Monday, February 16, 2015

Northwestern Professor's Title IX and Defamation Suits Dismissed

Earlier this month, a federal district court in Illinois dismissed claims filed by a Northwestern philosophy professor against Northwestern and a student who had accused him of sexual assault. 
The court dismissed Ludlow's Title IX claims against Northwestern after concluding that he had not sufficiently alleged discriminatory motive. Ludlow's complaint criticized the procedure by which the university conducted the investigation of the graduate student's complaint that he had sexually assaulted her in the context of an otherwise-consensual romantic relationship. He also challenged the university's conclusion--having found insufficient evidence to substantiate the graduate student's allegations--that Ludlow was guilty of capitalizing on an equal power dynamic, on the grounds that Northwestern had no policy against such relationships.  Yet, the court refused to infer from the fact of these allegations alone that Northwestern could have violated the professor's rights under Title IX, since the complaint contained no allegation that Northwestern officials were motivated by bias against Ludlow on the basis of sex.

The court also dismissed Ludlow's claims that the graduate student had defamed him when she directed her complaint against Ludlow to Northwestern's general counsel. Defamation is a tort that renders a defendant liable for making false statements against the plaintiff.  However, some statements are subject to a qualified privilege, meaning that the defendant cannot be liable for them, even if they prove false, unless the plaintiff shows that the defendant was acting maliciously when making the statement. The court determined that the graduate student's statement is subject to the qualified privilege because it is a statement made to an employer about alleged employee misconduct. The court recognized that the privilege is justified by the strong public interest in having misconduct reported. Accordingly, the court examined Ludlow's complaint against the graduate for evidence of malicious intent.  However, all Ludlow alleged was that her statement was untrue, and the court refused to infer malice from that alone.

(The court also dismissed a second charge against the graduate student for invading his privacy by presenting him in a false light, because the situation did warrant making an exception to the requirement that a false light claim involve the "public presentation" of private matters--a requirement not satisfied by the graduate student's communication with the university counsel.) 

When we blogged about this case while it was pending, we noted concern for the possibility that defamation lawsuits could potentially have a chilling effect on valid reports of sexual assault. The court's decision appropriately addresses that concern by recognizing the privilege afforded to statements made in the context of such complaints. While a person who makes a false report of sexual assault for malicious reasons like retaliation or spite can still be held accountable, the law does not impose liability every time a sexual assault report does not prove true. This limitation provides important protection for erstwhile whistleblowers, who may actually be telling the truth, yet fear the possibility of not being able to marshal enough evidence to support their claim, as well as in cases where the accuser turns out to be mistaken because of memory lapse or trauma.  In such cases, the accusation will not stand, but nor will it give rise to liability on the accuser's part.

Decision: Ludlow v. Northwestern Univ., 2015 WL 508431 (N.D. Ill., Feb. 5, 2015).