Expelled university students were not deprived of constitutional rights

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Tigrett v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 290 F.3d 620 (4th Cir. 2002)

Alexander Kory was attacked by fellow University of Virginia students Harrison Tigrett and Bradley Kintz, among others. Kory initiated a student disciplinary complaint against them under the procedures of the University Judiciary Committee (UJC). The UJC is a student-operated body with responsibility for investigating and hearing complaints about student misconduct. Trials are conducted before seven-member UJC panels. All UJC decisions are automatically subject to review by the university’s vice president for student affairs. If the vice president concludes that a UJC decision is inappropriate, he or she may remand it to the UJC or refer it to an independent body called the Judicial Review Board (JRB), which is composed of faculty, administrators, and students. The JRB may remand the matter to the UJC for a new trial or reverse or modify the UJC decision.

Kory’s initial UJC complaint accused Tigrett and Kintz of assault; before the trial, he added a charge of disorderly conduct. Tigrett and Kintz were notified of the added charge. The day before trial, they met with Vice President Harmon to discuss their concerns about the trial. They left the meeting with the impression that the trial would not go forward the next day. However, later that evening, the UJC rejected a motion that the trial be postponed and notified them that the trial would be held as scheduled. Nonetheless, believing that any trial held without their presence would be invalid, they did not attend. The UJC found them guilty of all charges and recommended expulsion.

Four days later, Harmon refused to finalize the UJC’s recommendation. Citing what he perceived as procedural irregularities, he referred the matter to the JRB. The JRB set aside the expulsion recommendation and remanded the case to the UJC. After determining that it lacked sufficient membership to form another panel for trial, the UJC relinquished control of the case to Harmon. Harmon created a review panel and informed Tigrett and Kintz that the panel would hold a trial and that its decision would be submitted to the university’s president of student affairs. They would be entitled to appeal the president’s decision to the JRB, but the JRB’s decision would be final absent written permission from the Board of Visitors to appeal it.

After a thirteen-hour trial at which witnesses were examined and evidence presented, the panel found Tigrett and Kintz guilty of assault and disorderly conduct and recommended to President Casteen that they be suspended for one semester and required to perform seventy-five hours of community service. Casteen, rejecting the plaintiffs’ request to appear before him and argue their case, accepted the recommendation as it related to Kintz but suspended Tigrett for a full academic year.

Tigrett and Kintz filed suit in federal court for the Western District of Virginia, alleging various due process violations surrounding their suspensions. When the court dismissed the claims, Tigrett and Kintz sought review by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. They claimed that their due process rights were violated (1) by the first UJC trial conducted in their absence, (2) by Casteen’s refusal to see them, and (3) by Casteen and Harmon’s failure to properly train, supervise, and control the UJC panel.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Tigrett and Kintz’s claims.

Tigrett and Kintz’s first claim, that the UJC panel expelled them in violation of their due process rights, failed because the UJC did not, and did not have the power to expel them. Because they suffered the loss of no constitutionally protected right, the absence of any particular due process safeguards is not actionable. That Tigrett and Kintz believed they were expelled (as they argued) was of no moment.

Nor was Casteen, the ultimate decision maker, obligated by due process to see them before imposing sanctions. What matters, in terms of due process, is not whether they were afforded a hearing in front of the person having final authority to impose discipline but whether they were afforded a hearing that was meaningful. Their thirteen-hour trial more than satisfied this requirement.

The court also dismissed the final claim, that Harmon and Casteen failed to properly supervise the UJC, because Tigrett and Kintz failed to show a causal link between Harmon and Casteen’s alleged inaction and some constitutionally recognized harm. As established above, the UJC inflicted no such harm, so there is no causal link.

summarized by Ingrid M. Johansen

posted Summer 2002