Emerson to dispute sexual assault lawsuit allegations

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • September 4, 2014

Emerson plans to dispute the allegations outlined in a lawsuit filed by a former student who alleges the school mishandled her rape case, according to Andrew Tiedemann, vice president of communications. 

Jillian Doherty filed suit against the college and four administrators last month, alleging violations of 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.”

“While we are sympathetic to Ms. Doherty and any survivor of sexual assault, Emerson intends to defend the complaint, which contains many assertions that we dispute,” Tiedemann wrote in an emailed statement to the Beacon. “Emerson has provided support to Ms. Doherty and offered her reasonable accommodations. Emerson College expelled her assailant.” 

Doherty could not be reached for comment for this article but had previously referred questions to her attorney, David P. Angueira of Swartz & Swartz. 

In the suit, Doherty accuses President M. Lee Pelton; Dean of Students Ronald Ludman; Director of Housing and Residence Life David Haden; and Michael Arno, the Director of the Office of Student Conduct and the case’s Title IX investigator, of mishandling her rape case, which she said she reported to the school in March 2013. 

The defendants were given 21 days after the lawsuit summons was served to the college to file an answer, per federal guidelines. Based on when Emerson was served, a response is due Sept. 15, according to Christine Hughes, Emerson’s vice president and general counsel.

The suit, filed on Aug. 8, says Doherty is seeking “compensatory and punitive damages resulting from her pain and suffering resulting from the Defendants’ deliberate indifference,” in addition to legal fees.

“It is customary for plaintiffs’ attorneys to name individual employees of a non-profit institution in negligence cases,” Tiedemann wrote in his statement. In lawsuits where the defendant is a nonprofit, like Emerson, Tiedemann noted that Massachusetts law limits the amount that a court can award the plaintiff.

“Naming individuals of a non-profit is a standard way of evading that cap,” Tiedemann’s statement continued. “The College believes the individual defendants named acted in good faith and within the scope of their duties.”

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

Angueira said in an interview with the Beacon last month 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 lawsuit, Doherty was raped by a male Emerson student following a consensual act in his dorm room in April 2012. The lawsuit 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 lawsuit argues 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 because he is not a defendant. 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 lawsuit says the school failed to do this in several ways, including failing to train administrators, educate students about consent, and establish “adequate timelines for the prompt investigation and resolution of complaints.” 

Emerson is currently included on a list of 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 says there was a fourth student involved in that Title IX complaint.

The suit 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 suit 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 suit says.

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

The lawsuit 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 lawsuit, “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.”

In his statement, Tiedemann pointed to Emerson’s new sexual assault prevention and response program as evidence that handling these issues is a priority of the school.

“Emerson College takes sexual misconduct very seriously and did so in [Doherty’s] case,” he wrote. “The College will continue to take the steps necessary to address this societal problem that exists on all college campuses as well as in the greater community.”