Court dismisses lawsuit alleging Emerson mishandled rape case

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff, Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff, and Dina Kleiner / Beacon Staff • May 15, 2015

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit against Emerson filed by Jillian Doherty, a former student who alleges the college mishandled her rape case, and gave her until May 28 to refile her complaint.

The judge, Leo T. Sorokin, agreed with the college’s argument that Doherty’s lawsuit does not include sufficient facts for a legal claim. Doherty, 22, said she does intend to edit and resubmit her complaint.

“I deserve to be heard and I deserve to be paid for damages and severe emotional distress, among many other claims we will again make,” she wrote in statement to the Beacon. “I don't care if it takes years, I refuse to walk away in defeat because then I truly will have nothing.”

The college said it was pleased with Sorokin’s decision in a statement sent to the Beacon.

“His opinion affirms what we have maintained all along: that the College and its employees responded effectively to the plaintiff’s report of sexual assault,” the statement reads. “We sympathize with the plaintiff; her sexual assault was a tragic and devastating event.”

In her lawsuit, filed in August, Doherty argues the college violated Title IX, a gender equity law, and acted negligently by failing to prevent her rape — in part by inadequately educating students about consent, she argued — and by improperly handling her case. Emerson filed a motion to dismiss her case in September, and Sorokin heard arguments about the motion in April.

Sorokin, in his decision, wrote that the facts alleged in Doherty’s complaint do not meet the legal standard of “deliberate indifference” that is required to make a legal claim under Title IX.

In her lawsuit, Doherty alleges that she was raped after consensual sex in April 2012. She reported the alleged assault in March 2013, the filings say, after which college officials investigated and conducted a hearing in which her alleged assailant was found “not responsible.” Doherty appealed, according to the lawsuit, and the accused student was expelled from the college.

“Doherty failed to allege that Emerson College made an official decision to disregard the risk of rape to Doherty,” Sorokin wrote, citing a legal precedent that says deliberate indifference requires “an official decision … not to remedy the violation.”

Sorokin also observed that Doherty’s complaint does not allege she was subjected to further harassment by her alleged assailant, or that and the administration made her more vulnerable to harassment during the investigation—factors that could have demonstrated a violation of Title IX.

Doherty did allege that Emerson denied her accommodations after her rape — including the ability to work from home and receive help from professors during office hours — but Sorokin said that did not constitute harassment under Title IX.

Doherty’s lawyer, David P. Angueira, had argued that the college’s response was “grossly inadequate” and that although the college ultimately decided Doherty’s case in her favor, she was harmed before and during the adjudication process.

Doherty’s lawsuit also accused the college of violating the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges to disclose crime information. Lawyers for Emerson had argued that the Clery Act can only be enforced by the Department of Education and not through lawsuits, which Angueira acknowledged in the April hearing. Sorokin dismissed the count for this reason.

Sorokin dismissed the lawsuit’s remaining claims — negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress — because they are governed by state laws and generally can’t be tried in federal court unless accompanied by a federal claim. In this case, he had already dismissed the federal claims—violations of Title IX and the Clery Act.

Doherty filed a federal Title IX complaint against Emerson with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in October 2013, and that investigation is ongoing, according to the OCR. Doherty told the Beacon that the lawsuit dismissal is disappointing, but she remains determined.

“It's unfortunate,” she wrote, “but it's not the end of the fight by any means.”

 

Update, May 15: Included the college's statement regarding the case dismissal.