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University’s Decision To Suspend Recognition Of Fraternity For 6 Years For Conduct Violations Upheld By California Court
The University of Southern California (USC) maintains a University Student Code of Conduct (Code), which prohibits hazing and serving alcohol to anyone under 21 years of age among other things. USC’s Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards (SJACS) investigates alleged violations of the Code.
In January 2018, SJACS began investigating a complaint received from a former student and former member of the Alpha Nu Association of Theta Xi (Theta Xi) fraternity. The complaint alleged that in fall 2016 and fall 2017, Theta Xi hazed new members and served alcohol to underage students at recruitment events. The SJACS’s investigation found that in fall 2016 and fall 2017, “Theta Xi’s active members expected and at times required underage pledges to participate in drinking games designed to induce severe inebriation, subjected pledges to requirements likely to compromise their dignity and deprive them of sleep, and encouraged pledges to fight other members as a spectator sport.” The SJACS concluded that Theta Xi violated nine sections of the Code, including the section prohibiting hazing and the section prohibiting serving alcohol to anyone under 21. As a result, SJACS imposed a six-year suspension of USC’s recognition of the local Theta Xi chapter as a sanction.
Theta Xi appealed the six-year suspension to USC’s Student Behavior Appeals Panel (SBAP). Theta Xi acknowledged that pledges participated in fight nights and that active members invited pledges to drink alcohol, but characterized the events SJACS asserted violated the Code as voluntary, innocuous, and not warranting of sanctions. The SBAP upheld the suspension, explaining that Theta Xi had violated the Codes’ prohibition on hazing and underage drinking, Theta Xi had failed to evaluate its culture or take responsibility for its members’ actions, and the suspension would give Theta Xi the opportunity to change its culture and leadership. USC’s Vice President of Student Affairs approved SBAP’s decision, which made the suspension final.
Theta Xi filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandamus, which is a legal action that asks a court to review and reverse a final decision or order reached by an administrative body, such as USC’s SJACS, against USC. Theta Xi alleged that its six-year suspension should be set aside because USC’s administrative procedure was unfair and SJACS’s factual findings were not supported by the evidence. The trial court rejected both allegations and denied the petition. Theta Xi appealed, and the court of appeal granted review.
On appeal, Theta Xi contended that USC acted in excess of its jurisdiction by suspending its recognition of Theta Xi’s USC chapter based on events that preceded the complaint by more than one year; (2) SJACS’s factual findings were unsupported by the evidence; (3) USC’s decision was unsupported by SJACS’s factual findings; and (4) USC’s administrative procedure was unfair.
The court first found that USC acted within its jurisdiction. The relevant SJACS policy stated that “Generally, a matter will be reviewed only when a report has been filed with [SJACS] within one year of discovery of the alleged violation.” While the report at issue was filed 14 months after the alleged violation, the court noted that the policy provides a general guideline of one year, and does not preclude SJACS from investigating reports received after one year. The court also noted that the circumstances surrounding the report, the severity of the allegations, and the likelihood that the practices for initiating new members would reoccur, warranted an exception to SJAC’s general one-year guideline. The court found a little possibility that the delay obstructed the investigation or prejudiced Theta Xi’s defense.
The court next found that USC was within its authority to suspend recognition of Theta Xi’s local chapter based on violations of USC’s privacy rules and that Theta Xi did not have a vested right to remain recognized by USC, as a private university, in the face of alleged violations of USC rules. The court further found that substantial evidence, including in the form of text messages and witness statements, supported SJACS’s findings that Theta XI violated the prohibition against serving alcohol at rush events and the prohibition against hazing. Specifically, there was substantial evidence that underage pledges drank alcohol during Theta Xi events, including participating in drinking games, and that pledges participated in sleep deprivation activities and other incidents constituting hazing.
The court also found that SJAC’s factual findings adequately supported USC’s decision to suspend its recognition of Theta Xi’s local chapter for six years and that USC adequately explained the basis for its decision. The court explained that Theta Xi minimized and failed to take responsibility for its members’ serious violations of USC rules and the Code and continued to deny the existence of evidence of peer pressure among its members that impairs rational decision-making with regard to safety and well-being. The court emphasized USC’s hope and expectation that Theta Xi uses the six-year suspension as a time to evaluate its culture, take responsibility for its members’ actions, and make changes to its culture and leadership.
Finally, the court held that Theta Xi received a fair administrative hearing. Specifically, Theta Xi received adequate notice of the alleged violations of the Code and the factual basis for those alleged violations. Theta Xi received the opportunity to review all of the evidence that SJACS collected during the investigation and to produce all of the relevant information they chose to produce. The court found a complete lack of bias, the appearance of bias, or a high probability of bias in the process.
The court also determined that Theta Xi was not entitled to the heightened procedural safeguards that the court found were required in Doe v. Allee (2019) 30 Cal.App.5th 1036 (i.e., (1) an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses; (2) separation of investigative and adjudicatory functions; and (3) an administrative appellate procedure.) The court explained that Doe v. Allee involved the rights of individual students directly with regard to allegations of sexual assault that was dependent upon the credibility of the two individuals involved and held the potential for severe disciplinary action. In contrast, the investigation and subsequent proceeding at issue here involved the rights of the fraternity, a private association, to participate as an on-campus organization. Further, there were multiple witnesses involved, SJACS had corroborating evidence, and two individuals jointly shared the investigative and adjudicatory functions.
Therefore, the court upheld the trial court’s denial of Theta Xi’s petition.
Alpha Nu Association of Theta Xi v. University of Southern California (2021) 62 Cal.App.5th 383, as modified (Mar. 23, 2021).
Student organizations are entitled to a fair process before private colleges, universities, and K-12 schools may impose sanctions upon them for policy violations. Nevertheless, this case indicates that student organizations may not be entitled to the same heightened procedural safeguards in the investigation and hearing process to which individual students facing the possibility of disciplinary sanctions directly are entitled.