By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday ruled that a former Yale University student can proceed with a defamation suit against a fellow student who accused him of rape.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals follows a ruling by Connecticut's highest court that statements that the accuser made in a university disciplinary hearing were not shielded by a kind of legal immunity that applies to court proceedings.
The lawsuit also includes claims against Yale, which were not at issue in the decision.
"We're delighted by the ruling and looking forward to holding Yale accountable for the harm it did to this extraordinary young man," Norman Pattis, a lawyer for plaintiff Saifullah Khan, said in an email.
A lawyer for the defendant, identified in court papers as Jane Doe, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to his 2019 lawsuit, filed in Connecticut federal court, Doe said Khan raped her in 2015 following a Halloween party, which he denies.
Khan in 2018 was acquitted at trial of criminal charges, having been indefinitely suspended from Yale while the case was pending. Following the trial, Yale held a disciplinary hearing and expelled Khan after finding him responsible for the rape.
Khan sued the university and Doe in 2019, calling the hearing a "sham." He accused Yale of breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and Doe of defamation, among other claims, seeking $110 million in damages.
A judge dismissed Khan's lawsuit against Doe on the grounds that the university's disciplinary hearing was a "quasi-judicial proceeding," making Doe's statements immune from Khan's defamation claims.
Khan appealed, arguing that the hearing was not a quasi-judicial proceeding because it lacked procedures to protect his due process rights, including the ability to cross-examine Doe and call witnesses. Doe gave a statement by video, with Khan and his attorney not present, according to court papers.
U.S. Department of Education guidance at the time, dating from Democratic President Barack Obama's administration, stated that cross-examination in such hearings was not required, and many universities followed a similar approach to Yale's.
In 2020, the administration of Republican President Donald Trump issued a new regulation requiring cross-examination, but it was blocked by a court ruling. Under President Joe Biden, a Democrat, the Department of Education is not seeking to enforce a cross-examination requirement.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Will Dunham)