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Appeals court reinstates wrongly imprisoned student's lawsuit against college for hiding evidence

Would-be law student, acquitted by second jury in 29 minutes, represents himself in civil case. Trial judge repeatedly botched statute of limitations, 3rd Circuit finds.

Published: September 9, 2023 11:20pm

A student who spent 16 months in prison before a second jury exonerated him of sexual assault will get another chance to hold his public university accountable for withholding evidence during his first criminal trial, then refusing to give him a conduct hearing to clear his educational record.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated most of a trial judge's ruling that dismissed Darold Palmore's lawsuit against Clarion University – since renamed Pennsylvania Western University, or PennWest Clarion, after a merger – and officials including the campus police officer who withheld security footage.

The three-judge panel unanimously remanded Palmore's malicious prosecution, Brady due process, 14th Amendment due process, Title IX, negligence, and breach of contract claims for further proceedings.

The ruling is all the more remarkable because Palmore, a D.C. native who had planned to go to law school after his expected graduation four years ago, has represented himself throughout the two-year civil case against Clarion, albeit with guidance from sympathetic lawyers.

But it's a double-edged sword. Palmore, who also goes by Darryll, told Just the News the remand means he'll have to quit his current position for an Amazon warehouse contractor.

It's one of the "little odd jobs" he's managed to secure with a name that employers are likely to associate with two criminal trials, even though the court record shows the second jury took just 29 minutes to clear him.

Palmore said he has to set up depositions and closely review materials provided by lawyers for Tafari Haynes, another black student who made similar allegations but confidentially settled with Clarion months after a muddled 3rd Circuit hearing in 2019, and now works for Amazon's grocery operation.

Brooklyn College professor KC Johnson, who wrote a book on the Duke lacrosse rape case and closely tracks Title IX litigation, noted in his contemporaneous Haynes coverage that blacks were 6% of Clarion's student body but most of its sexual misconduct respondents.

In 2013, Haynes, as a Clarion student, was charged with raping a women at an off-campus apartment. The women was examined by medical staff at a hospital, and Haynes was subsequently charges with rape. But the charge and related ones were dropped for lack of evidence.

Palmore says his biggest fear is the trial judge "flat-out saying I have not stated a claim" that Clarion's alleged behavior would violate his rights, but that lawyers close to him have vetted the claims. 

"I would just have to continue to fight the good fight" if he loses again, Palmore said, encouraging other litigants who can't afford representation to "put the bookwork in" through Google Scholar at home and LexisNexis at courthouse law libraries.

An older student with a criminal record when entering the university in fall 2015, Palmore found himself suspended indefinitely two months later, pending a conduct hearing that never happened.

Clarion scheduled his initial hearing as the district attorney was mulling criminal charges, forcing Palmore into the "Miranda dilemma."

He could defend himself in a Title IX proceeding without the right to cross-examine his accuser or active representation by a lawyer, or forfeit that proceeding so his statements couldn't be used against him in a criminal proceeding.

The Trump administration's Title IX rulemaking banned the practices Clarion used, which the Obama administration appeared to coerce colleges to adopt by threatening their federal funding. President Obama's Title IX enforcer, Catherine Lhamon, barely squeaked through her Senate vote to the same job in President Biden's first year.

Obama's technically non-binding guidance is likely to return in some form under Biden's Title IX rulemaking, which is reportedly unlikely to meet its rescheduled October deadline because the Department of Education has yet to send the proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia Eddy didn't get beyond the surface of Palmore's claims in separate rulings for the university and district attorney, claiming the self-represented plaintiff exceeded the statute of limitations to file each claim.

The 3rd Circuit panel only agreed on false arrest and false imprisonment, where Palmore was at least six months late even under his own theory. It rejected Eddy's analysis of the other six.

On the "suppression of favorable evidence" claims, Eddy was apparently unaware the two-year statutory deadline to file was a Saturday, meaning Palmore timely filed on Monday – the next business day under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. 

Even the university defendants conceded this point, a footnote states. Palmore credited the attorney general's office, which represented Clarion, with coming forward "honestly" to note the discrepancy.

The panel said the trial judge was more than three years off for Palmore's 14th Amendment claims, by assuming that the two-year clock started ticking when Clarion canceled his initial Dec. 4, 2015, conduct hearing and ordered him in writing to leave campus, respectively.

"Just because" Clarion didn't reschedule the hearing the same day it was canceled doesn't mean "Palmore should have known that they would never reschedule the hearing," the panel said. 

It cited a May 2021 email from a student conduct official who informed Palmore, after his "repeated request for a resolution to his case," that he wouldn't get a hearing because he had confirmed a year earlier he wasn't returning to Clarion as a student.

His Title IX, negligence and breach of contract claims, with two- to four-year windows, were also timely filed for the same reasons, the panel said.

Palmore also claims Clarion failed to correct his academic transcript to reflect his criminal exoneration, whose statutory deadline was also the first business day after the nominal Saturday deadline, the ruling states.

Palmore suspects he can't find pro bono representation because the case was "not big enough" to interest attorneys. He doesn't fault law firms for not reaching out to fund his legal education so he can work for them, because "so much can go wrong when you have an attorney's license" and Palmore's record.

If he did get his license, Palmore would join the ranks of belatedly exonerated defendants-turned-lawyers such as January 6 defense attorney Marty Tankleff, who spent 17 years in prison and got his license in 2020.

The New York Post reported Tankleff was sworn in by the same judges who helped overturn his 1988 conviction for murdering his parents.

"I've steadily proven [doubters] wrong point by point and been taking it slow," Palmore said. With guidance from sympathetic lawyers, "I've been able to make it work."

Clarion has refused Palmore's demands to refund his one semester's tuition, which he says has compromised his financial ability to hire an attorney or finish the online education he subsequently started at Southern New Hampshire University.

The university declined to comment on the 3rd Circuit ruling or its legal grounds for not refunding Palmore after his exoneration.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which provides pro bono investigative and legal assistance to incarcerated people convicted in the state who have "newly discovered evidence," did not respond to queries about whether it ever evaluated Palmore's criminal case.

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