Connecticut Supreme Court repeals absolute immunity for accuser in Yale sexual assault case

Yale University is a private Ivy League university in New Haven, Connecticut | Source: Vivitar

After being acquitted of sexual assault charges, a former Yale student attempted to sue his accuser for defamation, an effort that was rejected in U.S. District Court – a decision later overturned by the Connecticut Supreme Court, which removed absolute immunity for those who make sexual assault accusations in university proceedings.

Key Players

Saifullah Khan was born in a refugee camp in Afghanistan in 1994, six months after his family fled from the Taliban. They later moved to the United States, where Khan attended his final two years of high school in Connecticut. He then pursued an undergraduate degree in neuroscience at Yale University, expecting to graduate with the class of 2016.

The University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct (UWC), a body of Yale faculty, senior administrators, and graduate and professional students, are trained to hear complaints of sexual misconduct. Three trained members of the committee, along with a hearing officer with legal training, preside over the hearings. The panel hears testimony and has the ability to impose penalties such as expulsion, termination, and suspension on those who are found to have violated Yale’s sexual misconduct policy. 

Further Details

On Nov. 1, 2015, a Yale student visited the university’s sexual harassment and assault resource center to report that Khan had raped her the previous evening. An administrator then called the police. 

On Nov. 9, Khan was suspended from Yale and ordered to vacate campus. Three days later, he was arrested and faced charges of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-degree sexual assault. 

In February 2018, after a nearly two-week trial and less than a day of deliberations by the jury, Khan was acquitted on all counts. The trial gained considerable media attention because of the rarity of college sexual assault cases being heard in a criminal court. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that between 4% and 20% of female college students who are raped report the attack to law enforcement, and of the cases that are reported, only a fraction lead to an arrest or trial.

In 2018, Samantha Harris, then-vice president of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Free Speech advocacy group, told The New York Times that Khan’s trial was “Exhibit A” for why universities should leave rape investigations to independent police departments. 

“It seems like kind of the worst-case scenario, where the university’s processes may have affected the ability of the criminal justice system to function properly,” Harris said.

Following his acquittal, Khan sought readmission to Yale but was opposed by a #MeToo movement protest. In the fall of 2018, Khan was readmitted, but denied on-campus housing. 

On Oct. 5, 2018, Yale Daily News published an article publicizing a man’s allegations that Khan sexually assaulted him. Shortly afterward, Khan was contacted by Yale police and university administrators, who asked about his mental state and whether he had considered harming himself or others. He assured authorities he was fine, but Khan then received a letter from Marvin Chun, the former dean of Yale College, informing him that he was suspended out of necessity for his “physical and emotional safety and well-being and/or the safety and well-being of the university community.”

In November 2018, Khan was permitted to return to campus for a UWC hearing about the 2015 sexual assault complaint. However, Khan was prohibited from being present in the room while the committee questioned the accuser, and his attorney was not permitted to speak, question witnesses, or launch objections. Additionally, Khan was denied a transcript and recording of the hearing.

Ultimately, the UWC panel opted to expel Khan, who subsequently filed a lawsuit against Yale for failing to afford him due process from Title IX, among other claims. He also sued his accuser for defamation, seeking $110 million in damages from the university and the opportunity to finish his degree.

The Connecticut Supreme Court has previously granted absolute immunity from being sued for defamation to accusers in sexual assault cases that are tried in “judicial or quasi-judicial hearings.” Khan argued, however, that the UWC proceeding did not qualify as quasi-judicial as it was not conducted by a public institution.

On Jan. 7, 2021, U.S. District Judge Kari A. Dooley, nominated by former President Donald Trump, held that the UWC did constitute a quasi-judicial proceeding, thus entitling the accuser to absolute immunity.

Dooley cautioned that if sexual assault victims are at risk of being sued for reporting an attack, they will be less likely to report the crime. Additionally, she wrote that Khan failed to identify a “substantive difference between a Title IX proceeding conducted by a public versus a private university that would warrant the application of absolute immunity in the former but not the latter,” considering that Title IX applies equally to private and public institutions.

Khan appealed the decision to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately deferred to the Connecticut Supreme Court to resolve the issue of the accuser’s immunity.


State Supreme Court overturns federal court decision, repealing absolute immunity

On June 27, 2023, the state Supreme Court, having been invited by the federal appellate court to clarify the Connecticut law, unanimously concluded in a 7-0 ruling that the immunity of an accusing student may be lifted if it can be proven that they made false statements during the proceedings with malice. The Court found that since Khan had fewer rights to defend himself in the UWC proceeding than he would have had in criminal court, his accuser could not benefit fully from immunity granted to witnesses in criminal proceedings.

The UWC proceeding failed to incorporate sufficient safeguards to be considered quasi-judicial, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled. Such safeguards may have included: requiring complainants to testify under oath, providing Khan with the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, allowing an opportunity for parties to call witnesses to testify, affording Khan the right to have assistance of counsel, and providing Khan with a record or transcript of the hearing.

The Connecticut Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Raheem L. Mullins, states, “Statements made in sexual misconduct disciplinary proceedings that are offered and accepted without adequate procedural safeguards carry too great a risk of unfair or unreliable outcomes. […] We must acknowledge that the accused’s right to fundamental fairness is no less important than the right of the accuser or the larger community to achieve justice.”

Reactions amid pending revisions to Title IX rules on cross-examination

The state Supreme Court decision came amid attempts by the Biden administration to implement changes to Title IX, which were proposed in 2022, but have not been finalized. Among other changes, Biden’s reforms would eliminate the cross-examination of sexual assault victims, a requirement that was implemented by Trump in 2020. The Biden reforms were supposed to be issued in May, but the department delayed them until October.

Attorney Andrew Miltenberg, an expert in Title IX law, said he believes that cross-examination is necessary for fairness in Title IX proceedings, since campus investigations have a lower standard of guilt, “preponderance of evidence,” than a criminal proceeding, in which a jury must be assured of one’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Legal experts predicted that the state Supreme Court ruling will play a significant role in future defamation lawsuits by students who wish to challenge the fairness of university sexual assault proceedings.

“It was striking to me how detailed they were in criticizing the fairness of the Yale procedures,” K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, told The Associated Press. “There are passages from this opinion that I suspect will be quoted in basically every accused student’s brief moving forward.”

Elizabeth Tang, a lawyer with the National Women’s Law Center who co-signed an amicus brief in the case, expressed concern that this decision may deter survivors of sexual assault from reporting crimes. “I think that’s really damaging and will result in a chilling effect on survivors,” Tang told The Times.