Court Upholds Decision To Terminate Professor’s Employment Based On Conduct That Occurred Off-Campus And That Did Not Involve Students

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Feb 28, 2024

Dr. Gopal Balakrishnan was a tenured professor at the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz.  In 2017, an anonymous letter was published online, accusing Dr. Balakrishnan of engaging in a pattern of sexual intimidation, harassment, and assault against young women and gender nonconforming people during his time as a professor.  The letter contained seven anonymous firsthand accounts of alleged abuse and called the University to act.  Over 150 people signed the letter to show their support.

Dr. Balakrishnan denied the accusations and blamed “the current context of national indignation around the issue of sexual harassment.”  In response, the University said that it was aware of the letter and asked individuals with relevant information to contact the Title IX office to assist its investigation.

The University received multiple complaints about Dr. Balakrishnan’s conduct.  Two of the more serious complaints involved Jane Doe and Anneliese H.  The University engaged an outside investigator to conduct an investigation.

Jane Doe, a poet and academic from the East Coast, traveled to Berkeley in 2013 and attended a Poetry Summit.  Doe, a friend, and Dr. Balakrishnan stayed overnight at the house of the professor who was hosting the Summit.  The investigator concluded that one night, Dr. Balakrishnan climbed into bed and pressed himself against Jane Doe.  The investigator concluded that Dr. Balakrishnan engaged in unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature, which was squarely within the definition of prohibited conduct under UC’s Policy on Sexual Harassment that was in place at the time of the incident.  However, the investigator could not substantiate a violation of this policy because it only applied to members of the University community.

Anneliese H., two days after graduating from UC Santa Cruz, attended a party at the off-campus apartment of her friend.  There, for the first time, she met Dr. Balakrishnan, without realizing he was a professor.  Dr. Balakrishnan offered to walk Anneliese home, and after arriving at her home, invited him inside.  Anneliese was nearly blacked out, and Dr. Balakrishnan forced himself on Anneliese despite her clear directives.  The investigator concluded that, again, it was more likely than not that Dr. Balakrishnan engaged in unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature, falling squarely within the definition of prohibited conduct under University policy.  This conduct occurred after Anneliese had completed her coursework, but before her degree was conferred.

The University held an administrative hearing and ultimately dismissed Dr. Balakrishnan and denied him emeritus status.

Dr. Balakrishnan filed suit, alleging, among other claims, that the University lacked jurisdiction to discipline him with respect to Jane Doe or Anneliese H. because they were not University students.

The University argued that Dr. Balakrishnan’s conduct towards Jane Doe was subject to discipline because the Faculty Code of Conduct listed the types of unacceptable behavior, which included conduct against members of the community.  “Community,” the University argued, meant the community at-large, rather than the University community.

Dr. Balakrishnan, on the other hand, argued that the Faculty Code only applied to matters “in the scope of their professional roles, not at an after-party for an off-campus poetry summit unaffiliated with the University.

The Court concluded that Dr. Balakrishnan’s behavior was not justified by the Faculty Code and that his behavior impaired the University’s central functions.  For example, allowing this conduct to continue without consequence or sanction was clearly incompatible with sustaining an environment conductive to learning.  The Court reasoned that neither Jane Doe nor her friend would want to work with Dr. Balakrishnan or anyone from the University in the future if they saw this behavior had no consequences.

Dr. Balakrishnan next argued the University had no jurisdiction over Anneliese H’s complaint because she was not a student or member of the University community when he sexually harassed her.  The Court disagreed based on the evidence, which showed that at the time of the party, the University had not yet audited Anneliese’s grades or conferred her degree.  In any event, the Court also concluded that the University’s sexual harassment policy extended to incidents with members of the University community, a broad definition that included non-student participants in University programs, such as vendors, contractors, visitors, and patients.

The Court upheld the University’s decision to dismiss Dr. Balakrishnan.

Balakrishnan v. The Regents of the University of California (Feb. 1, 2024) ___Cal.App.5th___ [2024 Cal. App. LEXIS 68].

Note: This case is an important reminder for schools that, based on its policies, employees can be disciplined for off-campus conduct.

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