Pomona College must pay $130,000 in attorney fees to a former student accused of sexual assault for denying him a “fair hearing,” a California appeals court ruled Oct. 3.
The court of appeal’s opinion affirmed a decision two years ago that found the college responsible for disregarding its own sexual misconduct policy in denying the accused student — called John Doe in court documents — his right to question the student who accused him of sexual assault, called Jane Roe in court documents.
The Los Angeles Superior Court, which first heard the lawsuit in October 2017, determined that the college’s denial was improper and “prejudicial,” and questioned whether the external adjudicator (EA) who found the accused student responsible for sexual assault could have made the same determination about the accuser’s consent had the accuser been questioned sufficiently.
The court deemed Doe entitled to attorney fees to warn Pomona against denying students fair Title IX hearings and because the lawsuit enforced an “important right affecting the public interest.”
“We are very pleased the Court of Appeal affirmed the order for Pomona College to pay $130,000 of attorney fees incurred in overturning the college’s bad Title IX decision,” Doe’s lawyer Mark Hathaway told The College Fix via email. “The student has graduated but Pomona College withheld his degree for a year and the student is still fighting to clear his record.”
Doe had sought $255,672.50 from the College to cover attorney fees of $127,836.25.
Doe was accused of sexual misconduct against Roe, a Pitzer student, in March 2015, according to the court of appeal’s opinion. Upon being found responsible, Doe requested in April 2016 that the adjudicator review the ruling and further investigate Roe’s statements, the opinion said.
The trial court found that, in the re-hearing that followed, the adjudicator violated Pomona’s policies, which grant the accused the right to either to ask the EA to pose further questions to the accuser as part of continued investigation, or to submit questions for the EA to ask the accuser at the hearing.
The appeals court wrote in its opinion the EA had denied Doe both opportunities.
The EA first rejected Doe’s request to have investigators ask Roe additional questions, believing it more appropriate to question her at the hearing. This was based on a misunderstanding of college policy, according to the appeals court decision.
Then, the EA faulted Doe for not submitting questions five days in advance as he was supposed to, and Roe decided two days before the hearing not to attend, according to the court of appeals opinion.
When Doe appealed the EA’s ruling against him on the grounds that he was denied the opportunity to examine Roe directly or indirectly, then-Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum rejected his appeal, arguing the EA had acted in line with school policy, the court of appeals opinion said.
Pomona argued in its appeal of the Superior Court decision that its policy was misapplied because the EA misunderstood college policy and because of Roe’s last-minute failure to attend the hearing, a “unique set of circumstances” the college claimed was unlikely to happen again.
But the appeals court judges rejected this argument, writing that Pomona’s actions “demonstrated an insensitivity to due process concerns that was likely to recur.”
“The College’s further assertion that the [EA] and the Dean of Students will not make the same mistakes twice ignores that the reason they will not is because of Doe’s [lawsuit],” the judges further wrote.
Sue McCarthy, Pomona’s Title IX coordinator, declined to respond to questions about the case, citing the sensitivity of the process. TSL was unable to contact Doe, Roe or their representatives.