Connecticut Supreme Court Opinion Sheds Light on Quasi-Judicial Standard in Context of University Disciplinary Proceeding
Recently, the Connecticut Supreme Court analyzed the availability of absolute immunity for participants in quasi-judicial proceedings, specifically in relation to the dismissal of a complaint by a Yale University student stemming from sexual assault allegations made against him during the school’s disciplinary proceedings. The Court’s opinion and holdings have important implications for any entity utilizing nongovernmental fact-finding and disciplinary procedures that would purport to grant absolute immunity to participants.
The case at issue, Khan v. Yale University et al., involved an accusation of sexual assault by an undergraduate student at Yale and the internal disciplinary proceedings that followed. Khan, who had been acquitted of wrongdoing in criminal court, was expelled following Yale’s disciplinary hearing addressing the same allegations. Khan later sued his accuser, the school and complainant, alleging defamation among other claims, for statements made during the disciplinary proceedings. The district court dismissed the complaint on the basis that the accuser had absolute immunity for statements made in the proceedings. Following Khan’s appeal, and in response to certified questions from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the Connecticut Supreme Court reviewed the requirements for a proceeding to be quasi-judicial for the purpose of affording absolute immunity to proceeding participants and determined that the disciplinary hearing at issue did not pass muster.
According to the Court, Connecticut state law sets forth certain standards for proceedings to be considered quasi-judicial, including that the proceeding must be specifically authorized by or conducted pursuant to law, and it must apply law to the facts (whether that law is constitutional, statutory, administrative, municipal, or common law) rather than solely apply the entity’s internal policies or rules. There also must be adequate procedural safeguards in place, and there must be a public policy justification for encouraging absolute immunity.
The Court honed in on several procedural safeguards that are particularly important to the determination that a proceeding is quasi-judicial: that testimony is sworn or made under oath, that there is “practical” opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and hold other parties accountable for false or misleading statements, that accused parties have the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses on their behalf, and that there be a record of the proceedings sufficient to support the right to appeal.
As to the Yale disciplinary proceeding at issue, the Court determined that there were not adequate procedural safeguards in place to ensure the reliability of the information presented to the hearing panel. For example, the accuser did not certify the truth of her testimony, and because she had graduated Yale, there was no meaningful way to discipline her for testifying untruthfully. Further, Khan nor his counsel were permitted to cross-examine the accuser in real time. Moreover, the hearing panel maintained discretion as to whether to ask questions proposed by Khan’s counsel, as well as sole discretion to reject any witness proposed by Khan and counsel. The Court also commented that Khan’s counsel was “essentially rendered irrelevant” when he was not permitted to argue on Khan’s behalf, present evidence, make objections, or participate in witness questioning. Lastly, there was no meaningful record of the proceedings made to support Khan’s ability to appeal. Accordingly, the Court found that the hearing was not quasi-judicial, and so the accuser was not entitled to absolute immunity for statements made during the proceeding.
Notably, while the proceedings in that case did not meet the requirements of Connecticut law to be considered quasi-judicial, the Court left unanswered whether the participants of the proceedings would nonetheless be entitled to qualified (rather than absolute) immunity, given that Khan had sufficiently alleged that his accuser acted with malice in making the statements. While the Court recognized the public interest in granting qualified immunity to victims of sexual assault at higher education institutions to report abuse, whether the accuser had abused the privilege by acting with malice was a question that could not be resolved at the motion to dismiss stage.
Based on this opinion, nongovernmental entities who hold proceedings with the intent to grant absolute immunity to participants should revisit their procedures to ensure that applicable state-specific threshold requirements are met, including ensuring that procedural safeguards are in place. This includes a higher education institution’s Title IX procedures—while the Court did not expressly provide that Title IX procedures as written are in conflict with state law, those proceedings in practice must still pass muster as a quasi-judicial proceeding under state law for purposes of granting absolute immunity.
Although the Connecticut Supreme Court’s opinion makes no guarantee as to what proceedings would qualify as quasi-judicial, given that the determination will involve an analysis and balancing of the enunciated factors, affirmative steps to review and comply with the Court’s identified procedural safeguards is likely to save your organization from headaches—and litigation—down the road.