear of retribution and that “the remedial powers of our judicial system must not be used as a means of intimidation to enable the perpetrators of sexual assault to silence their accusers by using the threat of civil litigation and liability for damages.”

As important as these concerns are, the Court found the issues raised by Khan to be more pressing.

Fundamental Fairness Required

“Those accused of crimes,” Justice Mullins explained, “are entitled to fundamental fairness before being labeled a sexual predator.” Noting that individuals accused of sexual assault on campus face consequences such as suspension, expulsion, deportation, criminal trials, and loss of opportunities for jobs and education, Justice Mullins stated that “the accused’s right to fundamental fairness is no less important than the right of the accuser or the larger community to achieve justice.”

The Court also noted that “granting absolute immunity to those who make intentionally false and malicious accusations of sexual assault” does not benefit society or help achieve fair and impartial disciplinary hearings. When statements in disciplinary proceedings are offered and accepted without adequate procedural safeguards, the Court explained, the risk of unfair or unreliable outcomes is too great.

Campus Proceedings Lacked Sufficient Procedural Safeguards

The Court concluded that a non-governmental proceeding could in theory be considered quasi-judicial and provide absolute immunity. However, in this instance, the Title IX proceedings at Yale failed to meet the qualifications for a quasi-judicial proceeding because they “lacked important procedural safeguards.” Specific deficiencies include:

  • The proceedings were not held under oath
  • Khan was not given an adequate chance to cross-examine adverse witnesses
  • The parties did not have a reasonable opportunity to call witnesses
  • Khan lacked the opportunity to gain assistance from an attorney during the hearing
  • Khan was not given records to review the adequacy of the decision or the fairness of the proceedings

The lack of these safeguards undermined the reliability of the proceedings, and therefore, they could not be equated with judicial proceedings.

Accuser Could Still Be Considered Immune

At this stage in the proceeding, for the sake of legal argument, the Court was obliged to accept Khan’s allegations that Doe made statements against him maliciously. Justice Mullins noted early on (and later explained) that the public policy interest in encouraging the reporting of sexual assault is sufficiently compelling to justify qualified immunity privilege rather than absolute immunity. Qualified privilege offers immunity to statements not made maliciously, and it must be supported by public policy. Khan would have to prove that Doe acted maliciously to succeed with a defamation action.

That means that the case is far from closed. However, the Court’s discussion of procedural safeguards highlights the importance of due process protections such as the right to cross-examine witnesses. Observers have noted that while reducing procedural protections may encourage students to speak up, the effort can backfire if the lack of procedural protection destroys the credibility of the proceedings.

If you are interested in pursuing a defamation claim stemming from Title IX proceedings, we invite you to schedule a confidential consultation with the team at Duffy Law. We are devoted to upholding students’ rights and the ideals of Title IX, which often involves balancing competing interests.

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.