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A lawsuit filed against Michigan State University late last year is now poised to have a profound impact on claims against universities accused of mishandling sexual misconduct complaints. A male student, referred to as John Doe in the lawsuit, was suspended from the university for two years following a sexual assault report made against him.
In his complaint, John Doe alleges that the university relied on gender bias in its investigation of the sexual assault claims against him and failed to afford him the requisite presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Although Doe filed the complaint in December 2018, it was amended in July to seek class-action status. If granted, this case would be the first of its kind in the country.
Last fall, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that universities must have a live hearing where a person accused of sexual assault has an opportunity to directly cross-examine their accuser. That ruling, coming from a case against the University of Michigan, emphasized the importance of cross-examination when a school’s determination depends on an accuser’s credibility. Moreover, the university already provided for hearings with cross-examination in all other misconduct cases. Finally, the court also found that when the evidence was viewed in the light most favorable to the accused, one plausible explanation for the student’s punishment was gender bias.
In 2014, more than 50 colleges and universities came under investigation by the Department of Education for the way they handled complaints of sexual assault. Ivy League schools like Harvard and Princeton as well as public and private universities across the country faced scrutiny for potential violations of Title IX – the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding.
MSU, in particular, has been under pressure to take sexual assault cases seriously, after a 2015 investigation by the U.S. Department of Education found the school’s approach to complaints made the campus a “sexually hostile environment.” Doe’s lawsuit points to an alleged overcorrection by MSU, arguing the school dismissed him to avoid further bad publicity in the wake of the investigation and the sexual abuse scandal surrounding former employee Dr. Larry Nassar.
The 2018 6th Circuit ruling left the door open for class action suits because it could, theoretically, be used to challenge any sexual misconduct case where a university did not allow for cross-examination. Lawsuits have already been filed by students across the country, claiming that pressure from the Department of Education has pushed colleges to be too quick to punish male students accused of sexual misconduct. If the class-action status is granted in Doe’s case, it could lead to many more class-action suits against other public universities.