December 30, 2017

Cornell Followed Its Rules in Finding Male Student Guilty of Sexual Assault and Can Suspend Him, Judge Rules

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A Cornell sophomore who the University found guilty of sexually assaulting a woman lost a lawsuit against Cornell this month, clearing the way for the University to suspend the male student for two years, although the student has indicated he is appealing.

A University Hearing Panel ruled in May that the male student had sex with a female student who was too intoxicated to consent in August of 2016. The panel recommended that the male student be suspended for two years, and a Cornell Appeal Panel upheld the decision in July.

The sophomore student, whose name is withheld in court documents and who is referred to as John Doe, sued Cornell after the Appeal Panel decision in July and a judge halted the two-year suspension while he heard arguments in the case.

Judge Eugene Faughnan of the New York State Supreme Court in Tompkins County ruled in Cornell’s favor on Dec. 15, allowing the University to suspend the student and handing Cornell a decisive victory in a case that lasted nearly five months.

John Carberry, Cornell’s senior director of media relations, said in a statement to The Sun that Cornell was “pleased with the Court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuit for all of the reasons stated in that decision.”

“The Court’s thorough decision recognized the Title IX Office’s adherence to the procedures, and the decisions of the Hearing Panel and Appeal Panel were found to be both consistent with and supported by the evidence,” Carberry said.

At stake in the court battle was whether Cornell had complied with its own policies throughout its Title IX Office’s investigation of Doe and whether the University’s Hearing and Appeal panels had enough evidence to find the student responsible.

Doe’s current relationship with the University is unclear and Alan Sash, the student’s lawyer, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling or the student’s status at Cornell.

Faughnan wrote in his decision that “Cornell substantially complied with its own policies and procedures and had a rational basis for its determination.” The judge added that the University’s suspension of the student can now go into effect because the court has upheld Cornell’s determinations.

Doe declared in a court filing on Dec. 18 that he will appeal “each and every part” of Faughnan’s order.

The student had argued in court that Cornell carried out its investigation unfairly, departing from its own policies in a way that tipped the scales in favor of his accuser. But Faughnan sided with Cornell, saying the University adhered to its own policies throughout the investigation.

Doe rehashed several of his allegations against the University, including his claim that it arbitrarily and capriciously departed from its own rules in seven ways during his case. Two of these departures, Doe said, were when a University Hearing Panel failed to ask his accuser certain relevant questions and when an investigator withheld evidence from the investigative record.

Faughnan disagreed with Doe on all seven accusations, finding that while some of Doe’s allegations were factually true, the University “substantially complied” with its own policies throughout the process and did not act “arbitrarily and capriciously in [its] disciplinary proceeding against Doe.”

Faughnan also found that the Hearing Panel — the body that first decided Doe was guilty — had “sufficient basis” in the record to find Doe responsible for sexual misconduct and retaliation. The panel found that Doe retaliated against his accuser by filing a Title IX complaint against her after she filed a complaint against him.

Doe said in the suit that he learned of the complaint against him only after deciding to file his own complaint. Faughnan did not assess whether Cornell’s process itself was fair, nor whether Cornell was right to find Doe guilty, but rather whether Cornell had adhered to its own policies.

This case marked the second time in December that Cornell received good news regarding a Title IX investigation. On Dec. 11, the Department of Education closed an investigation into whether Cornell’s Title IX Office discriminated against a complainant on the basis of race, color or ethnicity by failing to respond promptly and equitably to a complaint of sexual assault.

The U.S. Department of Education said its ending of that investigation was an “administrative closure,” but the reasons for it are unclear.