Case Law Update: Sterrett v. Heather Cowan and several employees of the University of Michigan


Sterrett v. Heather Cowan and several employees of the University of Michigan, sued in their personal and official capacities

85 F. Supp. 3d.916 (February 4, 2015)

This case involves a University of Michigan student (now suspended) who sued several officials employed by the University after he was suspended for violating the University’s Sexual Misconduct Policy. The facts reveal that the Plaintiff was a freshman in the School of Engineering and also admitted to the Michigan Research Community. After his first year and before the start of his second year, the Plaintiff was contacted by Cowan, the Equal Opportunity Specialist for the University, regarding an unconfirmed student complaint about him. During the Skype interview, the Plaintiff gleaned that Complaint concerned a sexual encounter between the Plaintiff and a female student. The Plaintiff provided detailed information regarding the sexual encounter during the Skype interview. The Plaintiff claims that prior to the interview, he was not provided with a written statement of the allegations nor was he advised verbally of the allegations against him. Subsequently, the Plaintiff received Cowan’s typed summary of the interview and summaries of the witnesses’ statements. The Plaintiff responded with a document alleging due process violations and concerns about omitted key facts. Cowan addressed the Plaintiff’s concerns and still issued a draft sexual misconduct report. In response, the Plaintiff pointed out additional due process concerns but a final report was issued finding that the Plaintiff had engaged in sexual intercourse with the female student without her consent. The report and findings were forwarded to other school officials and the Plaintiff was issued a suspension notice through July of 2016. The Plaintiff sued. The court dismissed the Plaintiff’s First Amendment claims where he claimed he was denied the right to speak to the other witnesses against him. The court found that this was not a criminal case and a student is not entitled to all the procedural safeguards afforded to criminal defendants. The court also dismissed the Plaintiff’s claims against each University official, except Cowan, the Equal Opportunity Specialist, under the grounds of qualified immunity. The court did find that prior to the Skype interview, the Plaintiff did not receive adequate notice of the specific allegations against him and the Complaint stated a proper claim for due process violations. The Plaintiff is currently appealing the dismissal of the Complaint against all of the dismissed University officials.

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