U.S. Appeals Court rules student acquitted in Yale sex assault case can proceed with defamation suit against accuser, school

A federal appeals court said Wednesday that a former Yale University student expelled as the result of a since dismissed rape accusation can proceed with suits for defamation and other claims against his accuser and the school based on an analysis by the state Supreme Court.

In a decision released Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a district court decision dismissing expelled student Saifullah Khan’s defamation suit against his accuser, a former schoolmate identified as Jane Doe, and related claims against the university based on his expulsion.

Khan denied the rape allegation but was suspended and ultimately expelled after the charge was upheld by Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.

Khan also was charged with four sexual assault crimes in state court based on the accusation. Two and one-half years after the alleged attack, a state jury acquitted him of all charges after less than a day of deliberation.

Based on the acquittals, Khan sued his accuser and Yale for defamation and equal protection violations. District Judge Kari Dooley dismissed the cases, concluding, among other things, that the accuser was entitled to immunity from such claims because Yale’s sexual misconduct committee operated what amounted to a “quasi-judicial” proceeding, entitling her to the same protections and immunities provided by courts of law.

When Khan appealed the dismissal, the federal appeals court asked the state Supreme Court for an opinion on whether immunity can be conferred by Yale’s private, sexual assault  disciplinary process.

The Supreme Court said the committee could not confer immunity because the Yale disciplinary process “lacked a significant number of procedural safeguards… that in judicial proceedings ensure reliability and promote fundamental fairness.” The Supreme Court said Kahn effectively was denied the right to defend himself because the Yale process did not require sworn testimony and he was denied the right to counsel, the right to cross examine witnesses and the right to call witnesses in his defense.

An email seeking comment was sent to Yale.

Khan’s case has been followed closely because of questions it raises generally about the new model for discipline in sexual misconduct cases that many schools adopted based on direction by the U.S. Department of Education. In one of several such cases moving through the U.S. courts, UConn settled with a student who denied being involved in sexual misconduct, but was not permitted to defend himself before a school committee, which judged him guilty and suspended him.

Like Khan, the UConn student later prevailed in federal court.

Similar complaints have become increasingly common around the country, as schools — in a time of increased sensitivity to sexual coercion — investigate, arbitrate and impose discipline on claims of sexual misconduct among students. In many cases, those who are accused complain that institutional definitions of misconduct are too broad and the accused are denied opportunities to defend themselves.

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