Student Disciplinary Proceedings Revisited: A Responding Party is Not Entitled to “Quasi-Cross-Examination” in Private School Disciplinary ProceedingsPosted: February 19, 2020
by R. Victoria Fuller
Until recently, a key procedural issue in disciplinary proceedings administered by educational institutions—whether the responding party was entitled to conduct cross-examination—remained unclear in Massachusetts and the First Circuit. A pair of recent First Circuit decisions provide some clarity for Massachusetts public and private institutions, respectively. First, in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 933 F.3d 56 (1st Cir. 2019), discussed in the Fall issue of the Boston Bar Journal, the First Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the obligations imposed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on public educational institutions in disciplinary proceedings. There, the Court held that the responding party did not have a right to cross-examine the reporting party or other adverse witnesses in such proceedings, even where credibility was at issue, and that a public educational institution could implement a non-adversarial, “inquisitorial” system without violating the federal Due Process Clause so long as the educational institution adequately questioned the reporting party.
Most recently, in John Doe v. Trustees of Boston College, 942 F.3d 527 (1st Cir. 2019), the First Circuit addressed the same issue, but in relation to disciplinary proceedings in private educational institutions. As discussed below, the responding party argued that he was entitled to real-time examination of the reporting party and adverse witnesses through a neutral—or as the First Circuit called it, “quasi-cross-examination.” The Court rejected that argument. It held that private school proceedings are governed by state law, not the federal Due Process Clause, and that applicable Massachusetts contract law did not recognize a right of cross-examination.
The Complaint and Disciplinary Proceedings
In John Doe, the disciplinary proceeding was triggered by a complaint by a female student that a male student—the responding party—had sexually assaulted her. The complaint was governed by the university’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy (the “Policy”), which established the university’s procedure for the adjudicating sexual misconduct complaints. Under the Policy, sexual misconduct complaints were to be investigated by one (or more) internal or external investigators. The Policy did not permit either party to cross-examine the other party or adverse witnesses.
In the case of John Doe, once the investigators completed the investigation, they prepared a written report. Applying a preponderance of the evidence standard, the investigators found that several of the responding party’s statements lacked credibility, or failed to support his defense that the sexual contact at issue was consensual, and concluded that the responding party had violated the Policy. Based on the investigators’ findings and conclusions, the university imposed an immediate one-year suspension on the responding party.
After exhausting his appeals at the university, the responding party sued in the District of Massachusetts, seeking an injunction staying his suspension. The responding party argued that he was entitled to a form of real-time examination, including:
- Contemporaneous questioning by a “neutral” (who may be a hearing officer or an investigator) of both the reporting party and the responding party (though not necessarily in the same room);
- Disclosure of the exact statements of the adverse party in real time; and
- The opportunity to submit questions to the neutral, either orally or in writing, to be put to the other party.
The District Court agreed, and granted the requested injunction, thus staying the responding party’s suspension. The university appealed.
Private School Disciplinary Proceedings Are Governed by State Law
The First Circuit disagreed and vacated the injunction. The Court held that Massachusetts private schools are not obligated to provide any form of cross-examination, let alone the “real-time examination” sought by the responding party (and which the First Circuit referred to as “quasi-cross-examination”).
The Court explained that Massachusetts private school disciplinary proceedings are not governed by the federal Due Process Clause, but instead by applicable Massachusetts contract law. See 942 F.3d at 529. In Massachusetts, courts use two analyses to determine whether a private institution has breached its contract with a student: (1) whether the reasonable expectations of the parties have been met; and (2) whether the procedures implemented by the school were conducted with “basic fairness.” Id. at 533-34. First, the Court rejected the responding party’s argument that he reasonably expected he would be afforded the opportunity to conduct a form of quasi-cross-examination. Nothing in the Policy’s detailed procedures provided any basis for such an expectation.
Second, the Court stated that Massachusetts concept of “basic fairness” does not require quasi-cross-examination. “Basic fairness” requires only that a public institution act in good faith and on reasonable grounds, and that its decision must not be arbitrary and capricious. See Coveney v. President & Trs. of The Coll. of The Holy Cross, 388 Mass. 16, 19 (1983); Driscoll v. Bd. of Trs. of Milton Acad., 70 Mass. App. Ct. 285, 295 (2007). The Court also clarified that its recent decision in Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst was inapplicable: Boston College was neither a public university nor a government actor, and therefore was not subject to the federal Due Process Clause. The Court also noted that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had specifically held in Schaer v. Brandeis University, 432 Mass. 474 (2000) that the obligations imposed by basic fairness on private institutions were not equivalent to those imposed by the federal Due Process Clause on public institutions, and Massachusetts state courts had not recognized quasi-cross-examination as an obligation imposed by the basic fairness requirement.
Perhaps anticipating that its decision in John Doe would not be the final word on the matter, the First Circuit concluded that “whether Massachusetts in the future will wish to redefine the requirements of contractual basic fairness in college and university discipline matters poses important policy choices for the Supreme Judicial Court and/or state legislature to make.” Id. at 536.
With its decision in John Doe, the First Circuit clarified the distinction between the obligations imposed on public educational institutions by the federal Due Process Clause, and those imposed by Massachusetts contract law on private schools.
Importantly, the First Circuit also noted that “[f]ederal courts are not free to extend the reach of state law.” 942 F.3d at 535. While no previous Massachusetts case has held that “basic fairness” includes a right to cross-examination in private school disciplinary proceedings, the right of cross-examination in both public and private school disciplinary proceedings has become a hot topic across the country. Indeed, the law is rapidly evolving, and not always cohesively. Compare Haidak v. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 933 F.3d 56 (2019) (holding no absolute right to cross-examination in public institution disciplinary proceedings) with Doe v. Baum, 903 F.3d 575, 582-3 (6th Cir. 2018) (recognizing a right to cross-examination in public institution disciplinary proceedings).
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, after the case was remanded by the First Circuit, lawyers for John Doe requested that the District of Massachusetts certify to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court the question:
[W]hether basic fairness, implied in the contract between a student and a college or university, requires an opportunity for parties in a college or university disciplinary process, to have their questions put to each other and witnesses in real time, even if only through a neutral person, particularly in matters that involve credibility determination, such as the Title IX investigatory setting.
See Civ. A. No. 1:19-cv-11626-DPW, Dkt. 73. The District of Massachusetts has postponed any potential certification until after summary judgment practice. One way or the other, given the recent changes and clarifications in this area of the law, we can expect unsatisfied responding parties in private school disciplinary proceedings to continue to raise the issue in Massachusetts courts until the Supreme Judicial Court directly addresses it.
Victoria Fuller is an attorney at White and Williams LLP. Her practice focuses on insurance law, employment law, and general commercial litigation.
 “Basic fairness” applies not only to colleges and universities, but to all private educational institutions. See, e.g., Discol v. Bd. of Trs., 70 Mass. App. Ct. 285, 295 (2007) (applying “basic fairness” standard to disciplinary proceedings in private school that admitted students from kindergarten through grade twelve).
In late 2015, I had the honor of speaking at one of the several swearing in ceremonies for new lawyers in Faneuil Hall. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about being an officer of the Boston Bar Association. It was so nice to speak to a group of enthusiastic young lawyers, as well as their proud family members.
As I welcomed them to the profession – a profession which, I think, is one of the best in the world – I knew that many of them had not yet found jobs that required a J.D. degree and that some of them never would.
There are so many challenges affecting lawyers today that it’s hard to list them all, but I think for many of the people who recently graduated law school the most significant challenge is the reduction in the number of jobs available for new lawyers.
I have always had a great deal of sympathy for anybody who put themselves through the three years of rigorous study that law school requires – not to mention the cost – who then get out and don’t get jobs. As a hiring partner at two separate firms, I have received countless resumes from incredibly impressive recent graduates for whom we had no openings. It breaks my heart to see people work very hard to do well both in college and law school, and then be unable to find employment. This is such a contrast to the situation not so very long ago when there were well-paying jobs galore.
Compounding this issue is the fact that these recent graduates don’t yet know how to do much legal work. For those who will never get hired, they need to learn how to do the cases ordinary people will hire a solo practitioner to do handling a divorce case, drafting a will or handling an eviction.
And so a big part of what I’m focusing on as President of the BBA is finding ways to help those people. Can we get them all jobs? No. But what we can do is help them become “practice ready.” We can help them build practical skills so they can represent regular people with regular legal needs. These are the clients who aren’t eligible for legal aid, but who still can’t afford most lawyers out there.
To that end, I’m so pleased to announce that in January we launched “Friday Fundamentals,” which is a series of short, “how-to” trainings on specific legal issues. These sessions are designed to give new attorneys the practical and technical skills required to represent clients, as well as add some additional knowledge and expertise to their resume.
The BBA is also working hard to ensure that new lawyers who want to go solo are getting top-notch guidance and support. Later this year, we will offer a comprehensive, hands-on workshop on how to launch a successful solo practice. This, in addition to our existing resources – from offering a place to meet with clients in our new member space rooms to discounts on professional liability insurance through USI Affinity – should help new graduates start their own practices and begin representing clients who now have no legal representation and who are part of the pro se litigant crisis troubling our courts.
With its well-established Professional Development program structure, the BBA is incredibly well suited to teach these skills. When I first learned about the BBA’s brown bag lunches, I went to a few of them. In 90 minutes over lunch, a young lawyer can learn from the stars of the bar – for free!
Friday Fundamentals is building off this very successful model. From now until June, each of the BBA’s 24 sections – covering all areas of law – will offer CLEs or brown bag lunch programs designed for beginners. I’m thrilled and proud of the effort that these Section leaders have put in toward training the next generation of lawyers. To those of you with new associates in your ranks: encourage them to take advantage of this series. For those young lawyers out there: these programs are for you. Take advantage of them!
Are we going to fix this in a year? No. But it’s a wonderful place to start.
Lisa is a founding partner of Arrowood Peters LLP, whose practice concentrates on business litigation, employment disputes, medical malpractice, personal injury, and legal malpractice. At the BBA, Lisa has served as the President-Elect, Vice President, and Secretary of the Council, the Co-Chair of the BBA Torts Committee, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as various other committees. She is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), a Fellow of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and immediate past Chair of the ACTL Massachusetts State Committee as well as a member of the Boston Bar Foundation’s Society of Fellows.
By J.D. Smeallie, President, Boston Bar Association
When Tarae Howell, then a public high school student in Newark, New Jersey, signed up for the Jersey Urban Debate League, becoming a lawyer was the furthest thing from his mind. Despite winning fourteen debate titles over a two-year span, he had no idea he would one day be a third-year litigation associate at Nixon Peabody, much less a debate judge for a very similar program for Boston high school students. This fall, Tarae judged two Saturday morning debate competitions for the Boston Debate League (BDL). Afterwards, students plied him with questions about what it’s like to be a lawyer and his path to success.
Earlier this year, the BDL approached the Boston Bar Association to see if we would partner with them by providing judges and mentors. We liked what we saw. Not only did such a partnership provide a wonderful opportunity for public service within the Boston Public Schools, but it held the promise of advancing diversity efforts at the BBA. Too few students of color are entering law school. As a result, too few lawyers of color enter the practice each year. By mixing BBA lawyers with students from Boston’s high schools with large minority student populations, we hoped that the interest in law exhibited by Tarae’s debaters would be sparked as well many times over in other students. Perhaps the germ of a legal career would be planted, and the pipeline of students of color could be expanded. The hope is that some of the students we encounter in the course of volunteering as debate judges or mentors will one day return as lawyers in our community.
The metrics suggest this could very well happen. According to the BDL, debaters are three times less likely to drop out of school than non-debaters, and African-American males who debate, in particular, are seventy percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Debate assists students in gaining entrance to college but, more importantly, it gives them the necessary skills to succeed and thrive once they get there.
In this regard, the BDL reports that urban debaters improved both their Reading and English ACT scores by fifteen percent and are thirty-four percent more likely to achieve the English college readiness benchmark, and seventy-four percent more likely to achieve the Reading benchmark, after just two years in debate.
The BDL does not require its volunteers to be lawyers. Yet BBA members participating in the program firmly believe that in addition to being extremely worthwhile, this particular volunteer opportunity is a great fit for members of the legal profession. As Tarae puts it, “[a]s lawyers, we have to be zealous advocates for our clients. Therefore, as a judge and a lawyer, I’m able to determine whether a debater has been an effective advocate for her position. It helps me give the student better feedback.”
Stories such as Tarae’s make all of us feel good about helping Boston’s young people develop the reading, critical thinking and advocacy skills associated with debating. Vickie Henry, a Senior Staff Attorney at GLAD, who as a high school student won a state debate championship in her home state of Michigan, says: “[y]ou look right in the faces of the youth getting your feedback and you can see it’s making a difference.”
Bill Fitzpatrick, Associate General Counsel for Litigation at the MBTA, says that what he found appealing about this particular volunteer opportunity is that debating offers Boston youth an opportunity for competition involving academics. “Life is not all about whether you can hit the free throw or hit the ball out of the park,” he said. “Debating gives the students a great outlet for skills that will serve them better in the long run.”
More than a few volunteers have marveled at the support students who are native English speakers gave to students for whom English is a second language, especially during those portions of the debate tournament requiring that they read aloud. They also commented on how heartwarming it is to see students improve dramatically from one tournament to the next.
Both Jessica Bloch of Bloch & Roos and Stephanie Hoeplinger, a solo practitioner, serve as mentors, which means that they’ve committed to spending between sixty and ninety minutes in the classroom every week between October and March, helping teachers and BDL staff prep the students for the tournaments.
“Good for these students for going to this afterschool program and pushing through,” says Jessica. “This experience is challenging but very rewarding.”
Though not required to attend the debates, Stephanie was deeply moved to see the looks on two of her students’ faces when she stopped by on a Saturday morning to see them perform: “Their faces just lit up; they looked so happy that someone not paid to be there really cares. They look up to you as a lawyer.”
“We are just so thrilled to have so many members of the BBA come out, judge at our tournaments, and work with our kids,” Steve Stein, Executive Director of the Boston Debate League, told us. “It is great to have such wonderful role models be there for our students, many of whom are aspiring attorneys. Our students love that for ninety minutes, they speak and adults listen. When the debate is over, the adults talk for maybe five minutes to provide feedback. That kind of power dynamic doesn’t exist anywhere else in their lives. BBA members are participating in an activity that is changing the lives of youth throughout Boston.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a morning at Boston’s Josiah Quincy Upper School. What struck me was how genuinely enthusiastic the co-headmasters were in the face of poor facilities, budget constraints and a talent drain to the exam schools. One of the bright spots they described was their students’ participation in the Boston Debate League, and the very impressive fact that each and every one of the debaters on the Josiah Quincy team have gone on to college.
The BBA’s partnership with the BDL is a public service opportunity that truly hits the trifecta for the BBA — meaningful service to the Boston community, where our lawyering skills provide a special benefit, and with the prospect of expanding the diversity pipeline. I hope more BBA members will consider volunteering for this incredibly rewarding experience.