Court Of Appeal Allows Award Of Attorney Fees Because University’s Decision To Suspend Student Was Arbitrary

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Dec 28, 2023

From November 2019 to June 2020, John Doe, a student at University of California, Davis had a consensual sexual relationship with Jane Roe, another student.  In November 2019, Doe took a one-second video recording of his own face while he and Jane Roe were having sex.  Roe asked Doe to delete the video, and he did.

About nine months after the video incident, Roe made a formal complaint against Doe for taking the video.  UC Davis investigated the complaint pursuant to Title IX.  Doe initially lied to the UC Davis investigator by claiming he was just “checking his phone during sex because he was getting a notification.”  Ultimately, he admitted to taking the one-second recording of himself so he could “see what he looked like during the sex act.”  The investigator determined that Doe had violated UC Davis’s Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment Policy by recording a video “depicting [a] person’s nudity or sexual acts in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy” without consent.  UC Davis issued a one-year suspension, from spring 2021 through spring 2022.  Doe filed an internal appeal.  Dr. Sheri Atkinson, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, rejected the appeal but reduced the suspension to summer 2021 through spring 2022, so that Doe’s spring 2021 coursework could count towards his degree.

Doe filed a petition for writ of mandate against the Regents of the University of California (Regents, which includes UC Davis) and Dr. Atkinson.  His petition asked the trial court to issue a writ ordering the Regents and Dr. Atkinson to overturn his suspension.  The trial court found that UC Davis’s Title IX procedure was consistent with due process standards and did not violate Doe’s right.  However, it held that the suspension was “objectively unreasonable” in light of Doe’s conduct and ordered the Regents and Dr. Atkinson to overturn the suspension.  The trial court said the university’s rationale for imposing the one-year suspension “fell short.”  The trial court pointed out that UC Davis’s policy describes factors that should influence the weight of a penalty, but none of them were present in Doe’s case.  There was no evidence that Doe had captured Roe in the video, visually or audibly; no evidence that he had shared the video; no evidence that he was violent or took advantage of Roe; and no evidence that he acted with ill intent.  Also, a year suspension did not protect Roe since she had already graduated.  The trial court stated that the Regents can and must include more information in the administrative record of their Title IX cases to explain why they imposed a particular form of discipline and why it was not disproportionate when compared to sanctions they imposed in other cases.

Dr. Atkinson removed Doe’s one-year suspension but imposed a shorter suspension from summer 2021 through fall 2021.  In April 2022, Doe filed a motion stating that UC Davis had violated the trial court’s order by imposing the shorter sanction.  The trail court issued an order requiring UC Davis to remove the suspension entirely.

Doe then filed a motion requesting attorney fees of $142,387.48 under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1021.5 and $7,500 under California Government Code Section 800.  The trial court denied Doe’s motion for attorney fees.

To receive attorney fees under Section 1021.5, the case must enforce an important right affecting the public interest.  It must also confer a significant benefit on the public or a large class of people, among other requirements.  The trial court ruled that Doe’s case did not confer a significant benefit on the public, because it did not correct an overarching UC Davis policy.

Section 800 allows courts to award attorney fees of up to $7,000 when a party appeals an administrative determination, and the court finds that the administrative determination was arbitrary and capricious.  The trial court denied Doe’s request for attorney fees under section 800 because the investigation was not “wholly” arbitrary and capricious.  The trial court held the one-year suspension was arbitrary, but the overall disciplinary process was generally appropriate and complied with due process.

Doe appealed the trial court’s denial of attorney fees.  The court of appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of attorney fees under Section 1021.5.  The court of appeal agreed with the trial court that Doe’s case did not significantly benefit the public.  It might encourage UC colleges to impose more reasonable sanctions in Title IX case, but the court of appeal said that would only affect a small number of students, those found guilty of sexual assault or harassment.

The court of appeal overturned the trial court’s denial of attorney fees under Section 800.  The court of appeal held a public entity’s administrative determination does not need to be “wholly” arbitrary or capricious for a court to award attorney fees under Section 800.  Rather, the administrative decision just has to be “the result of arbitrary or capricious action or conduct.”  Even though some aspects of the investigation and hearing process were reasonable, the decision to suspend Doe for a year was arbitrary and lacked justification.  The court of appeal remanded the matter to the trial court to reconsider whether Section 800 entitled Doe to attorney fees, and if so, how much.

Doe v. Atkinson (2023) 96 Cal.App.5th 667.

Note: This case highlights the importance of following policies and documenting reasoning when imposing student discipline.  Colleges should also consider how a given sanction compares to sanctions imposed in other cases.  If one aspect of the process lacks justification, the student may be able to obtain attorney fees under Section 800.

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