Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Man sues university, its dean for diversity, for discrimination in handling of sexual assault charge against him

Court rejects school's argument that white males are not a protected class, allows him to file a Title IX claim

One night in 2009, Joshua Vaughan and an unnamed female classmate at Vermont Law School engaged in alcohol-fueled sex. Six months later, the woman reported her version of the story to two "student ambassadors" who then informed Shirley Jefferson, the school's Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity. Jefferson then met with Vaughan regarding the complaint and asked him about the underlying events. Jefferson made a determination that it was more probable than not that Vaughan had violated the school's Code of Conduct. Jefferson appointed independent investigators to investigate the complaint. In the meantime, the alleged victim sent Jefferson an email stating that she did not want further involvement in the investigation or in any subsequent hearing.

Among other things, the investigators reported that the alleged victim expressed uncertainty about whether she verbally said "no" and that, "assuming that [the alleged victim's]' accounts are accurate, [they could not] say that Mr. Vaughan understood that RH did not want to have intercourse with him[.]"

After reviewing the investigator's report, Jefferson made another determination that there were reasonable grounds to believe that Vaughan had violated the school's Code of Conduct by committing sexual assault and by engaging in a pattern of behavior constituting sexual harassment.

The dispute proceeded to a disciplinary hearing. The hearing panel found that both charges against Vaughan were "unfounded."

Vaughn then filed suit against the school and Jefferson, alleging that their handling of the woman's complaint has negatively affected his educational experience in a number of ways.

Vaughn recently sought to amend his complaint to add a Title IX claim against the school. Vaughan alleges that the school, in its handling of the accuser's complaint, "was motivated by Vaughan's gender or sex in that [the school] favored and gave preferential treatment to the female complainant and disfavored, discredited and gave disadvantageous treatment to Vaughan as a male."

Title IX provides, in relevant part, that "[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Astoundingly, the school and Jefferson argued that "[w]hite male law students" are not members of a protected class. The court disagreed.

"[T]here is no question," wrote Judge William K. Sessions, "that males alleging gender discrimination may bring suit under Title IX."  

The court held that Mr. Vaughn's complaint raises a legitimate Title IX claim by alleging that he suffered adverse educational actions and that female students, in particular his accuser, were treated more favorably than him.

Specifically, Vaughan asserts, among other things, that the school "accepted [the accuser's] complaint as having 'reasonable cause' without any investigation of it at all, but refused to accept or even consider Vaughan's complaint" that one of the student ambassadors who met with the accuser assaulted him. (We don't have any further details about that allegation, but will try to uncover them.)

Moreover, Vaughn claims the school gave his accuser the investigators' report as soon as its representatives received it on April 6, but refused to give it to Vaughan until after he made his decision to have a hearing on May 14.

Vaughn further alleges that the school prevented Vaughan, but not his accuser, from taking courses where the two of them were both registered -- even after the disciplinary charges against him were dismissed.

In addition, Vaughn alleges that the school effectively barred Vaughan from most public socializing by encouraging the Student Ambassadors to have Vaughan barred from a local bar and grill.

Further, Vaughn alleges that the school took an unreasonable amount of time to complete its investigation and disciplinary hearing process, during which he was not given  access to his transcript and thereby prevented from completing transfer applications for other law schools.

If Mr. Vaughn prevails, it is hoped that he recovers significant damages to send a message to schools: men merely accused of sexual assault should not be punished by giving preferences to their accusers.

Citation: Vaughan v. Vt. Law Sch., Inc., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 86429 (D.Vt. 2011).