As colleges and universities review the Department of Education’s proposed new Title IX regulations revising process by which allegations of sexual misconduct must be handled, they must consider the potential impact of what appears to be clearly greater protections for those accused of sexual misconduct, including student-athletes.
The proposed regulations will formally replace guidance and interpretation of Title IX from the Obama Administration, which had called for strict enforcement and interpretation of the law and recommended specific procedural actions for colleges and universities (including use of the minimal “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof when assessing sexual assault claims).
Unlike other students, a sexual assault allegation against a student-athlete often results in immediate suspension from the team. Beyond the impact that a suspension has on the student-athlete’s eligibility and the competitiveness of the institution’s sports program, such suspensions attract negative publicity for both the student-athlete and institution. Student-athletes, like other students accused of sexual misconduct, have experienced due process limitations under the current process, particularly with respect to evidentiary restrictions. The proposed Title IX regulations would appear to improve due process conditions for all students who have been accused of violations under their institution’s sexual misconduct policies.
After rescinding the Obama Administration’s Title IX guidance in 2017, Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said of the 149-page document containing the long-awaited new regulations,
“We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it, while ensuring a fair grievance process. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas.” Devos continued, “… [E]very student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined.”
ESPN’s recent review of information received from 32 of the 65 schools that make up the Power 5 conferences concluded that student-athletes are three times more likely than other students to be accused of sexual misconduct. Student-athletes represented 6.3% of the accused in Title IX complaints, while athletes make up only 1.7% of total student undergraduate enrollment.
In response to discipline imposed against them, many accused student-athletes have filed lawsuits against their universities and individual administrators in the sexual misconduct process.
Since 2011, more than 200 lawsuits have been filed by accused students against colleges and universities claiming due process violations during the course of Title IX investigations and disciplinary proceedings.
For many, access to the civil courts offers a last chance for justice and a legal option to help clear their names. Lawsuits brought by the accused have utilized numerous legal theories to challenge disciplinary actions, including breach of contract, violations of Title IX, gender discrimination, defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and other relevant state law claims.
The DOE’s proposed regulations will create a more legalized sexual misconduct process on campus. The DOE hopes to reduce the propensity for litigation following the institution’s hearing process. Decreasing governmental investigatory resource burden and saving institutions money also may result. According to the DOE, the new regulations will decrease substantially the number of investigations into complaints of sexual misconduct and save institutions millions over the next decade.
Moreover, the proposed regulations would provide institutions the autonomy to decide how sexual misconduct cases are adjudicated. To this end, the proposed changes include:
- The ability for universities to chose the applicable evidentiary standard (either “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence”) in determining responsibility for the misconduct.
- The ability for institutions to utilize an informal resolution process to resolve sexual misconduct allegations, if the parties agree.
- The requirement that schools hold live hearings.
- Institutions are not permitted to use any individual who was involved in the investigation of an alleged sexual assault to subsequently serve as a fact-finder in any sexual assault hearing that follows the investigation. All hearings must be conducted by a neutral trier of fact and conducted with an initial presumption of innocence.
- Accusers and students accused of committing sexual assault must be given the opportunity to cross-examine each other and other potential witnesses through an adviser or attorney, and universities would not be able to limit this right. If a party or witness refuses to submit to cross-examination, that person’s testimony could not be relied on by the fact-finder.
Both parties must have equal access to all evidence the school’s designated investigator has gathered, and both parties retain the ability to appeal decisions.
Proponents and critics of the regulations have 60 days (until January 15, 2019) to submit comments before the regulations go into effect.
It is anticipated at this time that the final regulations will mirror the proposed regulations. While the 60-day period is ongoing, colleges and universities are afforded the opportunity to carefully review their current sexual misconduct policies and practices to determine what changes they will implement to comply with the anticipated regulations.
While the regulations’ goal is to equalize accusers and the accused by providing additional rights to benefit accused individuals,
many critics have expressed concern that the regulations go too far, and that institutional sexual misconduct processes may harm accusers’ rights.
For example, critics say the new cross-examination requirement will force accusers to face questioning that could influence the victims’ willingness to report sexual assault. They also say the proposed regulations provide the accused with more power to intimidate and hurt victims.
Jackson Lewis’ Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and its Higher Education Industry Group are well-versed in Title IX issues and will continue to monitor and provide updates on developments in this area. Please feel free to reach out to any member with questions.