Court Orders Springfield College to Reinstate Wrongfully Suspended Student
After a student was wrongfully suspended from Springfield College, he turned to O’Connell & Plumb, P.C. for help. Attorney Daniel J. O’Connell was able to successfully obtain an injunction ordering that Springfield College reinstate the student pending a full hearing on the merits of the case. The Springfield Republication published an article on this exciting victory.
A copy of this article by Reporter Stephanie Barry is as follows:
SPRINGFIELD -- A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Springfield College to reinstate a student athlete suing the school over what he says was an unfair expulsion over suspected drug possession.
Zachary Wekilsky, a junior and starting offensive guard at the school, last week filed a lawsuit alleging the expulsion -- which came after a white substance was found in his dorm room during a holiday break inspection -- violated the college's own procedures around discipline.
His attorneys sought an emergency lift of the expulsion.
Wekilsky contends the substance found in his room was not an illicit drug and was recovered while he was 300 miles away on winter break at his family's home in New Jersey.
The substance tested positive for cocaine, college officials claim.
U.S. District Judge Mark G. Mastroianni agreed the expulsion was improper and ordered Wekilsky be allowed back to school while the case heads toward an accelerated trial 60 days from now.
In an eight-page decision issued one day after a hearing for an injunction to reverse the expulsion, the judge ruled the college acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" when it suspended Wekilsky through the end of his senior year.
Mastroianni added that the school's investigation into the substance found in Wekilsky's room was "fundamentally unfair" in that it did not provide the student access to basic things to build a defense such as reports, despite the student's repeated requests for information.
Attorneys for the college have argued college administrators and campus police followed proper procedures.
Wekilsky, 20, has consistently asserted he gave his friends access to his private dorm room over Thanksgiving break so they could tap into his stash of Ding Dongs and beer.
The college argues student residential staff and campus police discovered a white substance "in a near perfect line" on Wekilsky's desk during the break.
According to Wekilsky, he quizzed his suite-mates over the matter, who said they only crushed up caffeine pills to add to their beer for endurance during parties.
Attorney Daniel J. O'Connell, argued during a hearing on Tuesday -- which became testy at times -- that the college railroaded Wekilsky using flimsy evidence and denied him a fair disciplinary process. Wekilsky was present in court, with seven of his teammates in the gallery behind him.
"Like my client wrote in an impassioned appeal of the suspension: 'What kind of an idiot would leave cocaine in (his) room after he's been at the school for three years and knows rooms are searched over holiday breaks?'" O'Connell argued during the hearing.
The judge repeatedly redirected O'Connell and an attorney for the school, Ariel G. Sullivan, to stick to the issues at hand and not argue their dueling facts of the case.
"We're gonna kind of save the drama," Mastroianni said.
The case shines a light on the near-sovereign power private colleges have over disciplining students. Mastroianni pointed out that the standard of proof for colleges considering discipline against students is "very low."
"The college's reaction to this ... seems to be extreme. but the college has a significant interest in protecting its campus," Mastroianni told the lawyers. The judge added that the college's evidence was thin, however, and would never stand up in a criminal court.
O'Connell has argued the school violated its own policies by not allowing Wekilsky a fair process, which is outlined in its student handbook. Wekilsky said he was unable to obtain copies of any of the reports in his disciplinary case and that he and two friends who came forward were bullied by administrators.
In considering his ruling on the temporary injunction allowing Wekilsky back to school, the judge considered factors such as the likelihood of success on the merits of the plaintiff's case, the public's interest and whether Wekilsky would suffer "irreparable harm" if the motion had been denied.
O'Connell said the abrupt expulsion would have cost Wekilsky, a special education and history major, an internship at a local school, a hard-fought spot as a starting player and academic momentum.
"He's devastated by that ... money can't change that," O'Connell argued.
And speaking of money, the Wekilskys had already paid the school $50,000 in tuition when he was ejected, he added.
Sullivan argued the substance found in Wekilsky's room was cocaine and was tested twice by campus police using a field test kit.
Mastroianni, a former defense attorney who was serving as Hampden District Attorney when he was appointed to the bench, quizzed Sullivan about whether the school sent the substance out for lab testing.
She said the school had not.
"I'm starting to be as dramatically upset about this case as Mr. O'Connell. Do you know anything about the reliability of the kit?" he asked at the hearing.
Sullivan said she did not.
"Perhaps you should have had that information before you categorically stand up here and represent that this was cocaine," the judge remarked, before taking the motion under advisement. He issued his ruling 24 hours later.
During an interview after the ruling was made public, Wekilsky said he was grateful for the support of his family, his attorneys and his teammates.
He added that he was "miserable" as he watched his teammates return to school for off-season workouts while he labored away at home, uncertain of his future.
"I love Springfield College and my team and all my coaches," Wekilsky said. "I put my heart and soul, and my blood, sweat and tears into that team."
He said he studied for and completed final exams late last year during the ongoing investigation, while his academic future hung in the balance.
"I finished strong, with a good GPA so I feel good about that," he said.
Wekilsky said he plans to return to the college tomorrow, but is not sure where he will stay since the judge's order does not require the college to allow him his old dorm room back -- or any housing, for that matter.
The Republican has a request for comment pending with the college's attorneys.