Student Worker Plausibly Alleges Title IX Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Against CUNY

A recent decision, Campisi v. The City University of New York & Dean George Ranalli, No. 15 CIV. 4859 (KPF), 2016 WL 4203549 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 9, 2016), addresses the interplay between Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-1688).

Plaintiff, a CUNY student who had an on-campus job (and who participated in the school’s “DC 37 program” which provided numerous benefits, such as tuition assistance and health benefits), asserted that she was subjected to sexual harassment (based on a single incident of unwanted touching) by Dean George Ranalli. She sued under Title IX and the New York City Human Rights Law.

Defendant moved to dismiss her complaint. The court disagreed and denied defendants’ motions.

Initially, the court rejected CUNY’s argument that Title IX was inapplicable to this case on the ground that plaintiff was “suing in her capacity as an employee of the school, and that permitting plaintiffs to recover for employment discrimination under Title IX effectively bypasses the administrative procedures set up by Congress under Title VII.”

It reasoned:

Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that she was denied educational resources and opportunities as a CUNY student as a result of the events at issue; that is, in claiming discrimination that impacted both her education and her student employment, Plaintiff is quite unlike the typical plaintiff who seeks to bring employment discrimination claims under Title IX. In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that she participated in the DC 37 program, offered by CUNY, which rendered her eligible for a “tuition fee waiver,” and allowed her to receive certain health care benefits. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16-18). Plaintiff claims that she was financially dependent on her on-campus job (id. at ¶ 50), and that it allowed her to maintain her enrollment at CUNY. When her work performance declined as a result of the incident and the subsequent near-daily interactions with Ranalli, Plaintiff was asked to take a leave from the position and thus lost eligibility for the tuition assistance program. (Id. at ¶¶ 36-37). Because the harassment Plaintiff experienced jeopardized not only her academic performance but also the tuition assistance provided by CUNY that helped her remain enrolled in school, materially affecting her education, the Court finds that Plaintiff has alleged that she was denied access to educational opportunities, and will allow the claim to proceed under Title IX.

Next, the court determined that plaintiff plausibly alleged that the asserted conduct was substantively sufficient at the pleading stage. The court explained:

[T]he rubbing of Plaintiff’s leg continued sporadically for thirty minutes, while Plaintiff was confined to a moving car on the highway at night, from which she could not leave. Further, while Plaintiff was an undergraduate student working as a college assistant, Ranalli was the significantly older dean of a school within City College — putting him in a position of power — as well as one of Plaintiff’s own supervisors at work. Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that the incident and its aftermath caused her to become depressed and anxious, interfering significantly with her performance at both school and at work. In light of these allegations, considered in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s allegations suggest that the incident effectively altered the conditions of her education (as well as her employment), and thus the Amended Complaint traverses the line of plausibility required at the motion to dismiss stage.

It also determined that plaintiff plausibly alleged CUNY’s “actual knowledge” of, and “deliberate indifference” to, the harassment. As to the latter, plaintiff “stated facts that could plausibly demonstrate that the school unjustifiably delayed its investigation and did not adequately protect Plaintiff from the risk of additional harassment.”

Finally, the court held that plaintiff also plausibly alleged discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law against Ranalli, under disparate treatment and aiding-and-abetting theories.

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