USC ordered to pay attorney fees after Title IX investigation was deemed unfair

A California judge ordered USC to pay $111,965 in attorney fees late last month to a student accused of rape in 2016, after deeming its Title IX investigation unfair.

The request came from the student’s lawyer, Mark Hathaway. Though the University pointed out the request was filed past the deadline, the court allowed an extension, citing “reasonable mistake of law.”

The June 28 ruling followed one from December in which Hathaway accused USC of not providing defendant John Doe with a fair trial due to underlying bias by the University’s Title IX office as well as failure by the University to adhere to its own procedures, which require a “fair, thorough, reliable, neutral and impartial investigation.” Hathaway also accused USC of not allowing Doe to access all relevant information.

A March court order implemented last year’s tentative ruling in which USC was instructed to “vacate” initial findings and conduct a new investigation, in addition to  to reinstating Doe, who had been previously expelled.

The court found USC’s Title IX coordinator Gretchen Means to be biased against Doe and in favor of Roe, the accuser, thereby deeming her role as an adviser to the student equity review panel “improper.” Means, along with Title IX Investigator Patrick Noonan, allegedly made comments referring to Doe as a “motherf-cker” and Roe as a “catch” in June 2016 at the conclusion of a conference call with Doe, demonstrating “an unacceptable probability of actual bias.”

The University argued that its disciplinary process “prevents bias from tainting the outcome.” However, the court found the Title IX office was heavily involved in the decision-making process. The student equity review panel was found to be “merely a proxy” for the Title IX office because of its role in each stage of decision-making and because the review panel used Noonan’s findings rather than provide its own rationale for its determination.

Noonan was also found to have omitted 154 pages from the investigative report Doe received. The pages included communication between Doe and Roe that Doe had submitted.

Means also declined to interview a potential primary witness without providing reason. The potential witness was the only person to have purportedly seen Roe after the alleged incident. The University claimed the potential witness was neither an “appropriate” individual to interview nor available for interview. This made the decision compliant with USC policy which stated that witnesses should be interviewed “as appropriate” and “if available,” according to the University.

The University said this case was not reflective of other cases.

“The judge’s finding was based on the specifics of this particular investigation and it is being re-done in accordance with the judge’s order,” a USC spokesperson told the Daily Trojan. “No broader issues were identified. USC’s policies are administered in fairness to all parties with decisions based on the evidence.”

In light of USC’s recent handling of sexual misconduct on campus, the U.S. Department of Education launched a second Title IX investigation in June. The investigation is meant to evaluate how USC has been handling reports of sexual harassment, specifically regarding allegations against former Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist George Tyndall.

The investigation is currently being led by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which previously conducted a similar investigation into USC’s handling of sexual assault and harassment cases between August 2010 and May 2015.

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