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General Counsel’s Corner: Student Probation and Due Process [Higher-Ed/College Athletics Best Practices Alert (Second Quarter 2014)]

Author: Michael L. Buckner, Esquire (Shareholder)

On April 23, 2014, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin issued an opinion and order in Jeff Salsieder v. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, No. 13-cv-838-bbc (W.D. Wisc., Apr. 23, 2014) that provides colleges and universities additional clarity on whether federal due process applies when students are placed on probation. Salsieder, a student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, initiated the civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. According to the district court’s decision, the student contended the defendants, Lisa Steinkamp (director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program), Robert Golden (Dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health) and the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System “deprived him of due process under the Constitution” when the parties “placed him on probation without providing him with the procedures they promised in the student handbook.” The defendants moved to dismiss Salsieder’s amended complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The district court judge, the Honorable Barbara B. Crabb, granted the motion, dismissed the amended complaint and ruled Salsieder cannot state a due process claim against defendants.

In March 2013, Steinkamp informed Salsieder “she had received complaints about his conduct outside the classroom” and provided the student “a letter stating that he was placed on probation for an indefinite length.” The letter did not indicate whether Salsieder “had to abide by any new conditions or rules or whether he had any way to appeal the decision.” The University of Wisconsin subsequently “declined plaintiff's attempts to appeal or discuss the decision.” Further, the institution “accepted plaintiff's tuition and fees payments and plaintiff maintained passing grades.”

Salsieder argued when the defendants “decided to place him on probation without providing him a hearing, a chance to participate in the investigation or an opportunity to appeal the decision, they violated the due process clause of Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.” The district court disagreed and noted, although a contract with a state agency may give rise to a protected property interest, a student's interest in contractually-guaranteed university process alone is not protected by the due process clause of the United States Constitution. [Note: The district court suggested a student could proceed with due process allegation if a complaint “suggest[s] the existence of any additional facts that would support a federal claim”.]

The full decision can be downloaded by clicking here.

Contact Michael L. Buckner (954-941-1844; mbuckner@bucknersportslaw.com) for additional information on higher-education legal issues.