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Judge denies university's motion to dismiss student's due process lawsuit against college

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Ashe Schow,Due Process,Campus Sexual Assault

A Vermont federal judge denied Marlboro College’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by one of its students alleging the university wrongfully convicted him of sexual assault.

Judge William Sessions III, a U.S. District Court judge in Burlington, Vt., ruled earlier this month that the student, Luke Benning, had grounds to file his lawsuit in federal court because he claimed damages exceeding $75,000 and should have access to depose certain employees at Marlboro College. Sessions did grant Marlboro’s motion to dismiss Benning’s defamation claim, but left the door open to reconsider if Benning “uncovers evidence of defamation during discovery.”

Sessions also denied Benning’s motion for expedited discovery because Benning wanted to depose witnesses before the end of the academic semester, which has already passed, making the motion moot.

This may seem at first like a wash — Benning won some, Marlboro won some — but this is actually a big win for Benning.

The judge refused to dismiss the lawsuit, which is a big win for Benning and due process. Even without the defamation claim, Benning’s case will still be heard.

According to Benning’s lawsuit, he and his accuser engaged in consensual sexual intercourse twice during the summer of 2012. After the relationship deteriorated in the fall of 2012, Benning began seeing a friend of his accuser. Following this, Benning alleges, his accuser filed two informal complaints with the university claiming she had been sexually assaulted.

After the first complaint was closed (it is unclear from either Benning’s lawsuit or additional court documents what that means exactly) and the second complaint warranted no further action, Benning’s accuser filed a formal complaint.

Marlboro investigated the formal complaint and eventually determined Benning was guilty of sexual misconduct and expelled him from campus. Benning appealed the decision and won, sort of — his sentence was reduced to a suspension of three semesters.

Benning is now suing Marlboro for “irreparable reputational harm, severe emotional distress, economic injuries and loss of educational opportunities,” among other things caused by the university’s decision to suspend him.

Marlboro tried to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming it lacked jurisdiction in federal court. Judge Sessions denied the motion, writing that “federal courts have jurisdiction where the “parties are completely diverse and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.” Sessions believes that Benning could allege “that damages will exceed $75,000 and that “there is no dispute that there is complete diversity between the parties.”

Sessions also noted that Benning’s damage costs “include lost earnings as a result of the delay in graduation, expenses incurred during the suspension and the reputational and emotional cost of the suspension.” He notes that “damages for delayed graduation alone may amount to well over $75,000.”

Sessions didn’t find any hard evidence that Marlboro defamed Benning, writing that what Benning included as defamation in his lawsuit amounted to “mere speculation.” Sessions did, as noted above, write that Benning could amend his lawsuit to re-allege defamation if he provides evidence.

Sessions found that Marlboro’s motion to deny Benning the ability to depose its employees was based on the university’s claim that the hearing panel that determined Benning guilt was “analogous to government entities.” Sessions, however, claims that Marlboro College is not a government entity and should therefore allow Benning to interview its employees.

Benning had requested expedited discovery to depose witnesses before the end of the 2014 Spring semester. Sessions notes the court denied the motion before the end of the semester, on the same day Benning filed a second motion for expedited discovery.

“Presumably Benning filed the second motion before seeing the Court’s order,” Sessions wrote. “Regardless, the Motion is now moot because the term in question has passed. The Motion is therefore denied.”

The court’s ruling follows other wins for college due process. In March, a federal judge denied Xavier University's motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Dezmine Wells, a student suing for what he claims is a false accusation of sexual assault. In May, another federal judge denied Saint Joseph's University's motion to dismiss a lawsuit from student Brian Harris.

And in June, a North Carolina judge ruled that Duke University couldn't expel Lewis M. McLeod for sexual misconduct because his due process rights were violated.

The growing number of due process lawsuits against universities indicates that, following complaints from female students that their sexual assault claims were being ignored, universities overcorrected in such a way that leaves young men’s futures at risk.

(H/t K.C. Johnson)

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