Monday, June 9, 2014

Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Colgate For Illegal Imprisonment, Fourth & Fourteenth Amendment Violations, and Discrimination


Note: The article below was submitted, anonymously, by a Colgate member and is not necessarily representative of Colgate's AAUP chapter's position. -ed



The AAUP has made it clear in its recent publication on campus sexual assault (found at: http://www.aaup.org/report/campus-sexual-assault-suggested-policies-and-procedures ) that faculty have a role to play in efforts to address the issue of sexual assault on campus and that our voice can help guide policies that address the issue issues of sexual violence on campus while respecting the rights of both victims and accused.

This is especially true here where a new, untried harassment policy and its associated disciplinary body with hearing power over students, staff, and faculty called the Equity Grievance Panel (EGP) has already led to controversy within the university and is now the at the center of a civil rights lawsuit against Colgate and sixteen individual administration, faculty and staff members involved with the Plaintiff’s EGP process.

We are bringing this lawsuit to the faculty’s attention because we believe that the allegations of civil rights abuses it contains require explanation and action on the part of those responsible for setting our policies, and because we need to insure that such behavior will never recur. By denying the appeal of the student on behalf of whom the lawsuit was filed, which detailed the violations to his civil rights, the administration asserted that these actions constitute acceptable behavior on the part of our institution; we believe this cannot stand unchallenged.

This lawsuit also puts faculty members on notice that we can be held individually liable even if we believe we are simply following policy and procedure, if those procedures are the cause of the violation of someone’s rights. It is therefore contingent on each of us to be aware of the policies we have in place as well as their implications. We need to make decisions based on our own professional and ethical understandings and actively resist any policy or action that has the potential to violate someone’s rights.

The Lawsuit

In order to understand our concern over these issues, it is necessary to share some details of what happened to result in a civil rights suit against Colgate by an international student who was expelled through the EGP process.

The suit alleges illegal, discriminatory, inconsistent, and disproportionate behavior on the part of Colgate and its employees, the sixteen individual named Defendants. Further, the Plaintiff was subjected to a “flawed disciplinary process, rotten with bias, that failed to comport with the most basic notions of fairness.”
Excerpts taken directly from the Complaint are below [n.b.: the complaint is nearly 50 pages long so the following is abridged and redacted to remove identifying details]:

The Allegations

In the spring of 2013, a Colgate student with whom [the Plaintiff] once had a brief relationship, alleged that he had once pushed her in 2012. She claimed to be reporting the incident—a year after it happened—because of an incident from 2011 involving [the Plaintif]f and another student, [the Plaintiff’s girlfriend]. Colgate already knew about the 2011 incident and had imposed a no-contact order at the time, which the girlfriend later asked be lifted. The student’s 2013 allegations, given their timing and nature, were inherently suspicious; indeed, they were made out of jealously because [the Plaintiff] had rekindled his relationship with his girlfriend.

Colgate waited more than a month after receiving the allegations before contacting the girlfriend, at which point she made clear that she had no complaint about the Plaintiff —in fact, they were still extremely close.

Before anyone had spoken to [the Plaintiff, an administrator decided] that [the Plaintiff] would be placed on interim suspension.
[This administrator] did not disclose the fact that s/he had a conflict of interest due to a close advising relationship with [the girlfriend].
The Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter provides: “any real or perceived conflicts of interest between the fact-finder or decision-maker and the parties should be disclosed.”
Coercive Interrogation
[The Plaintiff] and [the girlfriend] went to the Campus Safety Office together on March 22, 2013, arriving around 2:30 p.m.
Off and on for more than six hours, [Campus Safety] aggressively questioned [the Plaintiff]. [S/he] consistently accused him of wrongdoing, used sharp, leading questions, and twisted his words. It was clear that [Campus Safety] had already made up [their] mind about the facts and was not seeking the truth. At no time [was the Plaintiff] allow[ed] to freely tell his side of things.
[The Plaintiff] was never told that he had the option not to speak with [Campus Safety] or that he had the right to seek counsel or to have a representative of his choice with him. [The Plaintiff] was not told what the allegations against him were.
Upon information and belief, before [the Plaintiff]’s interrogation, a faculty member had alerted [Colgate administration] to his/her concern that [Campus Safety] had entrapped a student during an interrogation and misrepresented what the student had said. Upon information and belief, Colgate has taken no action to prevent this from happening to other students.
At approximately 7:30 p.m., [the Plaintiff stated] that he was feeling faint and dizzy from having not eaten all day. [The Plaintiff] was not permitted to leave the room to eat.
Following the interrogation, [Campus Safety] prepared a report which misconstrued and misstated many of the things that [the Plaintiff] had said.
[The Plaintiff was] provided a letter, evidently prepared earlier in the day and before [the Plaintiff]’s interrogation, stating that he had been placed on interim suspension. The letter misstated [the student who contacted Campus Safety]’s allegations by claiming that [the Plaintiff] had “choked” her when she had made no such allegation.
[A Colgate counselor] had been called to the Campus Safety Office. S/he asked to speak with [the Plaintiff] in private at which point, s/he asked him if he was feeling suicidal or like he may harm himself. He answered no.
[The counselor] then called [three administrators] back into the room and told [the Plaintiff] to tell them what he had told him/her alone in confidence.
The False Imprisonment
Absent legal authority or justification, Colgate imprisoned [the Plaintiff] against his will for more than thirty-six hours in a dirty, cramped, basement room secured by Campus Safety Officers.
On March 22, 2013, at the Campus Safety Office, [the Plaintiff was] told that he would be held in the basement of Curtis Hall until his disciplinary hearing [scheduled for 10 day later], and that he would not be allowed to go anywhere else.
[The Plaintiff was told] that if he wanted to forego staying in the basement of Curtis Hall, he could return [home and] the University would pay for the flight.
[Two Campus Safety Officers] then escorted [the Plaintiff] to Curtis Hall where they directed him to the deserted basement and to a cramped and dirty room, which had no linens or pillows. The basement had no cellular reception and no Wi-Fi, which prevented [the Plaintiff] from communicating his whereabouts to his family or friends.
The next day, March 23, 2013, after he awoke, [the Plaintiff] realized that there was no drinking water available in the room. [The Plaintiff] asked the Campus Safety Officer guarding the door for drinking water, but no water was provided at that time.
Around 3:00 p.m., [a Professor] called the Campus Safety Office and requested that [the Plaintiff] be allowed to leave Curtis Hall and stay with him/her off campus. [The Professor’s] request was denied. S/he was later told that the request would be sent to [an administrator and was eventually approved].
Upon information and belief, other students who have been placed on interim suspension have been housed off-campus in a hotel paid for by Colgate.
After the False Imprisonment
Colgate administrators contacted [the Plaintiff]’s family and warned that he would be criminally charged if he did not return home.
Upon information and belief, on March 25, 2013, [Campus Safety] called [the girlfriend] and intimidated and pressured her to provide a written statement as soon as possible.
During the meeting with [the girlfriend], [Campus Safety] made comments that [the Plaintiff] was violent towards women due to his cultural background and nationality and questioned whether [he] would be able to overcome twenty years of “cultural grooming.”
Upon information and belief, on March 26, 2013, [the girlfriend] met with [an administrator] to express her concerns of bias influencing the outcome of [the Plaintiff]’s disciplinary process.
Upon information and belief, on March 28, 2013, [the girlfriend] met with [another administrator] to express the same concerns.
Harassment by Campus Security Officers
On March 29, 2013, [the Plaintiff] went to the Campus Security Office to review the evidence that would be used against him at the hearing.
During that time, a Campus Safety Officer intimidated and aggressively questioned [him]. He harassed [the Plaintiff] for taking too long to review each page and about the notes that he was taking.
At some point, another Campus Safety Officer joined in harassing [the Plaintiff], and told him that his time was “over.” At some point, [the Plaintiff was] told that he was “done for tonight.”
Eventually, feeling too intimidated to remain at the Campus Safety Office, [the Plaintiff] sent a text message to [a professor] to ask him/her to pick him up. [One of the Campus Safety Officers] demanded to know who [the Plaintiff] was texting.
The Hearing

The use of the Equity Grievance Process in [the Plaintiff]’s case was improper as it is intended for “complaints of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other forms of discriminatory and bias-related harassment,” yet none of the allegations in [the Plaintiff]’s case involved such conduct.
[Campus Safety] presented the case against [the Plaintiff] based on his/her biased and incomplete investigation.
Neither [the woman who contacted Campus Safety] nor [the girlfriend] testified at the hearing.
One of the panel members asked [the Plaintiff], in sum and substance, if he believed that his religion or culture was the reason for his actions.
Upon information and belief, after the hearing ended [an administrator] made several false statements to the hearing panel, including: (i) [the Plaintiff] had been confined at Curtis Hall for his own protection because he was suicidal; (ii) there was no relationship between [the woman who contacted Campus Safety] and [the girlfriend], when in fact they had been suitemates and [she] was clearly jealous of the fact that [the Plaintiff] had rekindled his relationship with [his girlfriend]; and (iii) there were no similar cases to compare appropriate sanctions.
The Appeal
On or about April 10, 2013, [the Plaintiff] submitted a thorough appeal statement, supported by a lengthy statement from [the girlfriend].
On May 1, 2013, [the Appeal Officer] denied [the Plaintiff]’s appeal [in a] letter [that] contained numerous inaccuracies and baseless conclusions.
For instance, [the Appeal Officer] dismissed the bias in [the] investigation because it occurred before the EGP hearing, and therefore, according to [the Appeal Officer], was not a proper basis for appeal since the University’s policy allowed for consideration only of procedural errors that occurred “during the EGP hearing.” [The Appeal Officer] apparently chose to ignore the facts that: (i) [Campus Safety] was the only person who testified against [the Plaintiff] at the EGP hearing; (ii) [Campus Safety]’s biased investigation was used against [the Plaintiff] at the EGP hearing; (iii) [Campus Safety]’s inaccurate report of [the] coercive interrogation of [the Plaintiff] was, upon information and belief, provided to the hearing panel; (iv) [the girlfriend]’s initial statement, which, upon information and belief, was provided to the hearing panel, was compelled by [Campus Safety], and [she] was never told that her statement would be used as evidence at a disciplinary hearing; and (v) the subsequent statement [the girlfriend] submitted in support of [the Plaintiff]’s appeal explained the serious and pervasive bias she experienced during her meetings with [Campus Safety].
[The Appeal Officer] also claimed that the bias and errors in [the] investigation, “even if they occurred in the manner you describe,” did not constitute violations of the University’s policies or procedures.
Regarding [the Plaintiff]’s false imprisonment, [the Appeal Officer] concluded that “it does not appear that the University acted unreasonably under the circumstances.”
Regarding the failure of [an administrator] to properly disclose the conflict of interest created by his/her relationship with [the girlfriend, the Appeal Officer] acknowledged that “the University would expect an official to recuse him or herself in cases of substantiated bias or potential conflict of interest.” Yet, [the Appeal Officer] concluded that [the administrator’s] failure to recuse him/herself from the disciplinary process was not error.
[The Appeal Officer] mentioned an expulsion case which [the Appeal Officer] said was comparable. Upon information and belief, that case involved a student who had been accused of sexual assault by two different women, and both women actively pursued the charges and participated in the hearing. Accordingly, that case is not comparable.
After the Appeal
The day that [the Appeal Officer] denied [the Plaintiff]’s appeal, [administrators] contacted [the Plaintiff] and told him, untruthfully, that he must leave the country immediately because his student visa was terminated when he was expelled.
Upon information and belief, several meetings were held with Colgate faculty and administrators to discuss what had transpired with [the Plaintiff].
Upon information and belief, at one of these meetings, the President was confronted with what had happened to [the Plaintiff], and he said that he was aware of the situation. Upon information and belief, the President said, in sum and substance, “when [Campus Safety] tells me someone has the profile of an abuser, I believe [them].”
Despite the fact that [the girlfriend] admitted in both of her statements that she was responsible for physical violence against [the Plaintiff], upon information and belief, she was never disciplined.
Upon information and belief, there is a disparity in the proportion of minority male students at Colgate who are subjected to disciplinary proceedings through the EGP.

The lawsuit thereby alleges violations of the IVth and XIVth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, discrimination prohibited by Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendment, violations of New York State Human Rights law, illegal imprisonment in violation of New York State law, negligence and breach of contract, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among others.

Individually-named defendants either committed the above offenses or
are accused of being aware that the student’s right to equal protection under the law was violated and had “the power to prevent it but refuse[d] or neglect[ed] to do so” in violation of 42 USC 1986, Neglect to Prevent Interference with Civil Rights. Under this federal code, every Colgate employee who participated in the student’s disciplinary process is individually liable and has been named as a Defendant in the lawsuit.  This is why it is so important for faculty to be aware of their responsibilities and legal liabilities.

Finally, we want to inform the faculty that another international student was recently placed on interim suspension and also subsequently expelled through the EGP for allegations that did not include sexual violence, once again with no complainants or witnesses against him present at the EGP hearing. As of this writing, his case is under appeal.