U.S. 5th Circuit holds qualified immunity applies in university disciplinary hearings where the outcome depends on the credibility of a witness

U.S. 5th Circuit holds qualified immunity applies in university disciplinary hearings where the outcome depends on the credibility of a witness

Ralph Clay Walsh, Jr. v. Lisa Hodge, et al., 19-10785, 2020 WL 5525397 (5th Cir. Sept. 15, 2020)

This is an appeal from Walsh’s §1983 claim alleging a violation of procedural due process in a disciplinary hearing.

Walsh, a former university professor, was accused of sexual harassment by a student at a conference. The university hired an attorney who investigated the claim and concluded that the student’s claim was substantiated. The dean of the university recommended termination. Walsh appealed and was sent a letter containing the procedure for the appeal. During the appeal, the attorney who investigated the claim was questioned but not the student. Walsh was terminated, then filed a §1983 claim against the university and various professors and school administrators asserting he was not allowed to confront his accuser. The individual defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds of qualified immunity which was partially granted and partially denied. Defendants appeal the denial.

The 5th Circuit rested their analysis on a two-pronged test: 1) whether Walsh suffered a procedural due process violation as a matter of law, then 2) whether Defendants’ conduct was objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the incident. The 5th Circuit found the first prong to be satisfied as, even when balancing private and public interests, Walsh had a right to have his accuser present to answer questions and raise the issue of credibility. Regardless, the 5th Circuit did not find that there was clearly established law for procedures necessary to protect a professor’s interest in avoiding career destruction after being accused of sexual harassment.   The 5th Circuit goes on to acknowledge that its sister circuits, as well as federal regulatory agencies, are split on the matter. Therefore, “[b]ecause of…conflicting, inconclusive language in past cases, [the 5th Circuit] cannot find that Defendants ‘knowingly violate[d] the law.’” The 5th Circuit ultimately reversed the district court’s denial of the qualified immunity argument in the summary judgment motion and rendered judgment in favor of the individual Defendants.

If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Panel consists of Justices Davis, Jones, and Engelhardt.