Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Lawsuit Filed Against Michigan State Over Sexual Assault Response

Last week four women filed a lawsuit in federal court against Michigan State University to challenge the institution's response to incidents of sexual assault that they reported while enrolled as students.  Two of the plaintiffs were allegedly assaulted by the same individual associated with Kappa Sigma fraternity, which is also a defendant in their case.  In both of their cases, the university allegedly took an unusually long time to resolve the matters, 285 and 485 days respectively.  The first plaintiff also alleges that the university's response amounted to the "deliberate indifference" required for institutional liability because school officials merely put the assailant on probation after finding him responsible for violating the code of conduct, for trying to dissuade her from filing a complaint to challenge retaliatory harassment, for allowing him to remain in the dorm where they both lived, and for suggesting that she transfer rather than take action to ensure her safety. The second plaintiff alleged that her case was also mishandled when the university officials departed from its stated policy by re-opening the matter after it had been resolved by the disciplinary process and upheld on appeal, and allowing the findings of a second investigation to overturn the decision to discipline the assailant.

The third and fourth plaintiffs' cases stemmed from reports against a different assailant but which also alleged indifference on the part of MSU officials.  In one case, the Title IX Coordinator is alleged to have ignored the plaintiff's hospital records from the sexual assault examination that was conducted on the night of the rape.  The other alleges that her rights were violated by the university's decision to allow her expelled assailant to return to campus for graduation.

Michigan State has recently been cited by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for not responding to sexual assault reports in a prompt and equitable manner, a point that the plaintiffs include in their complaint as well.  Because courts use a different and higher of liability than the agency does, OCR's conclusions do not control the outcome of this lawsuit.  They do, however, add context to the plaintiffs' claims involving similar problems of delay and unfair treatment.