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Student Entitled To Attorney Fees Because Action Held University Accountable For Its Failure To Comply With Its Own Policies And Procedures For Disciplinary Proceedings And Conferred A Benefit On All Students Attending The University – For Private Schools
The University of California Santa Barbara admitted John Doe as a freshman for the 2016-2017 academic year. Before the academic year began, Doe was in a verbal argument with his girlfriend, Jane Roe, in their home city of San Diego. Weeks later, Jane posted on social media a video recording of the argument in which it appeared that Doe hit her.
A student at the University saw the post and notified the University’s Office of Student Affairs, which then forwarded the information to the campus police department. A detective from the campus police department drove to San Diego to arrest and transport Doe, age 17, to a juvenile detention facility in San Diego. The same day, the University issued an interim suspension order and had it delivered to Doe. The order barred him from entering the University’s campus on the ground that he posed a threat to the safety of the campus community. He was also notified that the University’s Title IX office would investigate the allegation of relationship violence. The interim suspension was imposed pursuant to the University’s policies governing student conduct and the University’s Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. These policies stated the University would restrict a student only to the minimum extent necessary when there is reasonable cause to believe that the student’s participation in University activities or presence at specified areas of the campus will lead to physical abuse, threats of violence, or conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person on University property.
The juvenile court found Doe was not a threat to anyone, and the district attorney eventually dismissed all charges against Doe. The University held a hearing regarding the interim suspension, but declined to remove the order. Doe remained barred from campus, campus housing, attending classes (including online classes), and participating in University activities.
In October 2016, Doe filed a lawsuit against the University seeking termination of the interim suspension and reinstatement as a student at the University. The Parties litigated the matter in trial court and the Court of Appeal until March 2017 when the trial court granted a preliminary injunction against the University. University policies state it must complete a Title IX investigation within 60 business days and the entire Title IX process, including all administrative appeals, within 120 business days from the date the University received the report of a potential Title IX violation. The trial court found the University’s investigation extended far beyond the time period which, under its policies, the entire Title IX process, including administrative appeals, should have concluded. Even after more than 200 days, the University had only interviewed Doe. The trial court found this delay “unreasonable and arbitrary,” and the interim suspension “particularly egregious.” Furthermore, the University failed to show it considered less restrictive interim measures.
The University reinstated Doe as an enrolled student for the spring quarter of 2017, but the Parties continued to litigate the matter. The University completed its Title IX investigation in November 2017 and found Doe responsible for dating violence. After a series of administrative appeals, the University overturned this decision in June 2018 and declined to pursue the administrative proceedings any further.
Doe filed a motion for an award of attorney’s fees under the private attorney general doctrine codified in California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. Doe’s counsel sought $265,508, representing fees incurred from the inception of the case (August 2016) through the trial court’s March 2017 order issuing a preliminary injunction against Doe’s interim suspension. Doe’s counsel requested the fees be increased by a multiplier of 1.6.
Following a hearing, the trial court denied the motion and concluded Doe failed to satisfy two of the four criteria required for an award of fees. Specifically, the trial court concluded that Doe failed to demonstrate that his action conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons, and it was questionable whether the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement were such as to make the award appropriate.
On appeal, Doe argued the trial court applied the wrong standard in denying his motion for attorney’s fees and was misled by the University’s counsel as to the impact and significance of his litigation.
To obtain attorney’s fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, the moving party must establish that: (1) it is a successful party in an action; (2) the action resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest; (3) the action has conferred a significant benefit on the general public or a large class of persons; and (4) the necessity and financial burden of private enforcement are such as to make the award appropriate.
Here, the Parties did not dispute Doe was the successful party. Nor did the parties dispute that Doe’s litigation enforced an important right. However, the trial court concluded Doe failed to satisfy the significant benefit element because the relief sought and obtained “was inherently personal in nature, involving the termination of his interim suspension and reinstatement as an active, full-time student pending the conclusion of the investigation.” In response, Doe argued his action effectuated important constitutional and statutory due process rights, and conferred a benefit on all students attending the University. The Court of Appeal agreed with Doe.
The University’s written policies required prompt and timely investigation of complaints for sexual harassment and sexual violence. The trial court found the University failed to follow these policies and procedures when it issued the interim suspension and violated Doe’s constitutional right to due process. Doe’s action enforced a student’s right to have the University comply with its own policies governing the time limits for resolving Title IX complaints and investigations. It confirmed the availability of injunctive relief to prohibit an interim suspension where the University unreasonably delayed completion of a Title IX investigation, failed to consider less restrictive measures, and concealed critical evidence utilized in issuing the interim suspension order, all in violation of University policies.
The Court of Appeal held all students benefit when the trial court required the University to follow its own policies and procedures. The trial court had additional evidence showing Doe’s case specifically influenced another student to file her own complaint against the University with the U.S. Department of Education alleging the University violated its policies when it placed her on an interim suspension prolonged by a lengthy, delayed Title IX investigation.
The final element required for an award of fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5 is that the “necessity and financial burden of private enforcement … are such as to make the award appropriate ….” The trial court concluded it was unnecessary to decide whether Doe established this element because he failed to show that the litigation satisfied the significant benefit element. Nevertheless, the trial court noted it was “questionable whether [he] has met [the necessity and financial burden] requirement.”
In determining the financial burden on litigants, courts focus not only on the costs of the litigation but also any offsetting financial benefits that the litigation yields or reasonably could have been expected to yield. Doe neither expected to receive nor received any monetary award for his litigation contesting the interim suspension, yet he incurred significant financial costs.
Ultimately, the parties did not dispute that Doe had no ability to pay for legal representation. Without representation, the interim suspension in this case would have resulted in a de facto expulsion, in violation of the University’s policies. Considering these circumstances, the Court of Appeal found necessity and financial burden of private enforcement made an award of attorney’s fees appropriate.
Finally, the University argued that the award of fees must be significantly reduced. The Court of Appeal determined the appropriate amount of fees is a distinct question from whether a fee award is justified, so it sent the case back to the trial court to determine the appropriate amount of fees and the amount of the multiplier, if any.
Doe v. Regents of Univ. of California (2020) 51 Cal. App. 5th 531.
This case highlights the significant time and expense that can result from failure to follow disciplinary policies. We would note that mistakes made in the discipline process are common and as long as those mistakes are corrected promptly the outcome of the process is generally supported by the courts.