Title Nine
April 14, 2017

Student Who Says He Attempted Suicide During Title IX Investigation Sues Cornell

Print More

Cornell University is being sued by a male student who claims the University discriminated against him on the basis of sex while investigating him for sexual misconduct.

The pseudonymous plaintiff, James Doe — a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences — is suing in part to recover damages for emotional distress. The student says Cornell’s investigation caused him to attempt suicide.

The suit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, comes nearly four months after Cornell lost a similar case in January. In that case, a Tompkins County Supreme Court judge ruled that the University was “arbitrary” and “capricious” in refusing to investigate a male student’s claim that a a Cornell Title IX investigator discriminated against him based on his sex.

This decisive court loss was not the end of Cornell’s complicated relationship with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

In early February, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a sixth Title IX investigation into Cornell, making it the University with the most active investigations of any in the country. One month later, participants in an open forum held by the Office for Civil Rights investigators harshly criticized the University for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints.

And with another Title IX lawsuit hitting the University’s desk Tuesday, the topic has once again come to the fore.

Court documents say that the events motivating the suit occurred in September 2015, when Doe and his accuser, Sally Roe, met at a party. At one point during the night of the party, Doe and Roe went to Doe’s bedroom together, the suit says.

While there, Roe allegedly beckoned Doe to his bed, where she “pinned him down” and made sexual advances, making Doe uncomfortable, he says in the lawsuit. When the male student asked Roe to stop her advances, he tried to push her off his body, the lawsuit says, after which Roe allegedly punched Doe’s testicles. Roe admitted to doing so, according to the suit.

Doe saw a doctor nearly one month after the punch “due to chronic, continuing pain in the testicles and concern about permanent injury,” he says in his complaint.

Roe’s reply to Doe’s allegations is not in the court record as of publication.

The day after the party, Doe learned from the president of his fraternity that Roe was accusing Doe of choking and raping her in violation of Cornell’s Code of Conduct. Later, Doe filed his own complaints against Roe, under both the Code of Conduct and University Policy 6.4. Then, Roe filed another complaint against Doe, this time under 6.4. The Code of Conduct complaints went to the Judicial Administrator’s office, while the 6.4 complaints went to Title IX investigators.

On Nov. 23 — over a year after Roe and Doe accused each other and after both were done exercising appeals — an appellate panel of last resort found Doe responsible for sexual misconduct under Policy 6.4 and found Roe not responsible.

Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi sat, ex officio, on the panel, and he informed Doe of the panel’s findings, according to the student’s complaint.

The panel also struck down Doe’s original sanction — indefinite suspension — in favor of probation and a requirement that he complete both a consent education course and an assessment by CAPS. The panel made his no-contact order with Roe permanent as well, Doe says in the suit.

As for the Code of Conduct complaints, Judicial Administrator Michelle Horvath in November found both Doe and Roe not responsible.

Doe’s lawsuit concerns the events between the night of the party and the University’s final decisions. He is seeking relief in part for emotional distress he says he suffered because of the University’s “fatally flawed” investigation, which was “afflicted by an anti-male discriminatory bias” and “Kafkaesque.”

To demonstrate the extent of his emotional distress, Doe says he was diagnosed with severe anxiety and major depressive disorder after Cornell issued an interim suspension.

His mental state worsened, according to the complaint.

Last spring, the day Doe was notified of his second suspension, he tried to commit suicide, he says in the suit.

*  *

Doe makes many of the same allegations against the University that were aired in the OCR focus group. Notably, he alleges that the University violated its own policy by failing to complete its investigation within 60 days. The University allegedly took more than twice as long, 135 days.

Doe also alleges that neither the J.A. nor the Title IX investigators conducted an adversarial hearing as part of its fact finding, allegedly violating New York law that requires accused students to have “at a minimum … an opportunity to … present evidence and testimony at a hearing.”

At the heart of Doe’s complaint, however, is his Title IX allegation that the University’s investigator discriminated against him on the basis of his sex.

Part of Doe’s argument is that, while the University was investigating Roe’s complaints of sexual misconduct against Doe, it allegedly was hesitating to investigate the similar complaints filed by Doe against Roe.

A judge said in May 2016 — nearly seven months after Doe made his accusations against Roe — that Doe’s complaint had gone “wholly disregarded” by the University.

This alleged disparity led Doe to claim the University discriminated against him on the basis of his sex.

He also says Title IX investigators dismissed witness testimony that contradicted Roe’s testimony because the witnesses had “formed opinions of [Roe’s] behavior before speaking to the investigator.”

Roe’s witnesses were treated much more favorably by University investigators, Doe says.

He claims that Jody Kunk-Czaplicki — the University’s acting Judicial Administrator when Doe’s complaint was processed — temporarily suspended Doe based on testimony from three of Roe’s friends, none of whom were eyewitnesses. At the time of the suspension, only one of Doe’s friends, who also was not an eyewitness, had been interviewed, according to the complaint.

Likewise, Doe claims that Roe never received a temporary suspension, though he did.

The suit also names as defendants Kunk-Czaplicki and Elizabeth McGrath, a Title IX investigator who investigated Doe’s case. Neither Kunk-Czaplicki nor McGrath currently serves in those roles.

The University has confirmed that it no longer employs McGrath, but it declined to say when and why McGrath left the post.

On March 29, the University posted a job opening for a Title IX investigator.

As for Kunk-Czaplicki, the suit alleges that she — “incredibly” and without consulting Doe or his attorney — redacted important information contained in Doe’s petition to the University that contradicted Roe’s testimony.

The complaint claims Cornell displayed anti-male sex discrimination — prohibited by Title IX — and that it violated both the 14th Amendment in denying Doe due process and the New York State Education Law, among other things.