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Student Could Not Establish That Disciplinary Process For Dating Violence Was Unfair
John Doe was a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) with fellow student Jane Roe. John and Jane agreed they were in a dating relationship for almost two years before they broke up in June 2016. John also admitted that on July 7, 2016, after their breakup, he “grabbed” Jane, “screamed in her face and shook her,” and “eventually dragged her out of the bed to the front door” of his home. John called the police and reported that Jane would not leave his home, but when the police arrived, they detained him.
Following this incident, the UCSB Title IX Office received a mandated report of possible dating violence involving John and Jane. In September 2016, Jane filed a complaint against John. The Title IX Office initiated a formal investigation. The Title IX Office sent John a notice of the complaint that informed him that Jane alleged he committed dating violence against her when he “physically assaulted her on or around July 7, 2016.”
The Title IX investigator interviewed Jane and six witnesses. While the investigator tried to interview John, he was studying abroad and had limited availability. Instead, John responded to the allegations in writing. He admitted he grabbed Jane, screamed in her face, shook her to wake her up, and eventually dragged her out of his roommate’s bed to the front door while she pretended to be asleep.
At some point, the initial investigator left her position and another investigator took over. The new investigator attempted to schedule a debrief interview with Jane and John in order to prepare the investigative report. However, he was never able to schedule an interview with John. The investigator interpreted John’s lack of response as “a decision not to participate in the debrief,” and he prepared the investigative report.
The investigation determined, under a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, that John violated the UC policy against dating violence. Much of the investigator’s decision was based on John’s own written statement in which he admitted to grabbing, shaking, and dragging Jane. The Office of Judicial Affairs concurred with the findings and found John responsible for violating the UC Policy against dating violence. The Assistant Dean suspended John from UCSB for three years. Because John had completed his degree, the suspension resulted in a three-year hold of his degree and diploma, with exclusion from campus.
Subsequently, John submitted an appeal to the review committee on the grounds of procedural error; unreasonable decision based on the evidence; and disproportionate discipline. As to procedural error, John argued the investigation took too long, involved multiple investigators, and he was not given a fair chance to meet with investigators for a debriefing interview. For his claim the suspension was an unreasonable decision, John contended the finding that Jane “sustained severe injuries” was not true. Finally, he urged that a three-year freeze on his diploma was excessive because there were no “serious injuries.”
After a hearing, the review committee denied the appeal. It found that John had ample opportunity to participate and that the definition of dating violence does not require “severe” injury. John then petitioned for a writ of administrative mandate seeking to set aside the disciplinary decision and suspension. After the trial court denied the petition, John appealed.
A UC student may challenge a disciplinary suspension or expulsion by a petition for writ of administrative mandate. That petition is the process a court uses to review an administrative decision. To prevail, a student must show the agency: (1) was acting without, or in excess of, its jurisdiction; (2) deprived the student of a fair administrative hearing; or (3) committed a prejudicial abuse of discretion.
John argued that UCSB failed to provide a fair process and the factual findings were not supported by substantial evidence. The appellate court disagreed. With respect to a fair process, the court noted that student disciplinary proceedings in university settings do not require “all the safeguards and formalities of a criminal trial.” In this case, John submitted a detailed written response that admitted the essential allegations of Jane’s complaint. Thus, the credibility of witnesses was not central to the determination, and John was not denied a fair process just because the investigator did not personally observe the witnesses, or because John did not have an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.
Further, the court concluded that UCSB could rely on evidence that John was not available for the debriefing interview. The investigator began attempting to schedule a debrief interview with John in February 2017, and John repeatedly changed his availability or failed to respond altogether. In addition, by April 18, 2017, the investigator informed John that if he did not respond by April 25th, he would assume John was declining to participate in the interview and would proceed to the next step in the process. John never responded to the investigator’s final communication about scheduling an interview in the first two weeks of May. For these reasons, the court rejected John’s argument it was unfair of the investigators to stop attempting to schedule an interview with him.
The court similarly rejected John’s other arguments, including that UCSB failed to provide John information in an electronic format; that the investigator improperly relied on information John didn’t have from Jane’s debrief interview; and that UCSB failed to follow its own administrative policies. Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying John’s petition.
Doe v. Regents of Univ. of California (2021) 70 Cal.App.5th 521.
A petition for writ of administrative mandate allows a person to challenge an administrative decision that was reached after an evidentiary hearing. The procedure for writs of an administrative mandate is outlined in Code of Civil Procedure Section 1094.5. This procedure may apply to local educational entities’ administrative decisions to terminate a public employee’s employment.