Stanford Drops Lawyer Who Advised Students in Sexual Assault Cases
Schoenthaler said the comments indicated “a lack of faith in Stanford’s Title IX Process” and were “disappointing.”
“Given your stated lack of confidence,” she added, “it does not make sense for the university to continue to refer our students to you.”
The dismissal comes amid growing dissent at Stanford over how its in-house disciplinary board, one of many on college campuses, adjudicates sexual assault cases. The federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has four investigations open into complaints filed by students over the university’s handling of sexual assault cases in recent years. Last month, representatives from that office visited Stanford to hear students’ concerns about sexual violence, Title IX anti-discrimination violations and their experiences in reporting incidents to the university.
Last February, Stanford put in place a pilot adjudication procedure for sexual assault cases that requires a unanimous verdict from a three-member board, a standard that victims’ rights advocates say favors the accused and makes Stanford an outlier among its prestigious peers. Of the universities that use such panels and are listed among U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 colleges, only one other, Duke University, has such a stringent requirement.
Riggins, in a response to Stanford, stood by her comment to The Times and criticized her dismissal. “As a zealous advocate, my only duty is to the student-parties that I represent,” she said.
She said she had at least two cases pending at Stanford and would continue to represent accusers in Title IX proceedings. She said she would also represent any student who hired her independently.
Riggins has made several suggestions for streamlining the process and has raised concerns about the fairness of the system.
“I am greatly concerned that my removal from the Stanford-identified attorney list will disadvantage complaining students,” she wrote in a memo obtained by The Times.
The memo added: “To my knowledge, I was the only attorney on the list that specializes in representing complaining students. I am concerned that the current list has limited options for complaining students compared to responding students. I strongly recommend that the Advisory Board immediately add attorneys with experience representing complaining students to the list.”
A Stanford spokeswoman, Lisa Lapin, said that the removal of Riggins from the list of sponsored lawyers was not a “free-speech issue.”
“We want to ensure that this legal support is fair to both parties, and it would be unconscionable and unfair to refer any student to an attorney who does not have confidence in our process,” Lapin said in a statement.
As part of the pilot program, Stanford offered to pay up to nine hours of legal fees on behalf of accusers as well as the accused, using six approved lawyers, including Riggins. The hourly billing rate was $200 an hour — or half Riggins’s normal rate of $400 an hour. Although Riggins and other Bay Area lawyers have commended Stanford for providing students — often traumatized and unfamiliar with legal proceedings — access to lawyers without charge, they say nine hours is hardly enough to navigate the university’s adjudication system.
Michael W. Bien, a San Francisco-based lawyer, has guided several accusers through the sexual assault proceedings at Stanford. Bien, too, criticized Stanford’s unanimous-decision standard, saying it was “virtually impossible” to get a favorable decision. He is not on the list of Stanford’s sponsored lawyers and said the university was running the risk of eroding the lawyers’ credibility by retaliating against dissenting opinions, as it appears Stanford did by removing Riggins from the panel.
The university should not be able to regulate what the sponsored lawyers say, or how they handle their clients, Bien said.
“It makes the panel look like a sham,” he said.
Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford law professor and a vocal critic of the university’s policies on sexual assaults, said the perceived retaliation against a lawyer for advocacy on behalf of her clients’ interests could have a potential chilling effect on lawyers’ representation of accusers at Stanford.
“The concern is that lawyers will feel pressure to tone down their advocacy in order to avoid upsetting the university, especially if they have other cases that are ongoing in the system,” said Dauber, one of five Stanford professors who in December 2015 wrote an open letter to the provost complaining about the new policy.
In her memo to Stanford, Riggins said that she hoped that the university moved toward a more welcoming system for victims.
“At the heart of this,” she said, “are Stanford students who should be treated fairly and equally.”
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