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Wednesday, October 9,2013

OU wins in student’s federal lawsuit over his suspension, arrest

A federal court has ruled that Ohio University didn't violate a student's constitutional rights when it suspended him for discipline problems, then had him arrested for trespassing when he showed up for graduation.

In a ruling Sept. 19, U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., granted OU's motion for summary judgment and dismissal of a lawsuit filed in September 2012 by former student Gregory G. Richards.

Richards claimed OU violated his rights when it suspended him following a fight that started in an uptown bar, then called police on him when he attended commencement despite being banned from campus. (He later graduated.)

Sargus found no merit in Richards' claims, whether based on state or federal law.

Richards had alleged that OU violated due process by:

• not allowing him an attorney at his disciplinary hearings;

• delaying the hearings so they weren't held in a "timely" fashion as required by state law;

• not telling him why he was disciplined, or what evidence was used against him; and

• acting in an "arbitrary and capricious" way by suspending him just before he was supposed to graduate.

Richards, represented by attorney Derek Farmer, contended that OU policy gives students the right to legal counsel in Judiciaries cases when they face criminal charges. Because Richards was charged in connection with the fight, he argued, he had a right to counsel, but when he asked to have an attorney, OU said no.

Sargus confirmed that Richards was facing charges when the disciplinary hearings took place. But even assuming this gave him a right to legal counsel, the judge found, procedures OU used in his case were sufficient to ensure due process.

Richards' complaint, the judge found, "really boils down to his assertion that he was denied the opportunity to present his case as effectively as he would have wished - he cannot reasonably claim that he was denied the opportunity to present his case at all due to lack of legal counsel."

As for OU's not explaining why it suspended Richards, Sargus found that OU did issue an explanation, but apparently didn't send it to Richards. In any case, he concluded, even if OU had offered no rationale, "a claimant is simply not entitled to a statement of reasons for the decision when the reasons are obvious, as they were here."

Richards claimed one OU official involved in his Judiciaries case was biased, because he circulated a letter announcing Richards was suspended, called police to arrest him at commencement, and initiated disciplinary proceedings based on that incident.

Sargus, however, agreed with the university that even if one official who took part in the disciplinary case might have been biased, this doesn't by itself violate due process.

On the timeliness issue, Sargus found the hearing delays were not "excessive." As for OU's suspending Richards just before graduation, the judge found that to violate his rights, the suspension would have had to "shock the conscience," and OU's actions "fall far short of meeting this standard."

Richards also maintained it was unconstitutional for OU not to inform him that he had a right to legal counsel in his first disciplinary case. But by this logic, Sargus wrote, "any rule promulgated by a university that did not specifically inform students of each of their constitutional rights would be subject to a constitutional challenge."

Sargus did say OU could have done better handling commencement - Richards and his family received an invitation to the ceremony, apparently from an office at OU that didn't know he was barred from campus. But the judge concluded this didn't violate his rights.

"It is an unfortunate situation where a student has his family invited to graduation and then is arrested in front of them," Sargus wrote. "(Richards), however, obviously engaged in his own detrimental wishful thinking regarding graduation - he was aware that he was under suspension and had not been permitted to take his final exams, making graduation an impossibility, and he admits that he was warned that if he were on campus he could be arrested for trespassing. Regardless of whether the procedures utilized were ideal, they were in the end, fundamentally fair."


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