Saifullah Khan has been thrust into the national spotlight, embroiled in a public, years-long web of civil, criminal, and administrative proceedings stemming from an allegation of rape and his subsequent expulsion from Yale. In 2015, Khan was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow Yale student on Halloween night. The accuser initiated a Title IX proceeding through Yale’s Title IX office in response to the alleged incident. On November 9, 2015, Khan was suspended from Yale, though his university proceedings were stayed pending the outcome of a criminal investigation into the alleged incident. Although Khan was eventually acquitted of all criminal charges in connection with the alleged incident, he was nonetheless expelled from Yale following a protracted Title IX investigation and hearing process in 2018.
Understanding the Difference: Title IX vs. Criminal Standards
This seemingly incongruous outcome between the Title IX and criminal proceedings may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the Title IX regulations. The difference lies in the standards to determine whether a violation has occurred.
Under Title IX, universities may utilize a lower standard of evidence than is required in a criminal case. In theory, a college or university may find, by a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, that a sexual assault occurred, while a jury in a criminal case may acquit a defendant under the exact same circumstances. Universities using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard means the conduct at issue was “more likely than not,” representing a much lower standard than what is applied in a criminal case. Both the Title IX and criminal processes may rely on the same facts and evidence, but only a criminal case requires proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a crime has been committed. Consequently, students may face disciplinary consequences in connection with a college’s Title IX process even if they are acquitted of criminal charges for the same conduct.
A Lesson in Title IX Legal Complexities
Following his expulsion, Kahn sued the Yale student complainant for the allegations she had lodged against him during the Title IX process. Khan contended that her statements against him were false and defamatory, causing him money damages including reputational harm and loss of educational and employment opportunities. Initially, the Yale Title IX complainant (who was the defendant in the underlying defamation suit) succeeded in securing a dismissal of Khan’s complaint, arguing that a Connecticut state law afforded immunity to statements made during “quasi-judicial” processes, which she claimed applied to her statements made during Yale’s Title IX proceedings. Khan appealed the dismissal and ultimately won, reinstating his case against the complainant for defamation.
Khan’s appeal and related Connecticut Supreme Court decision turned on the contention that Yale’s process did not provide the qualified immunity typically afforded to complainants in Title IX processes conducted at colleges and universities. The court reasoned that Yale’s process did not qualify as “quasi-judicial” due to procedural defects and a lack of fundamental fairness to students involved in the hearings. Under Connecticut law, “quasi-judicial” status is a prerequisite for civil immunity regarding statements offered during such proceedings. Because Yale’s Title IX proceeding did not afford declarants who testified during the proceedings civil immunity, Khan was permitted to pursue his defamation claim in connection with the complainant’s statements to the Title IX panel.
Khan’s process is a case study demonstrating the intricate nature of Title IX investigations and the parallel criminal and civil processes that can accompany them. Ultimately, a relatively obscure facet of state law determined whether Khan could sue his accuser for defamation. Without proper legal advice, students are frequently caught unaware of the practical and legal risks inherently involved in any allegation of criminal activity, whether an individual is pursuing an allegation or responding to it. Within the realm of Title IX, legal and administrative complexity is the status quo.
Unseen Legal Risks Require Early Legal Counsel
Students involved in Title IX processes, whether as complainants, respondents, or witnesses, must be mindful of the numerous, often unseen legal ramifications of their participation. Unwitting students may not fully grasp the potential civil, criminal, and administrative consequences at stake during Title IX proceedings. Khan’s case illustrates three such potentially unanticipated consequences: civil, criminal, and administrative/educational risks.
Students must be informed and mindful about their participation in Title IX proceedings, regardless of their specific roles. Due to the multifaceted risks and possibilities accompanying the Title IX process, early legal counsel is essential to protect students’ interests. For more information, or to discuss further, please contact the attorneys in KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense practice group: Susan Stone (SCS@kjk.com; 216.736.7220), Kristina Supler (KWS@kjk.com; 216.736.7217), or Anna Bullock (AEB@kjk.com; 216.736.7223).