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Appeals Court Revives Suit Alleging Harvard Wrongfully Denied Undergrad Degree After Sexual Assault Findings

A panel of federal judges ruled that one count in Damilare Sonoiki's lawsuit against Harvard should have survived Harvard's motion to dismiss.
A panel of federal judges ruled that one count in Damilare Sonoiki's lawsuit against Harvard should have survived Harvard's motion to dismiss. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Isabella B. Cho and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that a lower court improperly dismissed one count of a 2019 lawsuit filed by a former Harvard undergraduate who alleges he was wrongfully denied his degree after being accused of sexual assault.

The plaintiff in the suit, Damilare Sonoiki, sued Harvard October 2019, alleging the school wrongfully withheld his degree after the Administrative Board issued three charges of sexual misconduct against him, required him to withdraw from the College, and recommended his dismissal to the Faculty Council in November 2013.

Sonoiki’s suit was dismissed by a federal judge in 2020. But on Tuesday, a panel of three First Circuit Court of Appeals judges reversed the dismissal of the suit’s first count — which claims Harvard breached the contract that governs student-University relationships — while upholding the lower court’s dismissal of the three other counts. The case will be sent back to lower court for further proceedings.

The panel ruled that the first count of Sonoiki’s suit should have survived Harvard’s motion to dismiss because he plausibly alleged that Harvard breached its contract with him. The judges did not rule on the merits of his claims.

In his suit, Sonoiki alleged that the Ad Board failed to inform him that communications he had with his board representative, then-Currier House Resident Dean Laura K. Johnson, would not be kept confidential.

The Ad Board is a Faculty of Arts and Sciences committee that enforces undergraduate academic and social conduct policies. The board no longer investigates sexual misconduct allegations, though it still has jurisdiction over disciplinary action. The Office of Dispute Resolution, founded in 2014, is now charged with the fact-finding process for sexual harassment complaints. Every student has an Ad Board representative — typically the resident dean in their assigned undergraduate house — who is charged with serving as a liaison between them and the Ad Board.

While the Ad Board procedures did contain one provision indicating that board representatives do not advocate for the students they represent, it also contained numerous statements that encouraged students to be “open and honest” with their Rep, creating “ambiguous” language, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in the ruling.

“The contractual terms as described above clearly and strongly encouraged Sonoiki to trust his Board Rep and therefore Sonoiki could reasonably expect that some level of confidentiality flowed from such a trust relationship,” Thompson wrote.

Sonoiki’s allegations state a “plausible breach of contract claim” on the basis that he “reasonably expected his Board Rep to respect some confidences,” Thompson wrote.

Sonoiki’s attorneys, Susan C. Stone and Kristina W. Supler, said they were “pleased” with the court’s decision to reverse the dismissal of the first count and look forward to further litigating the suit.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the ruling.

The judges affirmed the lower court's dismissal of the three remaining counts of Sonoiki’s suit, which alleged that Harvard denied him fairness in disciplinary proceedings, that the University breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and that he relied, to his detriment, on Harvard’s promise of fairness.

In his suit, Sonoiki alleged the Ad Board process was “riddled with implicit racial bias,” citing that none of its members were Black men and that the board did not require its members to undergo implicit bias training.

The board’s recommendation to dismiss Sonoiki occurred after he had already left the College and started working for the investment banking company Goldman Sachs. Sonoiki resigned in 2015 after the firm discovered he did not in fact possess a degree from Harvard.

In July 2021, Sonoiki was sentenced to a month in prison for an insider trading scheme in which he allegedly leaked information about pending mergers and acquisitions to former NFL linebacker Mychal Kendricks in exchange for kickbacks.

Both Sonoiki and Kendricks, who allegedly profited nearly $1.2 million through the leaked information, pleaded guilty in 2018.

Sonoiki, a former Crimson editor, previously wrote for the television shows “The Simpsons” and “Black-ish.”

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

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