Federal appeals court rules in UMass Amherst assault case 

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus COURTESY PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/12/2019 10:34:42 PM

AMHERST — A federal appeals court has ruled that the University of Massachusetts violated a former student’s right to due process when it suspended him, without prior notice or an official hearing, after allegations that he had assaulted and harassed his girlfriend.

James Haidak, the former student, sued UMass Amherst and university administrators after a hearing panel found him responsible for an assault against his girlfriend during a 2013 study-abroad trip in Barcelona, Spain. The panel also found Haidak not responsible for harassment or endangerment. He alleged that the hearing was biased, depriving him of his due process rights and violating Title IX, a federal education law that protects people from discrimination based on gender.

A federal court initially dismissed Haidak’s case in 2018, finding that “the disciplinary mechanism, though not without flaws, reasonably complied with the requirements of due process and equal protection.”

On Aug. 6, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned part of that decision, ruling that Haidak had been unconstitutionally suspended before his expulsion because the university did not give him prior notice of a suspension hearing. However, the appeals court also found that the university did not violate Haidak’s rights in expelling him “after providing a fair expulsion hearing.”

UMass spokeswoman Mary Dettloff declined to comment on the case.

Northampton lawyer Luke Ryan, who is representing Haidak, called the appeals court’s decision a “mixed bag.”

“I think the determination that my client’s separation from the university was unconstitutional was an important recognition that people have a right to be heard before important decisions like that get made,” Ryan said.

But Ryan took issue with the fact that the judge in the case, William Joseph Kayatta Jr., found that the hearing board members “managed to conduct a hearing reasonably calculated to get to the truth” before expelling Haidak.

That decision came after Kayatta also wrote in his ruling that the hearing board had an “ill-suited kid-gloves approach for witnesses,” and that he found it “concerning” that the assistant dean of students was able to strike 20 out of a total of 36 questions that Haidak proposed for the hearing board to ask his accuser.

Kayatta found that the proceedings led to a fair process by allowing Haidak to be heard after his accuser testified, and by examining his accuser’s claims “in a manner reasonably calculated to expose any relevant flaws in her claims.” But Ryan said he disagrees with the court’s ruling that the university’s non-adversarial, “inquisitorial” system of adjudication was adequate.

“You can’t entrust that to a panel that doesn’t really understand the case and doesn’t have the advocate’s eye for real-time cross-examination, which courts have long recognized is the greatest engine for the discovery of truth,” Ryan said.

The ruling comes amid an increasingly murky legal and regulatory landscape.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is in the process of finalizing draft Title IX regulations after she scrapped Obama-era Title IX guidance in 2017. That guidance was meant to improve protections for sexual assault survivors but drew criticism from some who said it violated due process rights for the accused.

The UMass case differs from a separate U.S. Court of Appeals decision in the Sixth Circuit last year in a similar case. In that case, the court found that students or their representatives should be able to directly question their accusers in Title IX cases. In Haidak’s case, the court ruled that cross-examination should take place, but not necessarily by the students or their representatives.

The decision sets up a “circuit split” between the two circuit courts of appeals — one of the factors that the U.S. Supreme Court weighs when considering which cases to review. Some have speculated that, given the increasingly patchwork legal and regulatory landscape, the Supreme Court could take up such cases.

Ryan declined to say whether Haidak plans to petition the Supreme Court to review his case. He said his client is still weighing his legal options, and would have 90 days to decide whether to do so.

The Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions every year and only accepts a fraction of them, so the chances are slim that the case would be taken up, Ryan said. But he also thinks it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court hears such a case.

“It is a really important issue, and there’s public policy considerations that exist here, and it’s one that is going to have to eventually be guidance from the country’s highest court to determine what people’s procedural rights are,” Ryan said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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