California Appellate Court Rules That Due Process Does Not Require a Live Hearing for Written Reprimands
In Knight v. South Orange Community College District (3d. Dist., Div., Three), Case No. G058644, the Court of Appeal addressed whether a student was entitled to a due process hearing before a community college district could place a written reprimand in the student’s record.
In 2017, the Saddleback College/South Orange Community College District (“District”) received a complaint by a female student-worker (“Complainant #1”) that Plaintiff/Respondent followed her around campus, tried to put his arm around her shoulder and her hand on his thigh, and invaded her personal space. At Complainant #1’s request, the matter was informally resolved with a no-contact order, which Respondent promptly, and admittedly, violated. Respondent apologized to Complainant #1 in writing and at a meeting with school officials. Respondent’s parent arranged to have an attendant accompany Respondent to classes the following week.
Less than two weeks after the resolution of the incident with Complainant #1, the District received another complaint by a female student (Complainant #2) alleging that Respondent followed her, took photos of her in class, and put his hands on her. The District provided Respondent with notice of the complaint and commenced an investigation. Respondent’s parent provided written and verbal responses denying the allegations on his behalf. The District subsequently concluded its investigation and found that Respondent was responsible for the alleged misconduct. The District recommended that Respondent be suspended for the remainder of the 2018 spring semester.
The District’s disciplinary procedures provided that the possibility of suspension triggered a due process hearing. Respondent requested an appeal of his suspension and was allowed to attend classes pending the results of the hearing. The District later notified the Respondent in writing that the hearing was canceled due to witness unavailability. The District then issued a disciplinary notice to be maintained in Respondent’s academic file stating that he violated the District’s policies regarding harassment and discrimination. The notice also set forth the Respondent’s right to submit a written response to be attached to the notice. Respondent petitioned for a writ of mandate alleging, among other things, that the District failed to provide him an opportunity to question the complainant or adverse witnesses in front of a neutral fact-finder at a live evidentiary due process hearing.
With respect to the complaint by Complainant #1, the Court of Appeal found that Respondent received notice and an opportunity to explain his conduct. There was no dispute that Respondent physically harassed Complainant #1. The no-contact order was mutual and was entered into voluntarily after two meetings with the parties. The Court did not find that Respondent was deprived of due process before the no-contact order was issued.
Regarding Complainant #2, the Court of Appeal relied on Goss v. Lopez (1975) 419 U.S. 565 and its description of two levels of due process that were required before a 10-day suspension could be imposed: 1) notice of the charges and their basis and an opportunity to contest them; and 2) assuming the first level occurred, a hearing with witnesses and cross-examination.
The Court found that Respondent was entitled to and did receive the first-level of due process. Respondent’s parent has provided a written and verbal response to the allegations which demonstrated that Respondent was fully apprised of the charges against him and had at least two opportunities to present his evidence. The District then issued Respondent a written reprimand instead of proceeding with suspension and invited Respondent to provide a written response which would be attached to the reprimand per his right under Education Code section 76233. Respondent declined to submit a written response to the reprimand.
The Court found that Respondent was not entitled to the second level of due process before receiving a written reprimand, particularly since he suffered no other official detriment. “We have concluded that requiring a trial-like hearing before [the community college district] could issue a written reprimand places too great a burden on the college when compared to the minor detriment to [Respondent.]” Although the written reprimand would remain in Respondent’s student record, the Court did not find that to be unfair to Respondent for several reasons. First, Respondent’s parent refused to stop Respondent’s habit of approaching students on campus to take photos. The court noted that this strategy may have worked well in high school — approaching people and asking for photos — but was not suited to the college environment. Second, campus administrators in charge of dealing with harassment were entitled to know Respondent’s history if another such complaint was made. It was also important to document that Respondent was violating the school’s policy against harassment and had to be warned that he faced more severe sanctions if he continued on this course. Third, there was a significant difference for disciplinary purposes between a first-time offense and a pattern of similar conduct. The Court noted another important difference between this case and other “typical college misconduct cases” in that this case did not involve disputed facts or credibility disputes.
The decision provides an important limitation on respondents who allege due process violations and demand live hearings for lower level disciplinary actions. However, educational institutions should consult their Title IX Coordinator and/or legal counsel before forgoing any procedural requirements, such as a live hearing, contained within their policies as determinations will be dependent on the facts of each case.