University of Southern California. Photo: Karl_Sonnenberg/Shutterstock.com

A California appeals court has ruled that a male University of Southern California student was deprived of his due process rights when he was expelled on allegations that he raped a female student because the lead investigator did not interview key witnesses and there was no review of physical evidence.

A three-judge panel of Second District Court of Appeal on Tuesday overturned a prior ruling by a Superior Court judge who said the expelled student, identified by the court only as John Doe, was not deprived of a fair investigation and hearing.

“John contends on appeal that he was denied a fair hearing. We agree,” said Justice Gail Ruderman Feuer. Justices Dennis Perluss and Laurie Zelon joined in the ruling.

“Disciplinarians, although proceeding in utmost good faith, frequently act on the reports and advice of others; and the controlling facts and the nature  of the conduct under challenge are often disputed,” Feuer said. “The risk of error is not at all trivial.”

The ruling does not mean that Doe, who was first suspended in 2014, will be reinstated, but only that the case will be investigated again and that he will be offered a rehearing. He has denied the allegations of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and abuse of alcohol, the court said.

Doe’s attorney, Mark Hathaway, said the ruling reflects a trend that courts are demanding that colleges and universities afford accused students due process rights when the students are accused of wrongdoing.

“This student has been unable to gain admittance to any other college or university and has been unable to complete his degree,” said Hathaway, of Hathaway Parker in Los Angeles.

USC was represented by a lawyer in the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Theane Evangelis, who didn’t return a call seeking comment on the ruling.

The appellate court said USC and its investigator, Kegan Allee, failed to follow the university’s own procedures when she failed to interview at least three potential witnesses, and in failing to obtain forensic evidence that might have determined whether Doe did, in fact, rape the female student—who was identified only as Jane Roe.

The incident allegedly occurred April 12, 2014, after Doe and Roe both attended a “paint party,” in which participants, who had consumed or were consuming alcohol, splattered paint over each other. Roe would later recount that she was very drunk at and after the party, the court said.

After the party, Doe and Roe, according to the ruling, went to Roe’s apartment and engaged in sex. Roe would later claim, in reporting the incident to the university in a complaint, that she was too drunk to consent to sex, that Doe raped her while she was unconscious.

The appeals court said Allee should have interviewed the witnesses, including two friends who saw Roe and Doe together in Roe’s apartment, instead of relying on preliminary statements; provided Doe with a chance for cross-examination; sought Roe’s medical records, either through her consent or with a subpoena; and investigated whether stains found in Roe’s apartment were blood stains or paint from the previous evening’s paint party.

“In disciplining college students, the fundamental privilege of fairness requires, at a minimum, giving the accused students notice of the charges and an opportunity to be heard in their own defense,” Feuer said.

“There is no question that expulsion from the university was a severe sanction,” she said.