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Med student sues U., says sexual misconduct suspension ‘shockingly disproportionate’

FILE - An entrance to the University of Utah campus. Jordan Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A University of Utah medical student disciplined for sexual misconduct is now suing the school, saying his two-year suspension was too harsh and detrimental to his career.

Robert Byron says Utah’s flagship university violated his right to due process in proceedings that favored the other side. His two-year penalty approved by U. President Ruth Watkins stems from a classmate’s report that he victimized her in April 2019 — an allegation Byron contends is in large part inaccurate.

Now Byron is now asking a federal judge to order his immediate return to the school, arguing the “harsh, oppressive and shockingly disproportionate sanction” effectively ends what would have been a promising career.

“The suspension is essentially expulsion from the school of medicine,” states the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court. Byron is suing for an unspecified amount, listing damages including losses in future earnings and in tuition he’s paid, harm to his reputation and severe emotional distress.

In September, a classmate filed a complaint with the university’s equal opportunity office, which is separate from the school’s police department and investigates reports of sexual misconduct and harassment among students.

After the office sustained the woman’s report, Byron appealed to a student-conduct committee that ultimately upheld her allegations of sexual misconduct and “nonconsensual sexual contact” but found insufficient evidence of the more serious “nonconsensual sexual penetration,” the suit says. Such reviews draw conclusions based on a preponderance of the evidence, or a standard of more likely than not.

The panel concluded that a no-contact directive and referral for counseling were reasonable sanctions, Byron’s attorneys wrote, but it did not recommend a two-year suspension, citing its rejection of the third allegation.

But administrators, not the panel, have the ultimate say in deciding the cases and meting out discipline, the lawsuit says. Lori McDonald, the university’s vice president of Student Affairs, imposed the two-year-suspension, noting it’s standard in such cases for sanctions to allow the other person to finish their studies.

Byron again appealed the conclusion to Watkins, who affirmed it. Neither administrator attended the hearing or made mention of the panel’s findings in their decisions, which Byron alleges were made “for arbitrary reasons, and lacked any rational basis.”

University of Utah Health spokeswoman Kathy Wilets suggested the U. sees it differently.

“We stand by the outcome of our internal process,” she said without additional comment.

In a February hearing before the appeals committee, Byron, the office and the woman who lodged the complaint each had 45 minutes to make their cases, an arrangement he says made the proceeding inherently unfair because it allowed for 90 minutes of presentation on the allegations and only 45 for his defense.

Byron contends he “diligently completed his coursework and has shown tremendous potential for a career as a medical doctor.” His attorneys wrote that many of the allegations he faced were “exaggerated, embellished or entirely false.”

As part of his appeal, Byron submitted a letter to the panel from a medical school administrator who said a leave of absence based on misconduct “significantly decreases the probability of a medical student matching into a residency to the point of being essentially impossible.”

The break also must be reported to the Association of American Medical Colleges, recorded in the student’s official academic record and performance evaluation tied to residency applications, wrote Associate Dean of Student Affairs Adam Stevenson.

Byron also seeks to recoup attorney fees.