Emerson denies allegations, liability in second lawsuit

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • March 19, 2015

Emerson College and six administrators deny many allegations outlined in a lawsuit filed by a former student and say they are not legally liable for what the plaintiff considers a mishandling of her rape case, according to court documents.

In its answer filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Emerson requests that the court dismiss the case “in its entirety.” 

The plaintiff — identified as Jane Doe in the suit — argues the defendants violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds. It also alleges the school acted negligently in part by failing to take “reasonable precautions to safeguard its students” and by responding to Doe’s report in a manner that was “outrageous, insensitive, and humiliating.”

Emerson’s denies many of the factual claims outlined in the suit and legal liability, according to Andrew Tiedemann, Emerson’s vice president for communications and marketing. 

“Our actions to support Jane Doe were compassionate, thorough, and prompt,” Tiedemann wrote in an emailed statement. “We are confident that the evidence will establish that the College acted in good faith and in accordance with applicable law.” 

Doe’s lawsuit — filed Dec. 31 — names, as individual defendants: President M. Lee Pelton; Ronald Ludman, the dean of students; David Haden, former director of housing and residence life; Danielle Mastronardi, a former residence director; and Title IX investigators Kimberly Marcella and Michael Arno. Haden and Mastronardi both left the college in January, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Doe alleges in the suit that she was drugged by a female Emerson student on campus and was subsequently assaulted by a male Massachusetts Institute of Technology student and the female Emerson student at an MIT fraternity party in October 2012. The complaint says she reported being raped by the male MIT student to the Emerson Police Department the following day. According to the suit, she didn’t recall the female Emerson student’s presence in the alleged attack until weeks later.

The complaint says at ECPD, Doe was denied her request to speak to a female officer, was not allowed to have a friend present, and was intimidated by the interviewing officer about the seriousness of her accusation and the fact that she had been drinking, a violation of college policy and the law because she was underage. Emerson denies these claims in its answer.

Doe’s lawsuit complaint says in March 2013, Doe saw the MIT student and Emerson student who allegedly sexually assaulted her outside of Emerson’s Union Bank Building. According to the complaint, the alleged aggressors pushed Doe into an alley where the female student “grabbed Doe’s crotch to simulate digital penetration.”

In its answer, Emerson confirms that Doe reported a second assault to ECPD on March 1, 2013 and states that the school initiated a “prompt and thorough investigation.” However, according to a summary of the school’s investigation — given to the plaintiff in May 2013, the answer says, and attached to Emerson’s court filing — the alleged female aggressor denied Doe’s allegations and “provided credible and compelling evidence that she was not in Boston at the time of the reported March incident.” Therefore, the student was not found in violation of student conduct policy, the summary says. 

Doe alleges in her complaint that the female Emerson student who allegedly assaulted her harassed Doe throughout the Spring 2013 semester with anonymous text messages, voicemails, emails, and a paper note found in her residence hall. According to the summary of the school’s investigation — written by Alexa Jackson, the Title IX coordinator at the time — Emerson was unable to verify the source of the texts, voicemails, and emails, and therefore could not pursue the allegations through Emerson’s conduct system. The summary states that the alleged female aggressor did admit to writing the paper note, which Doe believed jokingly referenced her alleged sexual assault, but that the student had not intended for Doe to see it. 

“We concluded that the Respondent had exercised poor judgement in her choice of words in the note, but that she had not intended for the note to be read by you or to threaten or intimidate you,” Jackson wrote in the summary to Doe.  

The complaint states numerous other allegations, and Emerson denies many of them in its answer, including:

- Haden discouraging Doe from “formally reporting [the female Emerson student]’s role in the rape”

- Residence Director Caitlin Courtney encouraging Doe to drop the criminal investigation against her alleged assailants

- Title IX investigators Arno and Marcella asking Doe what she was wearing the night of her assault, which made Doe feel judged, and criticizing her for being “emotional” during their interview

- Ludman suggesting to Doe’s mother that Doe take time off of school until her alleged aggressor graduates

- Title IX Coordinator Alexa Jackson declining Doe’s request to block the accused female Emerson student from accessing Doe’s residence hall 

This case is the second lawsuit filed in 2014 by a former student who alleges the school failed to properly investigate and adjudicate a rape case. In September, the college filed a motion to dismiss the case of Jillian Doherty, who left the college in Spring 2014. A hearing is scheduled for Doherty’s case, in which Pelton, Haden, Ludman, and Arno are also named as defendants. 

Doe and Doherty both said in their filings that they previously filed complaints with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights outlining Emerson’s alleged inadequacies in its rape investigations. Emerson has been under investigation since December 2013 and remains on a list of 104 postsecondary institutions with pending Title IX investigations, according to the Office for Civil Rights. 

Both women — represented by David P. Angueira of Swartz & Swartz —  are seeking “compensatory and punitive damages” and attorney’s fees in their civil cases. Angueira did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

Tiedemann said in his statement that Emerson takes sexual assault seriously. 

“Emerson is unequivocal in its commitment to prevent sexual assault, to support survivors of sexual assault, and to nurture an environment where students feel safe reporting sexual assaults,” he wrote. “We understand how traumatizing and disruptive sexual assault is to survivors and communities. We also understand that even the best process, whether in court or at a college, is emotionally difficult for the survivor. Accordingly, we take great care to apply our policies fairly and to revise and improve them regularly.”

In 2014, Emerson created an office and hired a director for violence prevention and response; unveiled a restructured sexual assault prevention and response program; and hired a sexual assault survivor advocate. The school told the Beacon in September that the comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, constructed after internal and external reviews, was not established in reaction to the Title IX complaint. The college is still seeking a permanent Title IX coordinator. 

“Emerson is a small, residential college that cares deeply about each and every student,” Tiedemann said. “Our commitment to our students and our capacity to create and foster a safe campus in which all students, faculty, and staff thrive academically, professionally, and socially is our highest priority.”