Student sues Emerson for mishandling sexual assault case

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • August 12, 2014

A federal lawsuit filed by Jillian Doherty claims Emerson and five administrators violated Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act.
A federal lawsuit filed by Jillian Doherty claims Emerson and five administrators violated Title IX and the Jeanne Clery Act.

An Emerson College student who filed a federal Title IX complaint against the college last fall for mishandling her sexual assault case filed a federal lawsuit against Emerson and four school administrators.

According to the civil complaint filed on Friday, August 8, Jillian Doherty accuses President M. Lee Pelton; Dean of Students Ronald Ludman; Director of Housing and Residence Life David Haden; and the Director of the Office of Student Conduct and the case’s Title IX investigator Michael Arno, with mishandling her rape case, which she reported to the school in March 2013.

The civil complaint claims Emerson violated Title IX — a section of the federal Educational Amendments of 1972 that protects students from discrimination based on gender — and the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires colleges to disclose campus crime information. It also alleges “negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Doherty was a junior writing, literature, and publishing major; according to the civil complaint, she withdrew from the college in Spring 2014. However, according to the Office of the Registrar, Doherty is still a student at the college.

“Emerson College has just recently received a copy of a complaint filed by Jillian Doherty, an undergraduate student,” Andrew Tiedemann, vice president for communications and marketing, wrote in a statement to the Beacon. “It is a lengthy document that the College has not yet reviewed with the thoroughness it requires. The College will respond if and when it is appropriate to do so.”

According to the civil complaint, Doherty is seeking “compensatory and punitive damages resulting from her pain and suffering resulting from the Defendants’ deliberate indifference” in addition to legal fees.

Doherty declined to comment for this article but referred questions to her attorney, David P. Angueira of Swartz & Swartz. Angueira said in an interview with the Beacon that Doherty hopes the case will improve the way Emerson handles sexual assault.

“You’d be surprised by how often, because of a lawsuit, many institutions or companies will recognize the need to change their policies,” said Angueira. “I think that incentive is a major part of why Jillian decided to go public with this claim.”

According to the civil complaint, Doherty was raped by a male Emerson student after a consensual act in his dorm room in April 2012. The civil complaint says after the alleged assault, Doherty was “confused and conflicted” about the incident and “out of fear and concern about her privacy and how she would be treated as a rape victim,” she did not report it until almost a year later. The civil complaint claims that Emerson did not take proper precautionary measures to prevent Doherty’s alleged assault and did not adequately handle the investigation after the event was reported.

The Beacon decided to withhold the name of the accused male student in Doherty’s sexual assault case. He declined to comment for this article.

As an institution that receives federal funds, Emerson is required to follow Title IX guidelines following a student’s sexual assault. The civil complaint says the school failed to do this in several ways, including failing to train administrators, to educate students about consent, and to establish “adequate timelines for the prompt investigation and resolution of complaints.” Emerson is currently included on a list of 74 colleges and universities the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating for mishandling cases of sexual violence and harassment. According to previous reports, Doherty was joined by two other Emerson students in filing a Title IX complaint with that office in October; Doherty’s lawsuit complaint says there were three other students in that Title IX complaint.

“The College has and will continue to take the issue of sexual assault very seriously and has dedicated substantial resources toward the prevention of and response to sexual assault,” Tiedemann wrote in his statement. “Our focus has always been and will continue to be on the well-being of our students so as to provide a safe and positive learning environment.”

The complaint filed on Friday claims that Emerson’s Title IX investigator, Michael Arno, was “not properly trained, educated, or experienced in Title IX investigations,” which resulted in an inadequate examination of Doherty’s case.

The civil complaint says a brief hearing for Doherty’s case took place over Skype in May 2013 but that the proceeding was “more akin to a kangaroo court than a Title IX hearing”; there were no witnesses and Doherty did not have a lawyer. The defendant in this initial case was found “not responsible for the rape,” the civil complaint says.

Doherty appealed the decision, according to the civil complaint, and a second, four-hour hearing occurred in October 2013. Led by different administrators, Doherty had an attorney and witnesses were able to testify, the civil complaint says. The civil complaint alleges one of those witnesses was Arno, who admitted he “did not have enough training” during the initial investigation. After this second hearing, the civil complaint says the alleged rapist was “found responsible” and was expelled from the school.

The civil complaint says that due to the alleged assault and the mishandling of her case, Doherty experienced severe emotional distress, chronic depression, and post-traumatic stress, in addition to declining grades in her courses.

“Jillian Doherty endured months of pain and suffering following the attack,” states the complaint, “which was caused by Emerson College’s blatant indifference towards her, and towards its obligations both prior to and after the attack occurred and the complaint was filed.”

Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article stated that five administrators were named in the suit. Four administrators were named.