University’s Decision To Suspend Student Following Allegation Of Sexual Assault Was Upheld Due To Policy In Handbook

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Apr 28, 2023

On Saturday, October 15, 2016, Dhameer Bradley, Malik St. Hilaire, and Nikki Yovino, all students at Sacred Heart University, attended an off-campus party in Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the party, Bradley and St. Hilaire engaged in sexual intercourse with Yovino in a bathroom. After leaving the bathroom, Yovino told her friends who were with her at the party that Bradley and St. Hilaire had sexually assaulted her. The next morning, Yovino went to the hospital and reported the sexual assault to the hospital staff. The hospital staff performed a sexual assault examination and contacted the police. At the hospital, Yovino gave a statement to the police officer alleging that she was sexually assaulted by Bradley and St. Hilaire.

On Monday, the police contacted the University’s dean of students about the allegations and told the dean of students that an investigation was underway. The next day, Bradley was suspended from the university on the basis of the allegations of sexual assault that had been made to the police department. The suspension barred Bradley from participating in any university classes or sponsored events, and from playing on the football team. On the advice of counsel, Bradley withdrew from the University a few weeks later, which caused him to lose his football scholarship. Yovino later recanted her allegations and pleaded guilty to charges of falsely reporting an incident in the second degree and interfering with an officer, both in violation of Connecticut laws. Despite her guilty pleas, Yovino continues to maintain the sexual conduct was not consensual, however, that issue was not before this court.

The University later reinstated Bradley as a student, and he returned to complete his studies, graduating in December 2018. His scholarship to play football, however, was not restored.

Bradley and St. Hilaire sued Yovino and the University. The only claim against the University was for breach of contract. Bradley argued that the student handbook obligated the University and its officials to treat Bradley with “respect, dignity, and compassion,” and mandated that “a presumption of guilt should not be made as a result of any allegations.” The handbook, Bradley argued, created a contract between the University and its students, and the University breached that contract when it suspended Bradley on the basis of an uncorroborated accusation of sexual assault by a fellow student, and without any prior investigation by the University into the allegation. Bradley requested monetary damages to compensate for the loss of football scholarship and academic credits lost due to his withdrawal.

The trial court granted the University’s motion for summary judgment, finding that although the student handbook created an enforceable contract between the University and its students, the handbook also authorized the University’s immediate suspension of students facing allegations of serious criminal activity without further investigation. Bradley appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and found that there was no dispute that the student handbook formed an enforceable contract between Bradley and the University. The handbook authorized the dean of students to suspend a student immediately if the dean of students deemed it necessary to preserve the benefit and welfare of the University’s community. The handbook also authorized the dean of students to suspend a student facing allegations of serious criminal activity. The language in the handbook gave the dean of students discretion as necessary to serve the welfare and safety of the University’s community. Based on the information the dean of students received from the police officer, he imposed an immediate suspension on Bradley pending an investigation in order to provide safety to the University community’s welfare. The handbook did not require the University to investigate allegations of serious criminal activity before suspending a student. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling and granted the motion for summary judgment, dismissing the case.

Bradley v. Yovino (Conn. App. Ct. 2023) 218 Conn.App. 1.

Note: This case acts as an important reminder that a school’s handbook creates a binding contract between schools and students, and schools should follow the processes in their handbook when there is an allegation of sexual assault.

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