(En)forcing a Foolish Consistency?: A Critique and Comparative Analysis of the Trump Administration’s Proposed Standard of Evidence Regulation for Campus Title IX Proceedings
49 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2019 Last revised: 29 Jan 2020
Date Written: January 27, 2020
Prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment are major challenges at U.S. colleges and universities today. In recent years a vigorous law and policy debate emerged within the higher education community about Title IX and whether the “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing” evidence represents the more appropriate standard of evidence in campus sexual violence and sexual harassment disciplinary procedures. During the Obama administration the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education issued a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter recognizing that the preponderance of evidence standard was the appropriate standard for Title IX investigations. The Trump administration's Office for Civil Rights rescinded this earlier guidance and in November 2018 issued a notice of proposed rulemaking regarding Title IX regulations. The new proposed regulation reflects a “you can have more discretion, if you ratchet up” policy: a college can only use the preponderance of evidence standard if it adopts that same standard across-the-board in similarly serious non-Title IX student misconduct cases and in both Title IX and non-Title IX cases where the accused/respondent is a faculty member or employee. If a campus chooses to adopt the clear and convincing evidence standard in Title IX cases, the proposed regulation would not restrict campus discretion in non-Title IX student cases.
While the relationship between the burden of proof and outcomes is complicated and dynamic, the main tendency if campuses were to shift to the clear and convincing evidence standard in Title IX adjudications would likely be a net decrease in accuracy because the rise in “false negative” errors (student or employee commits sexual misconduct but is found not responsible) would outnumber the corresponding decrease in “false positive” errors. By implication, a shift to the clear and convincing standard would also make it more difficult – other things being equal – for campuses to impose disciplinary accountability in cases of serial sexual misconduct and serial sexual harassment.
This article also aims to inform the debate about Title IX and faculty and student disciplinary cases by objectively identifying whether the preponderance of evidence or clear and convincing evidence standard is used in most domains that are reasonably analogous to faculty Title IX-related misconduct proceedings (a more stringent test than looking only at student-to-student Title IX cases). This review includes U.S. federal civil rights adjudications, faculty research misconduct cases linked to federal research grants, civil anti-fraud proceedings, attorney debarment/discipline cases and physician misconduct/license cases. In a large majority of these areas, preponderance of evidence is used as the standard of evidence. This pattern highlights concerns about the Office for Civil Rights selectively referencing cases that support its proposed Title IX regulation and questionable claims about the clear and convincing evidence standard and stigma. This article also raises questions, depending on how the notice-and-comment process unfolds, about the proposed Title IX regulation and the Administrative Procedure Act.
Keywords: sexual assault, sexual harassment, standard of evidence, preponderance of evidence, clear and convincing evidence, Title IX, civil rights, gender, Department of Education, student, faculty discipline, Obama, Trump, DeVos, Office for Civil Rights, serial harassment, #MeToo, rulemaking
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