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Judge rules lawsuit alleging UVa slow-walked sexual assault investigation can proceed

A federal judge has denied the University of Virginia’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the school and its Title IX office failed to appropriately address accusations that a high-ranking faculty member groomed, harassed and sexually assaulted an undergraduate student roughly five years ago.

The student, who graduated in 2020, filed her suit against UVa last April. In it, she claims the school’s Title IX office neglected to provide a timely investigation after she accused a professor more than 40 years her senior of initiating an inappropriate, yearlong sexual relationship with her back in 2018 — a clear violation of UVa policy that “strictly prohibits” sexual or romantic relationships between professors and undergraduate students.

School faculty and administrators at first turned a blind eye to the affair, according to the suit, initially attempting to handle the matter themselves instead of reporting it to the Title IX office. After the Title IX office did open an investigation, the lengthy process did not end until after the plaintiff had graduated.

The accused, referred to only as John Roe in court documents, is described as a former department head no longer employed at the university. The plaintiff, referred to only as Jane Doe in court documents, is described as a Spanish-speaking transfer student from Fairfax County who had immigrated to the U.S. just four years prior to attending UVa.

“Doe alleged that she was sexually assaulted repeatedly — for over a year, in multiple locations, in multiple cities, and even multiple countries,” U.S. District Court Judge Robert S. Ballou wrote in a March 29 ruling allowing the case to proceed. “I am convinced that Doe has thus sufficiently pled facts to plausibly assert a claim of deliberate indifference under Title IX against the University.”

A three-day trial has been scheduled to begin on Oct. 1 of this year.

UVa, which is being represented by the Office of the Virginia Attorney General, has not challenged the claims of abuse. The school has instead argued that the plaintiff’s complaints about the “speed” and “disciplinary outcome for the professor” were not a “plausible claim under any legal theory” — an argument that clearly did not persuade the judge.

University spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress last May that the school “responded to these disturbing allegations in a manner consistent with federal and state law, as well as our own policies.”

Nearly a year later, UVa maintains that its actions were in accordance with school policy as well as state and federal law.

“The University of Virginia reviews each Title IX claim promptly and in a manner consistent with University policy and applicable state and federal laws and regulations,” UVa spokeswoman Bethanie Glover said in a prepared statement delivered to The Daily Progress on Tuesday. “In each matter, the University’s top priority is a thorough investigation of the complaint so that we can take necessary action to keep our community safe.”

The plaintiff and her legal team disagree, arguing that the school’s failure to properly investigate her accusations and resolve her case infringed upon her rights to equal protection, free speech and due process. UVa, her lawsuit claims, resisted an investigation and then failed to offer her protection or support before, during and after the investigation that ultimately took place.

On March 11, 2020, the lawsuit claims the plaintiff emailed then-Dean of Students Laurie Casteen saying she wanted the professor “to be held accountable for his abuse.” And while a formal Title IX investigation was launched by the end of the month, it took 493 days for the Title IX office to find that the professor had in fact “repeatedly harassed and assaulted” the student.

The suit includes an extensive list of injuries the plaintiff says she sustained on account of the university’s actions, or lack thereof: “including, but not limited to, economic loss; loss of earning and earnings capacity; pain and suffering; physical harm in the form of an eating disorder; mental and emotional distress in the forms of anxiety; mental anguish, humiliation, and embarrassment; damage to her good name; loss of the ordinary pleasures of everyday life.”

The plaintiff arrived on UVa Grounds in the fall of 2018. During her very first semester, she claims, one of her professors took a special interest in her and encouraged her to enroll in a two-week program in Austria and Hungary the following year. The professor, a co-director of that program, encouraged her to arrive two days ahead of other students, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff arrived in Austria on Dec. 25, 2018. Three days later, the sexual abuse began, she claims.

Over the course of the trip, the professor visited the student’s room on multiple occasions, according to the lawsuit, where he made multiple sexual advances on her in front of her roommate and sexually assaulted her “several times.”

The plaintiff claims that UVa religious studies professor Asher Biemann, who was also on the trip, witnessed the professor’s advances but did not acknowledge them. The Title IX investigation would later report that Biemann noted that upon their return to Charlottesville the plaintiff “did not seem like her usual self” and “acted more reserved and was not as engaged in class as she was prior to the trip.”

According to the suit, that was because the sexual abuse did not end after the trip.

In February of 2019, the plaintiff says she began to regularly visit the professor’s residence. When she earned an internship in Washington that summer, the professor traveled to visit her and rented a hotel room for the two to spend more time together, the lawsuit claims.

Despite exchanging “I love yous” during one of these visits, soon after, the professor told the plaintiff “he did not miss her and that there was no future for their relationship.”

“This caused [the plaintiff] to sink back into severe depression and anxiety, as she realized that not only did Roe not love her, but that she had to face the fact that he had sexually assaulted her numerous times by this point,” the lawsuit says.

Their relationship did not end there, however, as the professor eventually reached back out in October of 2019.

The plaintiff says she finally put an end to the relationship four months later when she discovered the professor she had been seeing was using dating websites.

Overwhelmed by “nearly two years of trauma,” she says she admitted herself to the UVa emergency room for emotional stress and suicidal feelings. According to her suit, the plaintiff was held overnight in the hospital on a “psychiatric hold because medical staff determined that she had both suicidal ideation and suicidal intent.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff met with Biemann on or around Feb. 17, 2020, to disclose that she had been in a relationship with the professor since the trip to Austria. She did not tell Biemann that the faculty member had done anything that was not consensual “because she was afraid that he would report it to the University, and she thought she would get in trouble for being in a relationship with a professor.”

University policy requires employees to report all prohibited conduct to the school’s Title IX coordinator. However, Biemann instead wrote a memo with the information the plaintiff shared and presented it to Jeffrey Grossman, the chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures.

Grossman and Biemann agreed not to report the matter to the Title IX office and went to Dudley Doane, the director of the International Studies Office, the suit claims. Doane and Biemann then reported the memo to Casteen, who also failed to notify the Title IX office and instead met with the plaintiff one on one, according to the lawsuit.

After that meeting, Casteen told the plaintiff there was nothing she could do to help her because “the relationship was reported as consensual,” according to the lawsuit. Unsatisfied, the plaintiff reached back out to Casteen and demanded a Title IX investigation, which was initiated on or around March 31 of 2020.

“First, [Jane Doe] does not dispute that she initially told both Biemann and Dean Casteen that the parties’ sexual activity during J-term was consensual,” Title IX investigators wrote in their final report released on July 9, 2021. “While the Investigators find these facts relevant, they do not find these facts to be dispositive as to the issue of Affirmative Consent. … Notably, Biemann stated that while [Jane Doe] told him she ‘think[s]’ the sexual activity between the parties during J-term was consensual, [Jane Doe] appeared to be uncertain about this fact.”

A review panel recommended that the professor be terminated from his position at UVa. On July 9, 2021, he resigned. Throughout the Title IX investigation, however, he remained at his post with no suspension or administrative leave, and with “full, unfettered access to students,” according to the lawsuit.

Nearly three months after he resigned, then-Provost Liz Magill issued final remedial measures in a letter prohibiting the professor from being hired for any future position at the university and denying him emeritus status, an honorary title for professors who wish to stay active in scholarship and academia following retirement.

“I think that the fact that this took so long and that the investigation was so drawn out and that, at the end of it, he ended up being able to just quit and go on his merry way is absolutely unacceptable,” the plaintiff’s attorney Elizabeth Abdnour told The Daily Progress last May. “There are a lot of cases that I don’t file when people contact me for help, so I definitely think it’s a strong case.”

The plaintiff claims that UVa’s 493-day investigation violated Title IX. The department had previously identified, but not required, a 60-day time frame, prior to appeal, for resolving sexual harassment complaints. Although that guidance is no longer in place, nothing prohibits a school from adopting the 60-day time frame.

Abdnour and her client believe that the professor “had likely been drawing out the investigation to allow himself to continue as long as possible before ultimately resigning without any accountability, and that UVA Title IX staff had allowed this to happen,” according to the lawsuit.

Abdnour said that the plaintiff chose to file her lawsuit in April of last year because “her statute of limitations was about to run out.” The statute of limitations for lawsuits against Title IX departments in Virginia is two years.


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