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Schools and Universities/Due Process and Equal Protection

Brief - Due process implications of student handbooks - Schaer v. Brandeis University, 432 Mass. 474, 735 N.E.2d 373 (Mass. 2000)

This case raises the issue of how to apply due process procedures provided in a university's student handbook.  Since both parties accepted that the handbook formed a contract between the student and the university, the court did specifically noted that whether the handbook is a contract was not before it.  Plaintiff was accused of improper sexual conduct and creating a hostile atmosphere.  The university suspended him for 4 months and put him on disciplinarily probation for the remainder of his time at the university.  Plaintiff asked for a rehearing before the university appeals board, which was denied. Plaintiff then sought an injunction, alleging that the university did not provide him the process described in the student handbook, and also sued for breach of contract.  The injunction was denied and the court is only reviewing the breach of contract claim.  Before reaching the merits of the case, however, the court noted that the trial judge should have dismissed the case because of the poorly pled petition, criticizing it for being both too long and yet not at any point clearly stating a cause of action.

The student handbook provides: "[T]he available facts shall be gathered from the [complainant] and a careful evaluation of these facts, as well as the credibility of the person reporting them, shall be made. If corroboration of the information presented is deemed necessary, further inquiry and investigation shall be undertaken." Plaintiff claims that the university did not adhere to this standard because the investigators did not ask him to give a statement, to offer evidence, or to provide witnesses. Thus he was denied any input into the investigation until the disciplinary hearing.  The Court found that the handbook language did not require the university to seek information from the accused.  The court dismissed plaintiff's other allegations, including the complaint that the extremely brief report of the hearing did not comply with the handbook requirement that there be a record of the hearing.  The court concluded that:

"We adhere to the principle that '[c]courts are chary about interfering with academic and disciplinary decisions made by private colleges and universities.' . . .  A university is not required to adhere to the standards of due process guaranteed to criminal defendants or to abide by rules of evidence adopted by courts. 'A college must have broad discretion in determining appropriate sanctions for violations of its policies.'"

The opinion contains two substantial and spirited dissents.  The first argued that:

". . . the court, while correctly assuming that a contract exists between Brandeis and its students regarding the university's disciplinary procedures, fails to interpret the provisions of the disciplinary code in a commonsense way, or in a manner consistent with the standard rules of contract interpretation. The strained reading the court gives to these contractual provisions is troubling because Brandeis should be required to follow its own internal rules when imposing serious disciplinary sanctions on a student. As consumers, students should not be subject to disciplinary procedures that fail to comport with the rules promulgated by the school itself. . . . While the university's obligation to keep the members of its community safe from sexual assault and other crimes is of great importance, at the same time the university cannot tell its students that certain procedures will be followed and then fail to follow them. In a hearing on a serious disciplinary matter there is simply too much at stake for an individual student to countenance the university's failure to abide by the rules it has itself articulated."

The second dissent attacked the court's opinion as failing to apply the proper standard of review, i.e., that in a summary judgment, the evidence should be construed in favor of the objecting party.  Instead, the court construed the ambiguities and factual disputes against the plaintiff and in favor of the prevailing party, the university.  Both dissents attacked the reasonable expectations standard used for construing the terms of the contract, arguing that since the student handbook is a classic unilateral contract, its provisions should be strictly construed against the proffering party.  While the dissenting judges agree that private universities should have considerable freedom in resolving disputes, defendant in this case did not provide adequate due process as provided in its student handbook.  Interestingly, the dissent did not raise the issue of whether the traditional deference in academic decisionmaking, which is a unique university function, should carry over to the decisions on matters such as sexual harassment and assault, which all business and other institutions face.

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