Judge Michael Shea of the Federal District Court of Connecticut has ordered the University of Connecticut to pay Attorney Michael Thad Allen over $63,000 in reasonable attorney fees due to the university’s violation of a student’s due process rights in a sexual misconduct hearing.
Attorney Allen sued on behalf of “John Doe” after the University of Connecticut suspended him for two years (without guaranteeing that he could return to his studies in the management school) over alleged sexual misconduct. As set forth in John Doe’s detailed complaint, Student Conduct Officer Brian Goepfrich and other bureaucrats in UConn’s Title IX Office refused to allow John Doe to present exculpatory witness statements, invented new charges against John Doe on the fly, and denied him the ability to present witnesses at his hearing or question his accusers.
John Doe’s accuser and her friends also interfered with his witnesses, labeled him with the “N-word,” and threatened to “beat his ass.” UConn did nothing about these threats and violations of its policies in zeal to prosecute only John Doe.
Last January, Judge Shea entered a Temporary Restraining Order against UConn to halt its violation of his rights. This quickly led to settlement and a new hearing. Once fair processes were put in place by court order, John Doe was able to defend himself on the basis of the evidence rather than being prejudged guilty from the start by UConn’s bureaucrats. He was exonerated.
Attorney Allen then submitted a petition to recover the reasonable attorney fees incurred by John Doe, his family, and Allen Law LLC, which agreed to represent John Doe on a pro bono basis after the family exhausted its financial resources.
UConn opposed the petition for reasonable attorney fees, to which any litigant is entitled who prevails on a due process claim under 42 USC § 1983 and 42 USC § 1988. UConn raised various arguments: that Attorney Allen’s fees were “unreasonable,” that Attorney Allen was secretly attempting a double recovery from his clients and from UConn, and that Attorney Allen had not achieved any significant legal goals for his client—all in an attempt to avoid paying for its violation of John Doe’s due process rights.
The court rejected UConn’s arguments, although it struck out John Doe’s fees expended in his defense during the original campus court proceedings in which UConn consistently violated his due process rights. Unfortunately, this denied John Doe approximately one quarter of the legal services incurred in preparing his case.
In response to UConn’s argument that John Doe failed to achieve the legal results he asked for in his Complaint, Judge Shea responded:
Doe obtained all the relief he sought in the [Temporary Restraining Order] motion, to which the bulk of the litigation was devoted, and some of the relief prayed for in his Amended Complaint … As a practical matter, I would characterize the results obtained for Doe as excellent. As a direct result of his prompt filing of the lawsuit and TRO motion, I granted the TRO ordering that he be allowed to enroll in classes, and he was allowed to enroll in classes in time for the Spring semester. Shortly thereafter, the parties entered into the Consent Order affording the same relief, removing adverse references from his transcript, and affording Doe a new hearing with more equitable procedures – one that ultimately resulted in his being found not responsible for sexual misconduct. Ultimately, this allowed him to graduate from college on schedule – something that no doubt mattered more to [John] Doe than any declaratory judgment the Court might have rendered and probably even any damages award he might realistically have won.
The court also brushed aside UConn’s argument that Attorney Michael Thad Allen was too inexperienced and his firm, Allen Law LLC, which had been in business for approximately one year at that point, was not deserving of full compensation.
Judge Shea noted that Attorney Allen’s hourly fee of $400 was reasonable. The court held that Attorney Allen’s experience not only as an attorney but also his experience as a former tenured history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology which “gave him a unique ability to understand the machinery of universities from inside … experience [that] played a role in navigating Doe’s claims to success.”
This marks the conclusion of John Doe’s case. John Doe has, in the meantime, completed all requirements for graduation and embarked upon his career without a blemish on his record.
As expert on Title IX cases KC Johnson has noted, the case demonstrates that radically different outcomes result from fair procedures in campus courts, from representation by competent higher education attorneys, and from forcing University bureaucrats to abide by the law.
The fee award also imposes a steep cost on the University for running roughshod over students’ rights.