Student Who Reported Rape Can Be Sued For Defamation Due To University’s Disciplinary Procedures

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Jul 21, 2023

In fall of 2012, Saifullah Khan enrolled as an undergraduate student at Yale University. Jane Doe was a classmate of Khan’s, and on Halloween night in 2015, Khan and Doe, who were familiar with one another from prior campus encounters, met at an off-campus Halloween party. Later in the night, Khan escorted Doe to her room, and she asked him to come in and the two engaged in sexual intercourse. In the morning, Doe reported to friends that she had been raped. Doe went to the Yale Health Center later the next day seeking contraception and reported to a healthcare worker that she had engaged in unprotected consensual sex.

In the days later, Doe went public with her rape claim and issued a formal complaint against Khan. Khan was suspended and the Yale Police Department opened an investigation against Khan for first-degree sexual assault. Yale stayed the University’s disciplinary proceedings pending the outcome of the prosecution. Khan faced a jury trial in early 2018 for first, second, third, and fourth degree sexual assault, and was acquitted on all counts after less than one day of deliberations.

Following his acquittal, Khan sought readmission to Yale. More than 77,000 signatures protested his enrollment. Khan was eventually readmitted, though denied on-campus housing and treated as unwelcome on campus.

In November 2018, Khan returned to campus for the University’s disciplinary proceedings hearing for Doe’s 2015 sexual assault complaint. Doe had since graduated from Yale, was not present, and provided a statement via teleconference. Khan was not permitted to be in the room when the University hearing panel questioned Doe, and instead listened to the audio in another room.

Khan claimed he was denied an opportunity to confront his accuser, and, although Khan had counsel present, his attorney was not permitted to speak, question witnesses, or raise objections. A member of Yale’s legal team was present throughout to provide counsel to the University panel. Khan requested a transcript or recording of the hearing, which the panel denied. The University panel decided to expel Khan as a result of the hearing.

Following the expulsion, Khan brought a cause of action for defamation against Jane Doe for the accusations she made in the University proceeding. There is no question that, when Doe made accusations against Khan during Khan’s criminal trial, which was an official governmental proceeding with inherent procedural safeguards, Doe had absolute immunity in any subsequent civil action challenging her testimony as defamatory.

The question presented in this case was whether Doe’s statements during the University’s disciplinary proceedings were entitled to absolute immunity.

Doe argued that the University disciplinary proceeding was a quasi-judicial proceeding and her statements are therefore entitled to absolute immunity because such immunity furthers the important public policy goal of permitting alleged victims of sexual assault to speak candidly and frankly with university officials without fear of retaliatory lawsuits.

Khan argued that the University proceeding was not quasi-judicial because it was neither a governmental proceeding nor a proceeding with sufficient judicial-like procedures to protect against malicious and defamatory statements. Khan argued that if absolute immunity was afforded in these situations, individuals who are falsely accused have no recourse or protection against malicious and defamatory allegations.

The trial court ruled that the University proceeding was quasi-judicial in nature, and therefore, Doe enjoyed absolute immunity for the statements she made in that proceeding. Khan appealed.

The Court of Appeals noted that both parties’ arguments were compelling. In support of Doe’s position, one in four women, and one in fifteen men, will experience sexual assault while attending college. These victims are often reluctant to report such crimes, and the Court of Appeals noted that there is a fundamental right to safety, especially on a college campus. At the same time, the Court of Appeals recognized the competing public policy interest that those accused of crimes, especially as serious a crime as sexual assault, are entitled to fundamental fairness before being labeled as a sexual predator. Statements made in sexual misconduct disciplinary proceedings that are offered and accepted without adequate procedural safeguards carry a great risk of unfair or unreliable outcomes. There is no benefit to society or the administration in granting immunity to those who make intentionally false and malicious accusations of sexual assault.

In order to balance these competing interests, the Court of Appeals ruled that a proceeding is quasi-judicial when the proceeding is specifically authorized by law, applies law to fact in an adjudicatory manner, contains adequate procedural safeguards, and is supported by a public policy in encouraging absolute immunity for proceeding participants. If a proceeding meets the definition of a quasi-judicial proceeding, absolute immunity is afforded to participants.

Here, the Court of Appeals determined that the University proceeding did not meet the conditions necessary to be considered quasi-judicial, and therefore, Doe was not entitled to absolute immunity from Khan’s defamation claim. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the proceeding lacked judicial-like procedures and other indicia of reliability. The University proceeding failed: (1) to require complainants to testify under oath or subject them to explicit and meaningful penalties for untruthful statements; (2) to provide Khan, or his counsel, the  meaningful opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses in real time; (3) to provide parties a reasonable opportunity to call witnesses to testify; (4) to afford Khan the opportunity to have the active assistance of counsel during the hearing; and (5) to provide Khan any record or transcript of the proceeding that would assist him in obtaining adequate review of the decision or to expose the legitimacy or fairness of the proceeding to public scrutiny. The collective absence of these features indicated that the proceeding did not ensure reliability or promote fairness, and therefore could not be deemed quasi-judicial.

The Court of Appeals also concluded that a qualified privilege was available to alleged victims of sexual assault who report their abuse to proper authorities at institutions of higher education. Unlike qualified immunity, a qualified privilege protects only those allegedly defamatory statements that are not made maliciously.

Here, Khan alleged in his complaint that Doe made false accusations against him for the sake of trying to expel Khan as a part of a larger political movement and personal vendetta. Khan alleged that Doe made romantic advances towards him, and at first, Doe told a campus health care worker that she engaged in consensual unprotected sex.  Khan alleged that Doe was ashamed of her sexual advances, and despite a jury dismissing his allegation, more than 77,000 people signed a petition protesting his readmission. The Court of Appeals determined that, at this stage of the case, Khan asserted enough facts to defeat the qualified immunity privilege.

Khan v. Yale University (2023) 347 Conn. 1.

Note: This case illustrates the competing interests at play when schools conduct proceedings for student sexual misconduct. Many predict that the impact of this case will be that fewer survivors of sexual misconduct will come forward for fear of a defamation lawsuit. Although this case took place at Yale, the California Supreme Court is currently considering a University of Southern California case in order to provide clarity on the extent of an accused student’s right to receive the opportunity to cross-examine critical witnesses at an in-person hearing when facing disciplinary action.  LCW has reported on this case previously and is awaiting the CA Supreme Court’s decision.

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