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Harbi v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 1, 2017

FAÏZA HARBI, Plaintiff,
v.
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, and WALTER LEWIN, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          F. DENNIS SAYLOR IV UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This is a case alleging online sexual harassment. Plaintiff Faïza Harbi alleges, in substance, that she was sexually harassed by defendant Walter Lewin, a university professor who was teaching an online course in which she was enrolled. The complaint alleges a claim under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, against Lewin's then-employer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”), as well as eight other claims under state law against Lewin and MIT.

         Both defendants have filed motions to dismiss. For the following reasons, the motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         The facts are set forth as alleged in the complaint.

         Plaintiff Faïza Harbi is a resident of Montpellier, France. (Am. Compl. ¶1). At the relevant time, she was 31 years old. (Id. Ex. 2 at 7).

         Defendant Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a major research and teaching university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Id. ¶ 2). Defendant Walter Lewin, who was 77 years old at the relevant time, was retired and a professor emeritus at MIT. (See Id. ¶ 3).

         In 2012, MIT and Harvard University entered into a partnership to provide open access to courses online-commonly referred to as massive open online courses, or “MOOCs”-through an entity called “edX.” (Id. ¶ 7). edX students who successfully completed MIT courses and demonstrated knowledge of course material were eligible to obtain “certificates of mastery” for a fee. (Id. ¶ 8).

         One of the courses offered through edX was an MIT introductory physics course taught by Lewin. The course was entitled “For the Love of Physics” and assigned the number 8.01x. (Id. ¶ 7). The 8.01x course was similar to an on-campus course taught by Lewin. (Id.). Students enrolled in 8.01x viewed video lectures by Lewin, problem-solving sessions, and in-class demonstrations. (Id. Ex. 2 at 4). Students were also able to participate in interactive questions written by Lewin to help them check their understanding of the lectures. (Id.).

         During the summer of 2013, Harbi registered for the 8.01x course for the term running from September 9, 2013, to January 15, 2014. (Id. ¶ 8). Approximately 40, 000 people registered for the 8.01x course, and 6, 000 actively took the course. (Id. Ex. 2 at 5).

         Following her enrollment, Harbi created a Facebook group dedicated to the 8.01x course and became the administrator of that online group. (Id. ¶ 14). It appears that MIT had nothing to do with the creation of the Facebook group.

         On November 24, 2013, Lewin initiated a request through Facebook to join the group. (Id. ¶ 15). Harbi received Lewin's request, but initially believed it to be a prank. (Id.). She responded by asking for confirmation of Lewin's identity. (Id.). He then sent an e-mail to her edX address confirming his identity and sharing a snapshot of her course progress, to which only the course professor would have access. (Id.).

         In November 2013, Lewin and Harbi began an electronic correspondence that lasted for a period of several months. They communicated over e-mail, through their Facebook pages, and eventually by video calls on Skype. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Lewin and Harbi never met one another in person; at all times, Lewin was in the United States and Harbi was in France.

         Beginning in about December 2013, many of the communications between Lewin and Harbi became explicitly sexual in nature. Among other things, the complaint alleges that Lewin told Harbi that he was sexually attracted to her, he sent her nude photographs, and repeatedly masturbated on camera in front of her. (Id. ¶¶ 21, 24). During their communications, Harbi disclosed that she had been raped as a young child and that she had low self-esteem as a result. (Id. ¶¶ 23, 43). Lewin responded that he would try to help her restore her self-confidence. (Id.) He also told her that he planned to get her “back on the road sexually by teaching her to masturbate.” (Id. ¶ 46).

         The complaint alleges that Lewin suggested that Harbi's successful completion of the course was conditioned on their continuing correspondence. (Id. ¶ 23). It further alleges that Harbi did not break off the relationship for fear of being removed from the course. (Id.).

         According to the complaint, in August 2014, Harbi realized for the first time that the correspondence with Lewin was “highly inappropriate.” (Id. ¶ 26). As a result, she developed extreme anxiety, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, became unable to sleep, and began to self-mutilate. (Id. ¶ 28). At some point, she was hospitalized for those symptoms. (Id. ¶ 26).

         MIT has a written manual directed at faculty and staff members that outlines the university's policies concerning sexual harassment. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12). Among other things, the manual provides that “MIT is committed to creating an environment in which every individual can work, study, and live without being harassed.” (Id. ¶ 12). It defines “sexual harassment” as potentially consisting of “requests for sexual favors, visual displays of degrading sexual images, sexually suggestive conduct, or offensive remarks of a sexual nature.” (Id.).

         On October 7, 2014, Harbi reported Lewin's conduct to MIT. The university then initiated an investigation. (Id. ¶ 30). On December 2, 2014, MIT informed Harbi of the results of that investigation and provided her with a copy of the investigatory report. (Id. ¶ 32).

         The report, which is attached to the complaint, concluded that Lewin had violated multiple MIT policies and procedures. (Id.). Specifically, it found that Lewin had violated MIT's policies on harassment, conflict of interest, personal conduct and responsibilities toward students, and relations with students. (Id. Ex. 2 at 21-23). Among other things, it recounted Lewin's statements that he had exchanged nude photographs of himself with multiple other women and had previously “taught another woman how to masturbate” through Facebook. (Id. Ex. 2 at 20). When asked whether his remarks concerning masturbation were appropriate, he stated that he “was raised in a Dutch culture, whereby a subject like this is openly discussed. We have a much more direct approach, which can hurt people too by the way. You, as an American, would not have thought this was appropriate. For me, it's fine.” (Id. Ex. 2 at 9). When asked whether he would have made the same statements to a student who visited his office in person, he stated, “[i]f a student at MIT who came to me during office hours said this [referring to an email from Harbi], I would have said the same thing.” (Id.).

         In response, MIT severed ties with Lewin and prohibited him from accessing university resources. (Id. ¶ 35). According to the complaint, the university did not offer Harbi any counseling or other remedial services. (Id.).

         On November 23, 2016, Harbi filed the complaint in this action, alleging claims under state and federal law against MIT and Lewin. Harbi filed an amended complaint on April 7, 2017. Both MIT and Lewin have filed motions to dismiss all claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         II. Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court “must assume the truth of all well-plead[ed] facts and give the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences therefrom.” Ruiz v. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp., 496 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2007). To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state a claim that is “plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. at 555 (citation omitted). Dismissal is appropriate if the complaint fails to set forth “factual allegations, either direct or inferential, respecting each material element necessary to sustain recovery under some actionable legal theory.” Gagliardi v. Sullivan, 513 F.3d 301, 305 (1st Cir. 2008) (quoting Centro Médico del Turabo, Inc. v. Feliciano de Melecio, 406 F.3d 1, 6 (1st Cir. 2005)).

         III. ...


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