ITHACA, NY – A Cornell student is suing Cornell University, claiming he was unfairly treated after a sexual misconduct claim was made against him, according to court documents.
The student, identified only as John Doe in the documents, stated he was subjected to “bias, intimidation and egregious misconduct” over the course of a seven-month investigation by Cornell. He says he was subjected to two mid-semester suspensions and barred from campus during both the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters.
The student is suing to have his suspension annulled, to have an official hearing to resolve the claims against him, and to have the court declare that Cornell’s policy is in violation of the law. The suit is also asking for at least $500,000 in damages.
The petition submitted to the court in May invokes many of the same arguments used by Wolfgang Ballinger, a Cornell student who was accused of attempted rape in January. Ballinger is also taking legal action against Cornell.
Both suits invoke Cornell’s policy on sexual assault and claim it is in violation of Education Law 6444(5). Similarly, both suits refer to a report from the Cornell Daily Sun detailing flaws in the university Judicial Administrator Office’s handling of such cases.
Who was the aggressor?
According to court documents, the inciting incident occurred on the night of Sept. 17 into the morning of Sept. 18, 2015.
John Doe’s version of events is that his accuser, referred to as Jane Doe, was the aggressor. He claims she repeatedly pinned him down on his bed while straddling him after they began kissing. When he attempted to roll her off of him, she became more aggressive and punched him in the testicles.
The accuser had said John Doe had pulled her hair and choked her, which he denies.
No police report was filed and no injuries were reported. According to the claim, neither of the two were intoxicated at the time.
The suit goes on to say the accuser spent the night in John Doe’s fraternity house with one of his fraternity brothers, and returned the next day as well. This, the suit says, goes against her claim that she was “debilitatingly afraid” of John Doe. The suit also claims the accuser changed her story during the investigation.
According to court documents, the investigation of John Doe began on Sept. 23, 2015. On that date, the accuser, referred to as Jane Doe, filed a sexual misconduct complaint against him under Cornell’s Code of Conduct rules.
Two days later, John Doe met with Cornell’s Office of Judicial Administration (OJA). The suit claims the meeting was, “more like an ambush.” John Doe claims he was issued a mid-semester suspension without having the opportunity to tell his side of the story.
Upon learning of the claims against him, John Doe made a similar complaint against his accuser, again under Cornell’s Code of Conduct. According to the lawsuit, no disciplinary action was taken against the accuser.
On Oct. 14, the accuser filed another complaint against John Doe, this time under Cornell’s Policy 6.4. This policy deals explicitly with sexual misconduct and is more punitive.
The lawsuit points out that under a Code of Conduct violation, a student is entitled to an official hearing, the right to question witnesses, the right to confront the accuser and the right to present evidence and witnesses in his or her defense. None of those rights are guaranteed under Policy 6.4.
Under Policy 6.4, cases of sexual misconduct are investigated by a single individual, referred to as a Title IX investigator. This system was harshly criticized in a report by Cornell’s Judicial Codes Counselor, which is responsible for defending Cornell students accused of misconduct.
Cornell is currently in the process of updating its 6.4 Policy, according to another Daily Sun report.
The report notes that the OJA’s team of investigators, all of whom are female, appears biased against male students in sexual misconduct cases. It also outlines the ways the lack of a hearing, the ability to confront the accuser or question witnesses provides a limited ability for accused students to defend themselves.
On Sept. 25, when John Doe was suspended, it is alleged that the investigator who handed down the suspension based the decision solely on the claims of the accuser and three of her friends. The friends had not witnessed the event, and only learned of it by talking to the accuser.
During his suspension, he was unable to attend classes, work at his teaching assistant job, or set foot on campus.
On Oct. 7, John Doe appealed his suspension. He was reinstated on Oct. 26 and a mutual no contact order was placed on both John Doe and his accuser.
Believing he was not subject to any further mid-semester disciplinary action, John Doe re-enrolled at Cornell for the Spring semester.
On Feb. 15, more than four months after the original incident, the Cornell investigator filed a report recommending a one-year suspension for John Doe.
The Faculty Review Panel assigned to the case followed that recommendation. On April 14, John Doe was once again suspended and effectively banned from the campus during the semester, without an opportunity to appeal.
The suit argues the second suspension was “arbitrary and capricious” due to the long delay (under Policy 6.4, investigations are supposed to conclude within 60 days), the fact he was given no warning he could be suspended again, and that he had abided by the no contact order.
Cornell reversed the second suspension on April 26. The suit argues, “However, this cannot reverse the emotional harm causes to Petitioner or the damage suffered to his academic career.”
The case is currently awaiting an official response from Cornell. Cornell’s attorney indicated it will be served by July 13.
Cornell has declined to comment, as they do not comment on open cases.