This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

C9-01-1596

 

 

R.T.,

Relator,

 

vs.

 

University of Minnesota, et al.,

Respondents.

 

 

Filed June 11, 2002

Affirmed

Klaphake, Judge

 

University of Minnesota

 

 

Bobby Sea, Sea Law Office, PLC, The Strommen Building, 2469 University Avenue West, St. Paul, MN  55114 (for relator)

 

Mark B. Rotenberg, General Counsel, University of Minnesota, Thomas J. Schumacher, Associate General Counsel, 360 McNamara Alumni Center, 200 Oak Street S.E., Minneapolis, MN  55455-2006 (for respondents)

 

            Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Randall, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*


U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N

KLAPHAKE, Judge

            Relator R.T. brings this certiorari appeal from a University of Minnesota (University) agency decision.  R.T. challenges an adverse decision by the Campus Committee on Student Behavior (CCSB) to the President’s Student Body Review Panel (review panel).[1]  The review panel determined that R.T.’s hearing before the CCSB was unfair, but University President Mark Yudof subsequently overruled the review panel’s decision.  Because the University followed its procedures and its decision has support in the record, we affirm.

D E C I S I O N

            R.T. seeks review by certiorari from the University’s decision to suspend him for two years for a violation of the Student Conduct Code.  Our review of this action is

limited to an inspection of the record of the administrative tribunal, and this court is confined to questions affecting the regularity of the proceedings and, as to the merits of the controversy, whether the determination was arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable, fraudulent, made under an erroneous theory of law, or without any evidence to support it.

Chronopoulos v. Univ. of Minn., 520 N.W.2d 437, 441 (Minn. App. 1994) (citations omitted), review denied (Minn. Oct. 27, 1994).  This court must give great deference to University decisions affecting the University community.  See Bailey v. Univ. of Minn., 290 Minn. 359, 360-61, 187 N.W.2d 702, 703-04 (1971). 

            R.T. argues that the University-student relationship creates a contract and that the University breached that contract by failing to follow its own procedures.  This court has recognized that “[t]he basic relationship between a student and an educational institution is contractual in nature.”  Alsides v. Brown Inst., Ltd., 592 N.W.2d 468, 472 (Minn. App. 1999) (citing CenCor, Inc. v. Tolman, 868 P.2d 396, 398 (Colo. 1994)).  Catalogs and pamphlets with institutional regulations that are given to students form part of that contract.  Id. (citing Zumbrun v. Univ. of S. Cal., 101 Cal. Rptr. 499, 504 (Cal. Ct. App. 1972)). 

            A document outlining the appeals policy gives the review panel the authority to “amend or reverse the previous agency’s decision” if the panel determines that the previous body “clearly lacked a reasonable basis for making its findings, applying or interpreting a policy, or determining its sanctions.”  See The Regents’ Appeals Policy and the Twin Cities Campus Appeals Procedures: The Student Discipline System (approved Nov. 1978), available at http://www.sja.umn.edu/appeals.html (Appeals Policy).  The review panel may “dismiss the case, amend or reverse the previous decision, or return the case for rehearing” if it decides that the previous agency “clearly erred in a matter involving substantial procedural unfairness.”  R.T. argues that the University did not follow this written policy and thus breached its contract. 

            The review panel recommended that the president reverse the CCSB’s decision.  After reviewing the record, the president rejected the review panel’s recommendation and adopted the CCSB’s findings.  The Appeals Policy states that the Board of Regents has delegated the authority for student discipline to the president.  The procedures governing the review panel, adopted by the panel in May 1981, however, attempt to limit the president’s authority to decide disciplinary issues.

The President may accept the recommendations or return them to the Panel for further review.  Once the President accepts a recommendation from the Panel, the President will order the decision sent to the parties to the appeal. 

 

President’s Student Behavior Review Panel Hearing Procedures § VII, ADVISORY NATURE OF THE PANEL (Review Panel Procedures).  Neither the Board of Regents nor the president, however, has expressly adopted this document.  In addition, because membership on the review panel consists of faculty and students appointed by the president, the review panel cannot have authority to dictate limitations to the president.  Because the document in which the review panel attempts to assume authority over the president is inconsistent with other University policies and procedures, and given the overriding authority of the president, we observe no breach of contract.

            R.T. next argues the University violated his due process rights by not providing him with a fundamentally fair hearing.  The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects a student’s interest in attending a public university.  Abbariao v. Hamline Univ. Sch. of Law, 258 N.W.2d 108, 112 (Minn. 1977).  While a University has broad discretion for academic failings, a student is afforded more due process protection when school-imposed sanctions are for misconduct.  Id.; see Bd. of Curators of Univ. of Mo. v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78, 87, 98 S. Ct. 948, 953-54 (1978).  Determining what process is due necessitates a balancing of the interests and needs of the student against the interests and resources of the university.  See Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 581, 95 S. Ct. 729, 740 (1975).  Due process requires that a student receive oral or written notice of the charges and a hearing at which the student has an opportunity to present “his side of the story.”  Id.  Here, R.T. received a written, detailed notice of the charges against him and was given an opportunity to be heard by two different bodies.  During the hearing, he was represented by an advocate and was able to present his version of the facts.

            The University asserts that because the rules of evidence do not apply to University proceedings, it is not precluded from hearing evidence of past assaults.  R.T. argues that the inflammatory language used in the complaint and during the hearing prejudiced him and unfairly influenced the CCSB by distracting it from the issue at hand, which was whether his on-campus behavior violated the Student Conduct Code.

            The CCSB concluded that consideration of the off-campus sexual encounter was relevant to place R.T.’s on-campus behavior in context.  Moreover, the CCSB discussed the relevance of the sexual encounter and was cognizant that the University did not have jurisdiction over the incident because it occurred off campus.  The references to the encounter did not so taint the entire proceeding so as to render it unfair; to the contrary, the CCSB had the opportunity to hear testimony from both parties and to weigh their credibility.

            While the rules of evidence do not apply to University proceedings, the University has acknowledged its duty to provide students with fundamentally fair hearings.  These proceedings fully complied with the University definition of “minimal fundamental fairness.”  The University definition of fundamental fairness, however, does not require the exclusion of potentially prejudicial evidence or otherwise speak to the fundamental unfairness of allowing tainted testimony.  While we conclude that the proceedings here were not tainted, the University is well advised to institute procedures to minimize the problems associated with the use of prejudicial evidence.

            R.T. further argues that the CCSB panel members were biased.  Parties to an administrative proceeding are entitled to a decision by an unbiased decision-maker.  Buchwald v. Univ. of Minn., 573 N.W.2d 723, 727 (Minn. App. 1998), review denied (Minn. Apr. 14, 1998).  Administrative proceedings are presumed to be honest and regular, and the party claiming otherwise has the burden of proof.  Id.  R.T. provides no evidence to show bias on the part of any panel members.  Additionally, during the hearing, R.T.’s advocate had the opportunity to question the panel members and declined.  Therefore, we conclude that there is no support in the record for R.T.’s claim of bias.

            Affirmed.



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1] The University and internal memos from the president and the review panel itself refer to the panel as the “President’s Student Behavior Review Panel.”  Other documents outlining the appeal process, however, refer to the review panel as the “President’s Student Body Review Panel.”  This decision will use the latter.