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Dartmouth Sexual Misconduct Suit Questions School’s Legal Process

Photo: Shutterstock

A federal lawsuit filed against Dartmouth College on Thursday alleging that the school did not adequately respond to women’s complaints about sexual misconduct involving three former faculty members raises questions about the roles played by Dartmouth’s Title IX coordinator and an outside counsel hired to investigate the claims. It also indirectly raises similar questions about the school’s office of general counsel.

But Dartmouth was not answering any questions Friday.

A statement to Corporate Counsel on behalf of the school from Justin Anderson, vice president of communications, said, “Sexual misconduct and harassment have no place at Dartmouth. ... However, we respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of the District of New Hampshire, seeks $70 million in damages. The complaint accuses Dartmouth of “breaching its duty to protect its students from unwanted sexual harassment and sexual assault and to provide an education and/or workplace free from sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based discrimination.”

Among other things, it alleges sexual assault, harassment and discrimination from three former professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, including the department’s chair. It labels the department a “predators’ club.”

The suit accuses the school of ignoring their complaints about the issues for more than 16 years. It alleges that professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped female students”—although only one professor was accused of rape in the suit.

The complaint says the school “permitted three of its prominent (and well- funded) professors to turn a human behavior research department into a 21st Century 'Animal House.'”

The three men could not be reached for comment, but The New York Times quoted a statement from Heatherton saying he “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth College.” The Times said he also apologized for behavior that women had construed as sexual, and he said it had been taken out of context.

The complaint says at least 27 women raised Title IX complaints to Dartmouth, where nonlawyer Kristi Clemens serves as the Title IX coordinator. Clemens on Friday also declined to comment on her role in the investigation.

The complaint alleges that the women students were told to continue working with the three professors for at least four months after their complaints were filed, and that “the sexual harassment continued unabated.” Some of the professors continued to be promoted even after the complaints were filed, it says.

Dartmouth only disclosed the Title IX investigation after news of it was leaked to the media in October 2017, the complaint states, and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office opened a criminal investigation.

Dartmouth then hired an outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation. The investigator, Jennifer Davis, founder of Jenn Davis LLC in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was out of the country Friday and unavailable for comment.

But the women students complained about Davis in the complaint. Though the school promised students a voice in the investigation, the complaint says, “Dartmouth unilaterally stopped the investigation and allowed the three professors to retire and/or resign in July 2018, more than 15 months after plaintiffs filed their initial complaints.”

Dartmouth’s statement put it this way: “As a result of the misconduct we found earlier this year by the three faculty members in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS), we took unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment. They are no longer at Dartmouth and remain banned from our campus and from attending all Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where the events are held.”

The complaint also accuses Davis of gathering “extensive confidential information” from the complainants, including health care reports, and then sharing it with the three professors and their lawyers without the students’ knowledge or consent.

The suit does not explicitly mention Dartmouth general counsel Sandhya Iyer. But at other universities that underwent high-profile sexual abuse cases, such as Penn State and Michigan State, the general counsel have lost their jobs over their handling of the issues.

Iyer did not return messages Friday asking about any role she had in handling the complaints, advising the school administrators, or hiring or overseeing Davis, the independent investigator. The GC’s website states that all outside counsel report through Iyer’s office.

The complaint also accuses Dartmouth of “taking steps to silence the victims and discourage them from pursuing legal action or demanding change.” It cites an Oct. 12 departmental meeting called with graduate students and Clemens, the Title IX coordinator, to “dispel rumors” about the Title IX investigation.

“It became quickly apparent that the meeting was a public platform to disparage the victims and discourage them from pursuing legal action,” the complaint states. It says the victims were accused of “pulling the department backwards rather than forward” by continuing to demand change at Dartmouth.

In a statement, Kate Bitar, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw in New York who is not involved in the case, said, "What makes this complaint unique is the level of detail ... as to the internal investigation that began in February 2017 and ended in July 2018. The complaint also details how the investigation was a sham, and that the professors were permitted to resign or retire before any disciplinary proceeding took place, and while Dartmouth was under investigation by the NH attorney general."

Bitar's statement adds, "Dartmouth took significant steps to protect the faculty at issue, and took steps, set forth in detail, designed to dissuade the victims from coming forward. This will be a difficult lawsuit to defend."

See also:

4 Lessons on Handling a Sexual Abuse Scandal for Embattled USC

What's the GC's Role in Fighting Faculty-Student Sex Harassment in Higher Ed?