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Leader v. Harvard University Board of Overseers

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 17, 2017



          Denise J. Casper United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Alyssa Leader (“Leader”) has filed this lawsuit against Defendants Harvard University Board of Overseers and the President and Fellows of Harvard College (collectively, “Harvard”) alleging violations of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, and state law claims of negligence and premises liability. D. 27. Harvard now seeks to dismiss Leader's complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), D. 33, and strike certain allegations in the operative complaint, D. 35. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES in part and ALLOWS in part the motion to dismiss and DENIES the motion to strike.

         II. Standard of Review

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In considering the sufficiency of the facts, the court “must take the allegations in the complaint as true and must make all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff[ ].” Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1993).[1] “If that factual content, so taken, ‘allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged, ' the claim has facial plausibility.” Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). At its core, “[t]he make-or-break standard . . . is that the combined allegations, taken as true, must state a plausible, not a merely conceivable, case for relief.” Sepúlveda-Villarini v. Dep't of Educ. of P.R., 628 F.3d 25, 29 (1st Cir. 2010).

         “Under Rule 12(f), a party may move to strike ‘from any pleading any . . . redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.'” Dennison v. LaPointe, No. 06-40100-FDS, 2006 WL 3827516, at *1 (D. Mass. Dec. 21, 2006) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f)). Although “[m]otions to strike under Rule 12(f) are generally disfavored, ” U.S. S.E.C. v. Nothern, 400 F.Supp.2d 362, 364 (D. Mass. 2005), a pleading that violates the principles of Rule 8 may be struck “within the sound discretion of the court, ” Newman v. Commonwealth of Mass., 115 F.R.D. 341, 343 (D. Mass. 1987) (citation omitted). In assessing whether a motion to strike should be granted, the Court must bear in mind that such motions are rarely granted absent a showing of prejudice to the moving party. See Ross-Simons of Warwick, Inc. v. Baccarat, Inc., 182 F.R.D. 386, 398 (D.R.I. 1998) (explaining that “[m]ere redundancy is insufficient to support a motion to strike” but that “the movant must demonstrate that prejudice would result if the offending material remained in the pleadings”).

         III. Factual Background

         Taking all factual allegations in the amended complaint as true, as required at this stage, this Court considers the following allegations. Between March 2013 and March 2014, Leader, a student at Harvard, maintained a sexual and dating relationship with John Doe 1, who was also a student at Harvard. D. 27 ¶ 63. During their year-long relationship, Leader was subjected to sexual assault and harassment at the hands of John Doe 1. Id. ¶ 65. She first reported the alleged assault and harassment to the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response (“OSAPR”) in the spring of 2013. Id. ¶ 76. At nearly all times relevant to this litigation, Leader and John Doe 1 were residents of Cabot House, a dormitory at Harvard. Id. ¶ 68. The only exception to this was during the summer of 2013, at which time John Doe 1 lived at 6 Soldier's Field Park, a different residential building owned and operated by Harvard. Id. Both students worked at the Cabot House café, where Leader was a barista and John Doe 1 was a manager. Id.

         During the year the two students were dating, John Doe 1 would often become incensed when Leader declined his sexual advances. Id. ¶ 69. John Doe 1 would slam doors and strike furniture upon Leader's declinations. Id. Leader often acquiesced to John Doe 1's desires in order to prevent these outbursts. Id. Additionally, Leader and John Doe 1 engaged in frequent arguments during which John Doe 1 would raise his voice and suggest that they would fight less if Leader would more frequently consent to sexual intercourse. Id.

         In March 2014, the couple broke up. Id. ¶ 71. Several months later, in September 2014, John Doe 1 began dating another female student at Harvard. Id. ¶ 72. Leader approached John Doe 1 during this time and requested that he not treat his new girlfriend the same way he had treated her. Id. ¶ 72. Leader also informed John Doe 1 during this conversation that the behavior he exhibited during their relationship might have violated Harvard policy. Id. This discussion angered John Doe 1 and he began to harass Leader regularly. Id. ¶¶ 72-73. For example, John Doe 1 would make huffing and puffing sounds that simulated sex when he passed Leader, id. ¶ 73; he would show up when she was working her shift at the Cabot House café and make sexually crude comments, id. ¶ 74; and he would purposely make loud comments in the dining hall when Leader was nearby suggesting that Title IX policies cause even the most trivial actions to be classified as rape, id. ¶ 75.

         Leader again reported John Doe 1's behavior to OSAPR in September 2014. Id. ¶ 76. On November 6, 2014, Leader also reported the harassment to her resident dean. Id. ¶ 78. Leader told the resident dean that she felt unsafe and requested that John Doe 1 be transferred to a different dormitory. Id. The resident dean referred Leader to Emily Miller, Harvard's Title IX coordinator. Id. On November 7, 2014, Leader met with Miller and again expressed the anxiety she felt regarding her safety. Id. ¶ 79. She also reiterated her request that John Doe 1 be removed from Cabot House and placed in alternate housing. Id. Miller did nothing in response. Id. On December 15, 2014, Leader once again met with Miller and informed her that John Doe 1's harassment had escalated. Id. ¶ 80. Again, nothing was done. Id.

         On February 3, 2015, Leader reported John Doe 1's harassment to the Office for Gender-Based Dispute Resolution (“ODR”), which is responsible for investigating and resolving any complaints made under Harvard's university-wide sexual and gender-based harassment policy. Id. ¶¶ 81-82. ODR officials met with Leader three separate times in March and April of 2015 to investigate her allegations. Id. ¶ 84. During these meetings, Leader informed ODR officials that she was not sleeping at Cabot House out of fear for her safety. Id. She also noted that she was missing meals and dropping work shifts. Id. Throughout this process, Harvard officials did not propose safety measures Leader could take. Id. ¶ 85. When Leader requested that Miller issue a no-contact order between Leader and John Doe 1, Miller conveyed that a no-contact order was unnecessary since ODR had already commenced a formal investigation and, as a result, “retaliation rules” were in effect, which covered the same conduct as a no-contact order. Id. ¶ 90. Harvard neither informed Leader when it gave notice to John Doe 1 of her complaint against him, nor alerted her when it provided the evidence in support of her complaint to him. Id. ¶¶ 88-89. After John Doe 1 was informed about the investigation, he and his friends would often stare at Leader while she was doing schoolwork, sit on opposite sides of the Cabot House café so Leader would be forced to walk by them as she entered and exited work, and sit on the deck near her entryway into Cabot House. Id. ¶ 91. Despite Leader informing several Harvard officials of the ongoing harassment, nothing was done to help her during this time. Id. ¶ 92.

         Harvard did not provide Leader with an overview of her legal rights or options during the investigation. Id. ¶ 94. Through her own research, Leader learned that she could pursue a restraining order against John Doe 1. Id. On April 27, 2015, Leader sought and obtained a restraining order against John Doe 1 in Massachusetts state court. Id. ¶ 96. Harvard removed John Doe 1 from Cabot House and transferred him to a different dormitory once the restraining order issued. Id. After obtaining the restraining order, Leader also learned that the “retaliation rules” that were in effect as a result of the ODR investigation were not the same as a no-contact order. Id. ¶ 99. Indeed, when a no-contact order is in place, any violation of the order is referred to Harvard's Administrative Board (“Ad Board”), Harvard's sanctioning body for disciplinary claims, rather than ODR. Id. Having had a no-contact order in place would have allowed the Ad Board to respond more expediently to John Doe 1's continued presence at her workplace and outside her dormitory throughout the investigative process, thus significantly alleviating her constant fear and anxiety. Id.

         Leader and John Doe 1 graduated from Harvard in May 2015. Id. ¶ 100. On July 17, 2015, ODR released its finding that John Doe 1 was “[n]ot [r]esponsible” for all claims of rape, assault, abuse, harassment, and retaliation. Id. ¶ 104. Leader appealed the decision but was unsuccessful. Id. ODR transmitted the results of its investigation to the Ad Board. Id. Both Leader and John Doe 1 were given the opportunity to provide a statement to accompany ODR's investigatory results for the Ad Board's review. Id. On August 18, 2015, the Ad Board voted to “[s]cratch” Leader's complaint, concluding “nothing wrong had happened and there were no grounds for ...

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