Judge Dismisses Former Undergraduate’s Suit Against Harvard for Denying His Degree after Sexual Assault Findings
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Last week, a federal judge allowed Harvard’s motion to dismiss former undergraduate Damilare Sonoiki’s lawsuit alleging the College unfairly refused to grant him his bachelor’s degree after three fellow students accused him of sexual assault.
Sonoiki filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on Oct. 21, 2019, arguing Harvard should not have withheld his degree after the Administrative Board — which adjudicated complaints of sexual harassment in 2013 — found the three allegations against Sonoiki credible and recommended his dismissal.
Sonoiki contended that the Ad Board and Faculty Council decisions were “void” because Harvard no longer had any jurisdiction over him after his scheduled graduation date. He also argued that he should have received his degree because he was in good standing at the time of graduation.
Judge Denise J. Casper wrote, however, that Sonoiki’s logic failed to presume the inverse interpretation of the statement in Harvard’s Student Handbook.
“While the Handbook asserts that a student who is not in good standing or against whom a disciplinary charge is pending cannot receive a degree, it does not require that a student who is in good standing and against whom a formal disciplinary charge is not yet pending receive his degree,” Casper wrote.
She also cited Harvard’s Student Information Form, which states that a student cannot receive a degree before the resolution of a disciplinary case, and that a disciplinary case always begins with an allegation of student misconduct in the form of a complaint or report.
Sonoiki's complaint further claimed that Harvard denied him “adequate notice” of the charges against him, the opportunity to be advised by an attorney of his choosing, and the right to question or confront witnesses.
Casper wrote that Harvard’s refusal to allow Sonoiki an attorney advisor and confidentiality with his Administrative Board representative, as well as Harvard’s failure to disclose the identities of adverse witnesses are all consistent with the terms of its contract with students, defined as the student handbook and ancillary documents. She added that Sonoiki was given adequate notice of the charges against him.
Sonoiki also claimed Harvard breached its contract because the complaints filed against him were “untimely” and the process for resolution of his disciplinary process was “unduly long.”
Casper wrote that neither the Student Handbook nor the Student Information Form make promises regarding the timeliness of complaints or as to the length of disciplinary processes. She further noted that the Ad Board does not convene during the summer and that the Student Information Form states the length of a disciplinary case depends upon the amount of information the Ad Board receives during an investigation.
“Notably, Harvard was investigating three, separate complaints of sexual assault against Sonoiki from three complainants and time periods remote from one another and the subcommittee investigated and prepared a separate report for each claim,” Casper also wrote.
Finally, Sonoiki accuses Harvard of employing an adjudicatory process “riddled” with implicit and explicit racial bias. He cited the fact that there were no Black men serving on the 30-person Ad Board during the 2012-2013 academic year.
The judge wrote that Sonoiki failed to substantiate his claim of racial bias beyond “inference and speculation,” citing precedent that states subjective belief that one is a victim of discrimination is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.
“[Sonoiki] has not stated any facts supporting a claim that those individuals involved in the adjudication of the disciplinary cases against him were biased,” Casper wrote.
Sonoiki wrote in an emailed statement that he and his legal team intend to bring an appeal to the First Circuit. In his initial filing, he demanded the conference of his degree, the reversal of the Ad Board’s decision, and a substantive sum in damages.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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