Court Concludes Absolute Immunity Not Available for Statements in Sexual Misconduct Hearing

The Connecticut Supreme Court recently concluded a university disciplinary proceeding arising from a sexual assault allegation was not quasi-judicial and therefore did not afford the complainant with absolute immunity for the statements she made during the proceeding.

According to the court’s opinion, “Jane Doe” accused the plaintiff of sexual misconduct in disciplinary proceedings conducted by the Ivy League university they both attended.  The plaintiff was expelled from the University.  He filed suit in federal court against the university, several university employees, and Doe.  His claims against Doe included defamation and tortious interference with business relationships.

The District Court concluded the disciplinary proceeding was quasi-judicial and Doe had absolute immunity for the statements she made during the proceeding under Connecticut law.  It concluded extending immunity to the university’s disciplinary proceedings was warranted under Connecticut’s six-factor test to identify quasi-judicial proceedings and as a matter of public policy.

The plaintiff appealed, and the Second Circuit certified questions to the Connecticut Supreme Court related to immunity for statements made during the disciplinary proceedings.

Absolute Immunity

A witness has absolute immunity for statements made in judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings.  Jane Doe argued the university’s disciplinary proceedings were quasi-judicial and that she therefore had absolute immunity for the statements made in those proceedings.  She argued that the immunity furthered the public policy goal of allowing alleged sexual assault victims to report incidents freely.

The plaintiff argued the proceeding was not governmental and did not have sufficient judicial-like procedures to safeguard against defamation or malicious statements.  He argued absolute immunity in such proceedings would leave accused students with no recourse against false allegations.

The Connecticut Supreme Court acknowledged competing public policies, one to encourage alleged victims of sexual assault to speak out and bring perpetrators to justice and another regarding the right to fundamental fairness for those accused of a serious crime.

The court clarified that a proceeding is quasi-judicial only if it is specifically authorized by law, applies law to fact, has adequate procedural safeguards, and is supported by a public policy that encourages absolute immunity.

The court acknowledged that Connecticut law specifically authorizes disciplinary proceedings based on allegations of sexual assault at institutions of higher learning.

Insufficient Procedural Safeguards

The plaintiff argued there were insufficient judicial-like procedures for the proceeding to be quasi-judicial.  Because the case was at the motion to dismiss stage, the court had to accept the factual allegations as true and draw any inferences in favor of the plaintiff.  From that perspective, the court noted the proceeding did not require complainants to testify under oath or subject them to meaningful penalties for not telling the truth.  The court concluded this undermined the reliability of the complainant’s statements.  The parties were not given a reasonable opportunity to call witnesses.  The plaintiff was not given a meaningful opportunity to confront or cross-examine witnesses. The plaintiff and his attorney were excluded from the hearing room while Doe was questioned and were only allowed to listen to an audio feed.  The plaintiff alleged they were not given an opportunity to ask her any questions.   He did not have the opportunity to have active assistance of an attorney during the proceeding.  Although the plaintiff was allowed to be accompanied by an advisor, the advisor was not allowed to present arguments, submit documents, or speak for him.  Additionally, the plaintiff was not provided a record of the proceeding to assist him in a review of the proceeding. Although the university’s procedures required a secretary to keep minutes, those minutes did “not record statements, testimony, or questions.” The plaintiff’s request for a transcript or electronic recording was denied. The court noted that all of these procedural safeguards may not be necessary for a proceeding to be recognized as quasi-judicial, but together their absence weighted against a conclusion there were adequate safeguards ensuring the reliability and fundamental fairness of the proceeding.

The court concluded that there were not basic procedural safeguards to ensure the reliability of the information presented at the hearing and therefore did not recognize the disciplinary proceeding as quasi-judicial.

Qualified Immunity

The court also concluded public policy supports a qualified immunity for alleged victims of sexual assault who report the alleged misconduct to the institution of higher education.  Qualified immunity can be defeated if the defendant acted with malice in making the defamatory statement.  The plaintiff alleged the defendant acted with malice in making the statement.  Because the case was at the motion to dismiss stage, the court was required to accept the allegations as true. The plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts to defeat qualified immunity at this stage, but the court noted that qualified privilege could be revisited after the factual record is developed.

Schedule a Consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC

This case applied Connecticut law, but it does show that there may be recourse for false allegations.  If someone at your Washington school has accused you of sexual misconduct, you need a skilled Washington Title IX defense attorney on your side.  At Blair & Kim, PLLC, we can help you with a Title IX investigation and disciplinary proceeding, and we also have the experience to also assist with any associated criminal case.  Call our office at (206) 622-6562.

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