NCLA Is Standing up Against Due Process Violations in Cornell University’s Title IX Campus “Kangaroo Court” Proceedings

If you study or work at Cornell University and you are on the receiving end of a Title IX complaint, don’t expect justice to be served. Especially if you’ve been wrongfully accused. Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, had the highest number of reported sexual assault incidents out of every university and college in the Empire State in 2018. Cornell far outnumbered peer institutions with 282 reports that year. This abnormally high level of reported incidents has led to scores of people being falsely accused of sexual misconduct at Cornell. These individuals are now fighting back, bringing over 200 lawsuits against universities to clear their names. The high volume of cases focusing on the institution’s mishandling of these Title IX complaints has occurred because Cornell often denies the accused parties their right to due process.

 

 
The lawsuits are not limited to accused students. College professors are also fighting back. One such professor is Dr. Mukund Vengalattore, one of the nation’s leading experts in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, who taught at Cornell. Dr. Vengalattore was on track for tenure when in 2014, a graduate student who was dismissed from his lab for academic reasons retaliated by falsely accusing him of inappropriate sexual activity that simply never occurred. Cornell’s ensuing Title IX disciplinary process was not only biased, discriminatory, and fundamentally unfair, but it also lacked due process.
 
 

Cornell’s “kangaroo court” system applied a very low standard of proof—a mere preponderance of the evidence—for a proceeding implicating life-altering career consequences. Cornell structured its Title IX hearings based on a series of U.S. Department of Education (ED) “guidance documents” designed to enhance the likelihood that accused parties would face discipline, whether or not they were guilty, on pain of losing federal funding.

 

“We’ve arrived at a time where university campuses investigate, adjudicate, and punish people on the basis of ambiguous Title IX accusations. And those accused of wrongdoing have lost their right to due process” Dr. Mukund Vengalattore, Plaintiff, Vengalattore v. Cornell, et al.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to descrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Title IX Education Amendments of June 23, 1972

Justice for Accusers Should Not Be in Tension with Fair Procedural Protections for the Accused

Under the direction of the U.S. Department of Education, schools are allowed to appoint these kangaroo courts consisting of Title IX coordinators and school administrators. The panels partially block or completely exclude lawyers for the accused. Decisions are usually rendered in the form of an order without a transparent, detailed opinion. In many of these cases, the investigator is also the prosecutor. Many times witnesses for the defense are not interviewed and witnesses for the accuser are never subjected to confrontation or cross-examination. NCLA believes that justice for accusers should not be in tension with fair procedural protections for the accused.

In the case of Dr. Vengalattore, Cornell reshaped its disciplinary system to guarantee that he never had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the validity of the charges against him.

Investigators refused to tell Dr. Vengalattore what charges he was facing, yet they applied a presumption of guilt and demanded that he prove his innocence. These investigators invented accusations of a year-long consensual relationship which neither party alleged.

Although male and female professors and students supported Dr. Vengalattore’s testimony, the investigators refused to interview defense witnesses. Instead, they credited testimony of the charging party despite credible indications that she was filing the charge to settle a score.

The investigators even helped the charging party modify her accusations when they failed to line up with the evidence. In the end, with ED’s blessing, the charging party was allowed to weaponize Title IX even though she was no longer a student at Cornell.

“For some reason, these schools have made the determination that in Title IX proceedings, they’re not going to follow those very basic due process dictates. That’s what’s happened here. They violated our client’s constitutional rights. They had what I would call a ‘kangaroo-type’ proceeding, and our client has suffered immensely as a result of it.” Harriet Hageman, Senior Litigation Counsel, NCLA
NCLA argues that the disciplinary procedures used in the Title IX hearing of Dr. Vengalattore violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Cornell is trying hard to deny Dr. Vengalattore his day in court by wrongly interpreting Title IX to allow only students and not faculty a right to sue under the statute. The overwhelming majority of federal appeals courts have rejected this restrictive reading of Title IX, as it is inconsistent with Supreme Court Title IX case law.

Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” which is broad enough language to encompass students and faculty.

NCLA is currently seeking to reverse the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, which dismissed the case against Cornell and the Dept. of Education without ruling on the substance of the claims presented by Dr. Vengalattore.

“Title IX says nothing about disciplinary process. Title IX says nothing about what colleges should do when people are accused of misconduct. Title IX simply says that schools should not discriminate on the basis of sex. And unfortunately, what’s happening is colleges and universities have used these disciplinary proceedings as a way to discriminate.”
— Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

Under President Biden’s Title IX Policies the Mere False Allegation of Sexual Misconduct Could Result in Life-Altering Consequences for Those Falsely Accused

On March 2, 2021, International Women’s Day, President Biden issued an Executive Order related to Title IX, but ironically, the order will do little to reduce gender discrimination in educational settings. NCLA believes the real focus of such “review” is to find a way to either circumvent or repeal the Title IX regulations issued in May 2020 by Secretary Betsy DeVos in the prior administration entitled “Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Sex in Education Programs or Activities Receiving Federal Financial Assistance.” These regulations adopted by ED brought clarity and certainty to what Title IX means, how it should be enforced, and how to balance competing interests when accusations of sexual misconduct in the educational context are made.

Biden’s most recent effort is not only misguided but unlawful and will do little to promote the interests of girls and women. It is also a direct attack on one of the most sacred protections that we have as citizens of this country—the right to due process when accused of wrongdoing, the right to cross-examine your accuser, and the presumption of innocence. For the wrongly accused, President Biden’s Title IX order signals a return to the Obama-Biden national policy whereby the mere false allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct will suffice to destroy the educational opportunities and careers of accused students and professors alike.

The vendetta against Dr. Vengalattore was directly enabled by the Department of Education’s Title IX “guidance” that unlawfully coerced Cornell into removing critical due process protections. It is not mere “speculation” that Cornell adopted Policy 6.4 regarding sexual misconduct in response to ED’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. Cornell officials who sponsored the adoption of the new policies expressly stated that the change was necessary to bring Cornell into compliance with the letter.

Although President Biden’s executive orders do not have the force and effect of law, his Title IX executive orders instruct the Department of Education to bring lawsuits against those schools that do not comply with his interpretation of Title IX, despite the fact that his interpretation is incorrect, unlawful, and unconstitutional. Title IX, originally passed to protect the civil rights and entitlements of girls and women, is now too often a vehicle to pursue outcomes that were neither contemplated nor sanctioned by Congress in 1972 and that directly violate what this statute was designed to do.

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Dr. Vengalattore’s claims against Cornell and ED address the problems associated with university-led investigations of alleged sexual misconduct, including the serious lack of due process in these hearings that leads to terrible reputational injuries. Many federal courts are conscientiously recognizing that due process must be restored for defendants on campus. NCLA is confident that the Second Circuit will join them and reverse this erroneous and unjust dismissal. For more information visit the case page here.

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