Harvard will seek to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the University mishandled a sexual assault investigation and violated anti-sex discrimination law Title IX—but will keep a key document in the proceedings private, according to court records filed last Friday.
Harvard filed its initial response, which indicates the University will seek to throw out the complainant’s claims instead of settle, four months after after Alyssa R. Leader ’15 initially opened the lawsuit in federal court. The University sought to keep private the contents of a 79-page report on Leader’s case from the University’s Office of Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution, citing the “highly personal, confidential, and sensitive” nature of the document.
“We expect to file a motion to dismiss in the coming days. The motion to dismiss will be a public filing,” University spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga wrote in an emailed statement. “In order to protect the identities of all parties involved in Harvard's investigation, we have sought to seal, with the agreement of Ms. Leader, the ODR report, which is an exhibit to the motion. That is the only piece that will be sealed.”
Usually, court proceedings are public documents, but Leader agreed to seal the ODR document, according to the filing. The judge, Denise J. Casper, officially approved the motion Thursday.
Leader captured national media attention in February when she opened the lawsuit charging that Harvard approached her complaint of sexual assault with “deliberate indifference.” In the 29-page complaint, Leader alleges that a male College student—referred to as “John Doe 1”—sexually abused Leader during a “dating relationship” and then subsequently intimidated and harassed her in Cabot House after the relationship ended.
Harvard also motioned to have several outside lawyers represent the University in the case. Harvard asked the court to allow Danielle C. Gray, a Harvard Law graduate and a former staff for President Obama, and Apalla U. Chopra, an attorney at O'Melveny & Myers LLP, to represent the University. While Harvard does have a legal office of its own, the University “routinely hires outside counsel to handle litigation,” according to deLuzuriaga.
Leader’s suit recounts a number of interactions she had with Harvard administrators about the complaint over the course of two years and alleges misconduct at multiple levels. According to the suit, she reported Doe to the director of Harvard’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in 2013 and 2014 and met with Cabot Resident Dean Tiffanie L. Ting in November 2014. The suit alleges that Ting discouraged Leader from filing a formal complaint and declined to remove Doe from Cabot.
In 2015, Leader reported Doe to ODR, opening a formal investigation that ultimately found Doe “Not Responsible” on all claims of rape, assault, abuse, harassment, and retaliation. Leader contests this conclusion in her suit, charging that Harvard’s investigative process in her case violated Title IX and Harvard’s own policies, which went into effect in 2014.
To counter this claim, Harvard will turn to the investigative process and seek to demonstrate that it did not violate Title IX or its own investigative procedures. A key piece of evidence will thus be the lengthy ODR report about Leader’s case.
But Harvard argues that making this final report public would threaten the privacy of the students who participated in the investigation. The report and its appendices “contain hundreds of pages of highly personal and private text messages, emails, chat messages, and photographs of Harvard College students and Leader’s private journal,” according to the filing.
Harvard also expressed concern about revealing the identities of Doe and other students named in the ODR’s final report, arguing that releasing personal information “may have a chilling effect on student and other witness participation” in other sexual assault investigations at Harvard.
In a separate filing, Harvard also motioned to dismiss the charges against the University’s Board of Overseers—its second-highest governing body—on the grounds that the Board “is not itself a corporate entity with any legal status,” according to Harvard’s primary brief. The University asked to list the “President and Fellows of Harvard College” as the sole defendant.
The federal government continues a two-year-old investigation into Harvard College’s compliance with Title IX.
—Staff writer Andrew M. Duehren can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @aduehren.
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.