Court of Appeals Holds Hearsay Statements from Sexual Assault Victim May be Considered to Support College Disciplinary Decision

When a sexual assault occurs on a SUNY campus, the victim shouldn’t have to suffer through the assault twice. The victim has the right to decide not to participate in any disciplinary hearings held by the SUNY disciplinary board, and to instead submit a written or other hearsay statement telling his or her side of the story. And that’s exactly what happened in Matter of Haug v State Univ. of N.Y. at Potsdam (No. 102). The sexual assault victim didn’t want to participate in the SUNY disciplinary hearing against the offender, but instead submitted a written statement.  The victim’s statement was consistent with what she had told the SUNY investigator and a SUNY administrator, and following the hearing, SUNY expelled the offender.

In a surprising reversal, however , the Third Department annulled SUNY’s expulsion determination as unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.  The SUNY Student Code required affirmative consent to sex, which it was undisputed that the student never received, but the Third Department majority nevertheless said that the victim’s hearsay account of the incident was insufficient to meet the substantial evidence standard. Hearsay evidence couldn’t be considered in the substantial evidence determination, the Court held. Instead, the Court held, the complainant’s act of removing her shirt when the student offered sex was enough to show consent in this situation. The Court, therefore, vacated the student’s expulsion.

In a cogent dissent at the Appellate Division, two Justices took the majority to task for, among other things, substituting the Court’s own judgment of the facts for the SUNY disciplinary board that heard the testimony at the disciplinary proceeding.  The dissent emphasizes that the complainant’s story that she “froze” upon the student’s advances was consistent when she told it both to the SUNY investigator and to an administrator.  It did not have any of the hallmarks of unreliability that have lead to the general rule that hearsay evidence, on its own, isn’t enough to constitute substantial evidence.  Moreover, the only reason why the complainant’s account was technically hearsay, the dissent pointed out, was because she didn’t want to participate in disciplinary proceedings.  Her decision to invoke that right doesn’t undermine the credibility of her account of the assault.

SUNY appealed, and the Court of Appeals understandably reversed. In a short memorandum opinion, joined by 6 of the 7 Judges, the Court held that the victim’s hearsay statement could be considered when deciding whether substantial evidence, a very low standard, existed in the administrative record to support SUNY’s expulsion decision.

The Court, adopting the Appellate Division dissent’s view, also took the Appellate Division majority to task for substituting its view of the facts for the SUNY disciplinary board’s findings. “[I]t was the province of the hearing board to resolve any conflicts in the evidence and make credibility determinations,” the Court held. And thus, it was not for the Appellate Division to reweigh that evidence on appeal.

By holding that a sexual assault victim’s hearsay statements may be considered both at the administrative level and in a subsequent challenge to a disciplinary decision, the Court of Appeals has preserved the victim’s right to choose whether or not to participate in the disciplinary proceedings. That’s undoubtedly, to me at least, the right result. If the victim is unwilling or unable to relive the assault in the context of a subsequent disciplinary proceeding, he or she shouldn’t have to.  Holding otherwise would have forced the victim into a sort of Hobson’s choice: relive the sexual assault in live testimony at the hearing and be cross-examined, or don’t participate at all. The Court of Appeals’ holding in Haug, therefore, will continue to allow victims of sexual assault to decide whether or not to participate in a disciplinary hearing, free from considerations of how that decision will impact the disciplinary process.

The Court of Appeals’ opinion is here.

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