A New York judge has dismissed a lawsuit from a former Columbia University student alleging he was discriminated against on the basis of gender in a campus hearing that found him guilty of sexual assault.
The former student, listed as John Doe in the lawsuit, had claimed he was railroaded by Columbia into expulsion during a time in which the campus was erupting with accusations of mishandled sexual assault complaints. John and his attorneys believe the backlash Columbia received from activists led to his treatment.
John's ordeal began in May 2013, while he was studying for a final in a dorm lounge. He was alone in the lounge for several hours before his accuser, referred to only as Jane Doe, exited the elevator to talk to two friends. When those friends left, according to John's lawsuit, Jane entered the lounge and sat next to John. John had been present around Jane while she was drinking a various times previously, and alleged in his lawsuit that she did not appear to be under the influence that night.
After talking for some time, John says he asked Jane to take a walk to get some fresh air. The two walked about 14 blocks before turning around. John says at some point the topic of "hooking up" came up and the two began to flirt. John alleges that Jane suggested they go to her suite bathroom since they both had roommates. She even, John says, left the bathroom briefly to obtain a condom.
Nearly five months later, Jane would accuse John of sexual assault.
John says that from the beginning, the case was bungled. He alleges that his access to residence halls was immediately restricted but that he could access the on-campus Counseling & Psychological Services. John said that he twice tried to make an appointment to meet with a psychologist, and twice had his appointment cancelled on him.
John was able to make an appointment with a doctor at the Columbia Center for Psychological Counseling, who noted that John "presented with near suicidal thoughts due, in part, to the stress he was undergoing as a result of the aftermath of Jane Doe's false accusations of sexual misconduct," according to the lawsuit.
The Title IX investigator on the case, according to John, seemed to speak to him as if she were trying to get a confession rather than investigate an accusation. He also said she "inaccurately and inadequately" recorded John's side of the story. John's attempts to reconcile the misinformation failed.
Even though retaliation was prohibited, John says several of Jane's friends "harassed and assaulted" him on campus, telling people on the street that he was a "rapist." No action was taken against them or Jane.
And despite a lack of any evidence beyond Jane's accusation (she never sought medical attention or a rape kit), John was found responsible and suspended for one year. His lawsuit alleges that even Jane tried to appeal his sentence, thinking that his punishment was too harsh.
John filed a lawsuit against Columbia alleging discrimination in May 2014.
I spoke to John shortly after the lawsuit was filed last year. At the time, he was still in shock that he had been found responsible for sexual assault — which he believed was consensual sex — based on nothing more than an accusation five months after the encounter. He discussed the effect the accusation had on him and the suicidal thoughts it brought.
"It just drove me to the point where I felt like there is no other option," John said. "Like I had been painted as this horrible person and it just started — it just became ingrained into me. I was led to believe that was me and that hurt a lot."
He added that he had been seeing a psychologist almost weekly "just to keep myself from going down that path again." Despite multiple questions, John's lawyer has not informed me as to how John's doing in light of the recent dismissal.
Judge Jesse Furman argued in his dismissal that John failed to prove that he was discriminated against because he was a man. Furman made no attempt to re-adjudicate John's case or whether colleges and universities should even be handling criminal matters like sexual assault. Instead, Furman focused solely on whether John was discriminated against because he was a man, and ignored other claims in the lawsuit.
Furman concluded that despite the Title IX investigator's role as a campus administrator tasked with prosecuting sexual assault and her background at a women's resource center, combined with her "discretion" to ignore John's side of the story, John didn't provide evidence of gender discrimination.
"[I]n order to establish a claim of discrimination under Title IX, a plaintiff must ultimately show that the defendant discriminated against him or her because of sex; that the discrimination was intentional; and that the discrimination was a 'substantial' or 'motivating factor' for the defendant's actions," Furman wrote.
As for some of the evidence John provided of gender discrimination, the Title IX investigator effectively cross-examined him but treated his accuser with sensitivity and failed to inform John of his rights in the hearing, while walking his accuser through the process.
That wasn't good enough for Furman, who noted that the Title IX investigator was just an investigator and not the one who decided John's fate. Of course, it was her investigation that provided the evidence for John's trial, so she had a tremendous amount of influence on the outcome.
Furman concluded that even if John was unjustly found guilty or if Columbia sexual assault hearings have a disparate impact on men, there was not enough evidence to prove he was discriminated against. For this the case was dismissed.
It should be noted that Furman was appointed to his position by President Obama, who has made campus sexual assault (at least the finding or more men guilty) a priority in his administration. Furman's brother is one of Obama's economic advisers.
John's attorney Andrew Miltenberg, in an e-mail to the Washington Examiner, accused Furman of ignoring other claims in John's lawsuit, including a breach of contract with Columbia for failing to inform John of his rights. Miltenberg also believes Furman held John to "an insurmountable pleading standard; requiring us to basically provide evidence that the panel members uttered statements specifically reflecting gender bias."
Miltenberg accused Furman of having a "pre-determined decision" and said that John still has "viable state law claims that he may still pursue in [New York] state court."