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Newsletter > November 2000 > "MASSACHUSETTS SUPREME COURT RULES IN THE BRANDEIS CASE"
MASSACHUSETTS SUPREME COURT RULES IN THE BRANDEIS CASE
On September 25, 2000, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled on the case reported in the September 2000 Fraternal Law involving private universities and the
extent to which courts can intervene in the disciplinary proceedings of private colleges and universities. In Schaer v. Brandeis, the Supreme Judicial Court shut down any possible expansion of the rights of students attending private universities and colleges in Massachusetts.
The conflict between David Arlen Schaer and Brandeis· University commenced over four years ago when a female Brandeis student filed a report with the Brandeis student judicial system alleging that Schaer, then a Brandeis student, engaged in sexual intercourse with her against her wishes. As a result of that hearing, Schaer was suspended for four months and placed on disciplinary probation. Following the denial of an appeal hearing, Schaer requested judicial intervention.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts examined Schaer’s case by focusing on an alleged breach of the contract between the University and Schaer. The Court, at least impliedly, recognized that there is a contract between a university and its students. The basic terms of this contractual relationship provide that, in exchange for the student’s tuition and compliance with the rules set forth by the university, the university will not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner when disciplining the student. In reviewing whether Brandeis breached the contractual relationship, the court focused on the rights that Schaer should reasonably expect to receive as a Brandeis student. The Court also examined whether the disciplinary process provided Schaer comported with the basic fairness owed by a university to its students. In its decision, the Court pointed out that a university is not bound by the same rules of evidence that a trial court would be bound by and determined generally that the facts alleged by Schaer in his complaint, even when construed in his favor, were not sufficient to show that he was denied “basic fairness” in the University’s disciplinary process. In addition, the Court ruled that Schaer’ s factual allegations failed to establish that the disciplinary proceedings failed to meet the “reasonable expectation of the contract rights to which he was entitled.”
The bottom line in the Court’s decision can be found in the second last paragraph of the majority decision:
“We adhere to the principle that ‘courts are chary about interfering with academic and disciplinary decisions made by private colleges and universities.’ A university is not required to adhere to the standard of due process guaranteed to criminal defendants or to abide by rules of evidence adopted by courts. ‘A college must have broad discretion in determining appropriate sanctions for violations of its policies.”‘
Two justices dissented, arguing that the three member majority did not apply the appropriate standard of review to a motion to dismiss. They noted that a complaint should not be dismissed unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff cannot prove a valid claim based on the facts alleged in the complaint. Furthermore, the motion to dismiss was granted before the University was required to file an answer and before any evidence was presented to the court. Rather, the motion to dismiss was granted solely on the face of the complaint filed by Schaer, thus ruling that his claims did not even warrant consideration by the court.
While the Brandeis case dealt with the interpretation of Massachusetts law, the case was one that was being monitored across the country by many private educational institutions and those groups which interact with them. It is likely to be a case that receives significant attention in those circles.
[On October 6, 2000, a football player from the University of Cincinnati (“U.C.”) filed suit against the University and two of its administrators alleging violations of his constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The football player had been disciplined by U.C., a state university, for acts similar to those alleged in the Brandeis case. The player claims in his lawsuit, among other alleged violations of his rights, that the University failed to apprise him of his rights, failed to apprise him of what the charges were against him, and denied him the opportunity to confront his accuser. This case places the Brandeis issues squarely in the context of a public university dispute. Whether the fact that the University of Cincinnati is a public university as opposed to Brandeis which was a private university, will make a difference in the outcome of the litigation remains to be seen. It is a case that bears watching.]