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Former App State football player accused of rape can move forward with suit

A former football player at Appalachian State University can move forward with parts of his case against the school, a federal judge has ruled. The former student, Lanston Tanyi, claims that the school violated his due process rights after two female students accused Tanyi and others of rape.

The accusations against Tanyi stemmed from two separate incidents, each of which led to disciplinary hearings administered by the university. In one of the cases, Tanyi was initially found responsible for sexual misconduct and suspended, although that finding was overturned on appeal.

In the second case, after a panel found in Tanyi’s favor on all charges, the complainant appealed and the school ordered a second hearing, at which the complaining student added new charges. Tanyi was again absolved of the sexual misconduct charge, but was found responsible for harassment, one of the added charges.

Tanyi, who graduated from ASU in 2012, sued the school, claiming it violated his procedural and substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment in the way it handled the discipline hearings. He also claimed that ASU violated his equal protection rights and committed gender discrimination.

U.S. District Judge Richard Vorhees found that Tanyi had presented enough evidence to proceed with two specific allegations that ASU violated his procedural due process rights. In the first of these, Tanyi argued that the school had no legitimate reason for granting a new hearing after he had been found not responsible by one of the student panels.

Vorhees ruled that schools need to clearly articulate a substantive basis for re-initiating disciplinary proceedings. Otherwise, he wrote, schools could simply order a new hearing any time a student was found to be not responsible for misconduct.

Lori Gonzalez, then the provost of ASU, sent a letter to Tanyi in which she essentially said that “a second hearing was necessary because ASU did not adequately prove its case against him at the first hearing,” Vorhees wrote. “Such reasoning is a plainly inadequate basis for granting a new hearing, and fundamentally unfair to Tanyi.”

Tanyi will also be able to continue with his claim that the school gave him insufficient notice of the harassment charge that was brought against him at the later hearing. Tanyi claims that he did not learn about the new charge until the night before the hearing.

“For all intents and purposes, Tanyi received notice of the new harassment charge at the eleventh hour, when it was too late to mount an effective defense. Educational institutions are largely left to their own devices regarding student disciplinary proceedings. However, at a minimum due process requires adequate notice,” Vorhees wrote.

Vorhees did grant ASU’s motion to dismiss other claims that Tanyi based on perceived due process violations. These include the school’s decisions to exclude witnesses that Tanyi intended to call to speak about the sexual history of one accuser, to assign the accuser a licensed attorney as an advocate while Tanyi was assigned only a graduate student as his defense counsel, and to try Tanyi jointly with another accused student, and its failure to inform Tanyi that two students had come forward to offer testimony in his defense.

Vorhees also dismissed Tanyi’s claims for equal protection violations and gender discrimination, finding that they lacked factual basis.

The ruling comes at a time when many colleges are re-examining their disciplinary policies for sexual assault allegations. ASU defended its decision to re-hear allegations against Tanyi by citing a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to universities by the Department of Education in April 2011. The letter clarified steps that universities need to take in regards to sexual assault allegations in order to comply with Title IX. The letter says that if a university provides an appeals process in such cases, then that process must be available to both parties.

In his decision, Vorhees held that notwithstanding the letter, schools should only order new hearings “if the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence … or substantial errors occurred during the proceedings.”

Luke Largess of Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen in Charlotte, who represented Tanyi, said that the ruling on re-opening hearings might be the most immediate takeaway from the case for universities.

“We’re still reviewing the decision, but we’re glad the court recognized that there was some basic unfairness in this process,” Largess said. “I think that clearly one lesson for the colleges is that if a student wins a hearing you have to have a reason for re-opening the matter.”

The 19-page decision is Tanyi v. Appalachian State University (Lawyers Weekly No. 15-04-0760). An opinion digest is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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