United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO
DENNIS SAYLOR IV UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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.
defendants have filed motions to dismiss. For the following
reasons, the motions will be granted in part and denied in
facts are set forth as alleged in the complaint.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.).
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.
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).
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.).
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.
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
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).
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.).
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.
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
Standard of Review
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)).