MANHATTAN (CN) — Columbia University must face claims that it scapegoated a varsity athlete accused of sexual assault to quiet critics, the Second Circuit ruled.
Though a federal judge dismissed the case for failure to state a claim, an appellate panel found on Friday that there is a low threshold for plaintiffs to demonstrate bias, and that the student alleged enough to survive Columbia’s motion to dismiss.
The complaint “alleges that Columbia’s hearing panel (which erroneously imposed discipline on the plaintiff), its dean (who rejected his appeal), and its Title IX investigator (who influenced the panel and the dean by her report and recommendation), were all motivated in those actions by pro-female, anti-male bias,” U.S. Circuit Judge Pierre Leval wrote for a three-person panel (parentheses in original). “Those alleged biased attitudes were, at least in part, adopted to refute criticisms circulating in the student body and in the public press that Columbia was turning a blind eye to female students’ charges of sexual assaults by male students.”
Paul Wolfson, an attorney for Columbia with Wilmer Hale, has not returned a request for comment.
John Doe, as the plaintiff is named in the ruling, was a freshman athlete at the time of the sexual encounter in May 2013.
He said he had been studying for finals when the ex-girlfriend of his roommate brought him to her dormitory to have sex. He says the woman, identified in the court record by a pseudonym, contacted him in the following weeks to express doubt how their mutual friends would react.
Come September, the woman told school officials that Doe had assauted her.
The atmosphere for such claims had come to a boiling point because another Ivy, Yale University, had just settled a federal investigation the year before into its handling of campus assault claims.
Columbia students had been pressuring the school about its own so-called rape culture, and the New York Post even published an article on Dec. 11, 2013, that declared, “Columbia drops ball on 5 jock ‘rapist’ probe: students.”
Meantime, Columbia’s Title IX investigator was interviewing Doe about the claims against him.
Doe says the investigator, Jilleian Sessions-Stackhouse, was hostile toward him from the beginning, never apprised him of the resources available to him, and failed to follow up with witnesses whom he said could support his narrative about his encounter with the accuser.
By the time of Doe’s February 2014 disciplinary hearing, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger had promised to hold a Town Hall meeting on the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.
Columbia’s student newspaper had run an article in the weeks prior that condemned the school’s handling of sexual assault complaints and criticized Sessions-Stackhouse in particular for “inadequate investigation[s].”
Doe says he was railroaded at the hearing and ultimately found “responsible” for the charge of “sexual assault: nonconsensual sexual intercourse.”
He says his accuser apologized to him afterward when he received a 1 ½ year suspension.
That spring, after Columbia denied Doe’s appeal, 23 students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education that accused Columbia of mishandling incidents of sexual assault and misconduct on campus.
Friday’s ruling highlights several of Doe’s “allegations that support the inference of sex discrimination.”
“Both the investigator and the panel declined to seek out potential witnesses plaintiff had identified as sources of information favorable to him,” Leval wrote. “The investigator and the panel failed to act in accordance with university procedures designed to protect accused students. The investigator, the panel, and the reviewing dean, furthermore, reached conclusions that were incorrect and contrary to the weight of the evidence.”
Leval said Doe’s allegation “that Sessions-Stackhouse, and the panel and the dean, chose to accept an unsupported accusatory version over plaintiff’s, and declined even to explore the testimony of plaintiff’s witnesses, if true, gives plausible support to the proposition that they were motivated by bias in discharging their responsibilities to fairly investigate and adjudicate the dispute.”
As for the potential for anti-male bias, Leval cited Doe’s claim “that during the period preceding the disciplinary hearing, there was substantial criticism of the University, both in the student body and in the public media, accusing the university of not taking seriously complaints of female students alleging sexual assault by male students.”
“Against this factual background, it is entirely plausible that the university’s decision-makers and its investigator were motivated to favor the accusing female over the accused male, so as to protect themselves and the university from accusations that they had failed to protect female students from sexual assault,” Leval added.
The court likewise found “nothing implausible or unreasonable about the complaint’s suggested inference that the panel adopted a biased stance in favor of the accusing female and against the defending male varsity athlete in order to avoid further fanning the criticisms that Columbia turned a blind eye to such assaults.”
Doe’s case hearkens to an ongoing case Columbia faces from alumnus Paul Nungesser.
Though the school cleared Nungesser of assault claims related to a 2012 sexual encounter with Emma Sulkowicz, Nungasser claimed that Columbia allowed his accuser to violate his rights with a very public art project over the ordeal.
Sulkowicz vowed to carry a mattress with her on campus until Nungesser was no longer on campus.
She received academic credit for the project, and a federal judge dismissed Nungesser’s federal complaint over the issue this past March.
Nungesser amended his complaint a month later.
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