Former Yale student acquitted of sexual assault in 2018 sues accuser for defamation
The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled in June that Saifullah Khan, who allegedly raped a female peer at Yale in 2018, may proceed with a defamation suit against the accuser.
Content warning: This article describes sexual violence.
SHARE is available to all members of the Yale community who are dealing with sexual misconduct of any kind, including sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence and more. Counselors are available any time, day or night, at the 24/7 hotline: (203) 432-2000.
Saifullah Khan, who was originally a member of the Yale College class of 2016, was acquitted of sexual assault in criminal court in 2018, yet he was found responsible by the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Assault and ultimately expelled in 2019.
The difference in the two rulings, and in the way those trials were conducted, led Khan to sue Yale in 2019 for $110 million dollars for breach of contract, breach of privacy, emotional distress and reputational harm. Also a defendant in the lawsuit is the woman who alleges that Khan raped her in 2015 — “Jane Doe” as she is identified in court documents — for statements she made during UWC proceedings at Yale.
Usually victims of sexual assault are protected under full immunity for what they say in court, meaning they cannot be sued for defamation based on statements made during the proceedings. But on June 27, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Doe should not receive full immunity because Yale’s UWC hearing lacked several “procedural safeguards” for Khan’s defense, such as cross-examination of the accuser and the ability for the accused to call witnesses.
“[The decision] puts survivors in a difficult bind because they have to choose between two things that are both traumatizing,” Elizabeth Tang, a lawyer for the National Women Law Center, told the News. “Getting cross-examined by your rapists’ advisor is extremely traumatizing. Or if you don’t get cross-examined, you might get sued for defamation.”
Khan’s defamation case now is moving back to the district court, where the discovery process will start; this includes calling witnesses for deposition and presenting evidence.
In June, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that since Khan’s UWC proceedings lacked procedural safeguards, they do not qualify as “quasi-judicial” and do not afford Doe the full immunity that comes with making statements in courts, making her liable for a defamation lawsuit.
“Given the recent findings about the lack of due process and fairness in the University’s Title IX procedures, I firmly believe their ruling was not only unfair but deeply flawed,” Khan wrote to the News.
The state Supreme Court’s June decision raises the question of whether university Title IX hearings might leave accusers of sexual assault liable for defamation lawsuits. From 2014 to 2020, over 100 defamation lawsuits were filed against accusers of sexual assault.
Halloween Night, 2015
Before Oct. 31, 2015, Khan was a senior in Trumbull College. Originally from Afghanistan, he studied cognitive science and was a member of the Jewish society Shabtai, which is not affiliated with the University. According to reporting by the News in 2018, some students knew Khan as “smart” and “charismatic,” while others told the News they had previously raised concerns about his behavior toward female classmates in his role as Yale College Council representative in Trumbull.
According to Doe’s affidavit to Yale Police, both Doe and Khan attended an off-campus party hosted by Shabtai on the night of Oct. 31, 2015. Doe, who said that she had never been inebriated before attending the Shabtai event, then went to the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s annual Halloween Show with Khan, where she said she was so intoxicated that she had trouble producing her ticket and vomited before sitting with Khan, who was an acquaintance at the time.
Shabtai did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Around 12:45 a.m., Khan and Doe went back to Doe’s dorm room in Trumbull, where Doe fell asleep. The next morning, Doe said she woke up naked with Khan still in the room, with condoms on the floor. Later that day, she scheduled a meeting with Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education, who in turn contacted the Yale Police Department.
Khan’s account of that night, which he presented in his court testimony and in his lawsuit, is markedly different. He said that Doe had been her “usual jovial, happy” self through the night, and when he left her room after walking her home from the show, Doe called him back. Khan then said the two engaged in consensual sex.
Khan was arrested by Yale Police in November 2015 on charges of sexual assault in the first, second, third and fourth degrees and was suspended from the University indefinitely. His trial in criminal court started in February 2017.
Criminal and UWC proceedings rulings diverge
In criminal court, Khan was found not guilty on all charges of sexual assault by a six-person jury on March 7, 2017. Despite his acquittal, over 77,000 people signed a petition asking the University to not readmit Khan to Yale, according to Khan’s lawsuit.
After Khan was acquitted of all charges, then-Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun lifted his suspension from Yale and said Khan could re-enroll in classes as early as the summer session.
In the fall 2018 semester, Khan returned to the University, living off campus and taking classes including “Constitutional Law” and “The Criminal Mind,” according to reporting by the News. But, on Oct. 5, 2018, the News reported that Jon Andrews — one of Khan’s chief supporters during his trial and later romantic partner — alleged that during their seven-month relationship, Khan had sexually assaulted him and physically attacked him on two other occasions. Khan denied sexually assaulting Andrews.
“These accusations are painful and illegitimate, and Mr. Khan’s life is not tabloid fodder,” Margaret Valois, one of Khan’s lawyers at the time, wrote to the News in 2018.
Despite Andrews having no connection to Yale, Chun suspended Khan again “for [Khan’s] physical and emotional safety and well-being and/or the safety and well-being of the university community” two days after the News published an article regarding Khan’s alleged behavior toward Andrews.
On Nov. 6, the UWC held its hearing for Khan’s case, and found him responsible for sexually assaulting Doe in 2015. The committee decided to expel him from the University in January 2019.
Khan v. Yale
On Dec. 13, 2019, Khan sued Yale, alleging that the University had harmed his reputation and violated its contract by not giving Khan his degree. Khan also contends that his right to a fair trial was violated during UWC proceedings as he was unable to cross-examine Doe or receive meaningful assistance from legal counsel in his hearing — specifically, the suit alleges that while Khan’s lawyer was present, they could not speak, pose questions or tender objections.
“The Connecticut Supreme Court decisively rejected the notion that Yale’s administrative process was a reliable fact-finding forum,” Norman Pattis, one of Khan’s lawyers, wrote to the News. “We seek to hold Yale and Mr. Khan’s as yet pseudonymous accuser accountable for all they destroyed. Yale recruited Saif and promised him the world. It then discarded him as though he were a piece of garbage. A jury will be outraged.”
Listed among the defendants of the suit are the University and administrators who were involved in the case at the time, including Chun, University President Peter Salovey and then-Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler. Also included among the defendants is Doe, who would typically be exempt from being held liable for statements made during a quasi-judicial hearing, which is how UWC proceedings are classified.
In response to Khan’s suit, Doe filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that she held absolute immunity for claims made during UWC proceedings. However, the state Supreme Court’s June ruled in June that Khan’s hearings did not meet “quasi-judicial” status as he was not afforded procedural safeguards such as the right to cross-examination.
The court also asserted that the UWC hearing’s regulations minimized the role of Khan’s legal counsel.
“These restrictions effectively rendered counsel irrelevant, relegating Khan’s attorney to the status of the proverbial potted plant,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their decision.
But the court did not decide that the University’s hearing was invalid, and the UWC decision still stands, according to Tang.
The case now enters the discovery stage, where both sides will call witnesses for depositions and collect evidence.
“The Supreme Court ruling is pivotal as it underscores the importance of due process and fairness, even within university settings,” Khan wrote. “It’s not just about personal vindication; it’s about ensuring that truth and justice prevail.”
In this stage of the lawsuit, Doe has not been found guilty of defamation. Tang said the courts will now decide whether the allegations made in Khan’s suit are severe enough for her to be sued for defamation, and Khan’s attorneys will also interview those involved during the discovery process to investigate his claims further.
Following discovery, in the motion for summary judgment stage, or the period where the judge makes a decision before the case goes to trial, Doe can assert “qualified immunity,” or protection from a defamation suit for what she said in court because they were not made with “actual malice,” according to Tang.
Going through the discovery process, Tang said, can be a retraumatizing and invasive process, given that attorneys will likely question Doe about her experiences with Khan.
“The problem with [discovery] is that it subjects survivors to a lot of trauma through the process of having to defend themselves through the lawsuit all the way to the motion for summary judgment stage,” Tang told the News. “Discovery’s very invasive. It’s a time for people like Khan and his lawyer to try to get as much as possible out of the victim.”
The discovery for the suit will not be the first time Doe is questioned by the Khan’s attorneys, as she already underwent questioning during the initial criminal trial.
When Doe was cross-examined at the criminal court hearing in 2018, the defense questioned her about the costume she was wearing that night, how much alcohol she had consumed and texts she had previously sent Khan.
In a related 2019 case, the Second Court of Appeals decided in Doe v. Colgate University that a university’s hearing did not violate Title IX regulations by not allowing cross-examination. However, unlike Colgate’s hearing, the state Supreme Court found that Yale’s hearing lacked more than cross-examination as Khan did not have the meaningful assistance of a lawyer.
It is valid for legal proceedings and university proceedings to come to different conclusions, according to Tang. The courts operate under different standards of evidence — while courts of law must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” quasi-judicial courts like Title IX hearing panels only have to have a “preponderance of evidence.”
A preponderance of evidence is when “there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the claim is true,” according to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. The difference in standards is due to the difference in possible punishments — the highest punishment at the university level is expulsion.
Tang also highlighted the fact that the University’s UWC hearing is not a criminal trial, and by adding more procedures like cross-examination, survivors may be driven away from reporting.
“Survivors are going to face a very difficult choice,” Tang said. “They might very well just say, ‘I don’t think I want to report at all, let me just stay silent.’ That’s a really harmful, awful situation to be in. To conclude that the best thing that you can do for yourself in a situation like that is not ask for help.”
Khan is moving ahead into the discovery process with hopes to win his case.
He also told the News that he plans to continue his education and professional pursuits and “advocate for fairness, due process, and justice in all settings.”
“Winning the lawsuit would be a significant step in restoring my reputation and rectifying the immense personal and professional setbacks I’ve faced,” Khan said. “However, it’s not just about personal redemption. I hope that this case serves as a precedent, ensuring that others don’t suffer the same injustices.”
Yale’s Title IX regulations
Khan’s Title IX hearing was conducted under Obama-era regulations, which “discouraged” but did not prohibit the accused from personally cross-examining their accuser. At that time, universities were not required to allow cross-examination.
Trump’s administration reversed those rules in 2020 — a year after Khan’s expulsion — and universities across the United States are now required to include these procedural safeguards including cross-examination. Under these regulations, Yale has incorporated measures that Khan’s suit rests on for UWC hearings, including allowing advisors to question witnesses after discussing their question’s relevance with the hearing panel.
“Yale University is committed to creating a campus environment for its students, faculty, and staff that is welcoming, safe, and respectful,” Title IX Coordinator Elizabeth Conklin wrote to the News. “Yale’s sexual misconduct procedures are designed to be both compliant with the law and fair to all parties.”
Biden, though, is expected to reverse Trump’s policy changes when new Title IX regulations are released by the Department of Education.
Biden’s Title IX regulations have been delayed multiple times. The Department of Education intended to release the new rules in October, but due to procedural setbacks, they are not expected to come out until 2024 and may not take effect until the 2024-25 school year.
Once Biden’s policies take effect, the Connecticut court decision could leave future survivors of sexual assault with an “impossible choice,” Tang said, when reporting sexual assault allegations. They could either go through a possibly traumatizing procedure with cross-examination or be open to a possible defamation lawsuit.
Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1972.