Student’s Sexual Harassment, Retaliation Claims Survive Against School

In Novio v. The New York Academy of Art et al, 2017 WL 6398746 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 13, 2017), the court granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motions to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for sex discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile educational environment, unlawful retaliation, and breach of contract. She asserted her discrimination and retaliation claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the New York State Human Rights Law, and the New York City Human Rights Law.

The court summarized plaintiff’s allegations as follows:

The Plaintiff, Sarah Novio, is a former student and current alumna of Defendant NYAA. (Compl. ¶ 9.) The Plaintiff attended NYAA from September 2013 until May 2015, when she graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts degree. (Compl. ¶ 2.) The Plaintiff took courses from Defendant Schuman, an NYAA professor and Department Chairman, in 2014 and 2015, (Defs.’ Br. Ex. A) during which time the Plaintiff found that Schuman’s persistent sexual commentary in the classroom and inappropriate touching of female students created a hostile educational environment that interfered with the Plaintiff’s education.1 (Compl. ¶ 30.)

Specifically, the Plaintiff alleges Schuman made repeated sexist comments in class, including the following: Schuman made comments about the Plaintiff’s “sexiness” that made her uncomfortable; Schuman asked the Plaintiff if anyone told her that her looks did not match her voice, and that the mismatch was “kind of sexy”; Schuman told the Plaintiff that she was “perfect” in front of the entire class, accompanied by a facial expression and tone of voice that made clear that he was hitting on the Plaintiff and referring to her in a sexual manner; when the Plaintiff objected to a sexist comment Schuman made in class, Schuman announced in front of the class that “all women are bitches” and that “men should just stay single”; when a female student had cramps and was not feeling well, Schuman announced in front of the entire class, “you women have excuses with your period for everything”; and Schuman repeatedly commented on the clothing worn by the Plaintiff and other female students, and never commented on the clothing of male students. (Compl. ¶¶ 17-22, 29.)

*2 Further, Schuman displayed improper sexually-charged conduct on several other occasions, including the following: when Schuman invited his wife to give a guest lecture to the class, he came up behind the Plaintiff and grabbed her waist and smiled at her as he walked away, scartling the Plaintiff and making her uncomfortable; Schuman touched or grabbed female students in front of the Plaintiff, which made the Plaintiff noticeably uncomfortable; Schuman exacerbated this discomfort by looking at the Plaintiff with a facial expression that communicated his awareness of the Plaintiff’s discomfort; Schuman massaged a female faculty member’s shoulders in front of students, and told a student that Catholicism is the most sexual religion; Schuman told a female student in class that she was very attractive, and told another female student that she was beautiful and that she made him feel calm; Schuman appeared in front of students in a classroom with a woman sitting on his lap and with her arms around him; when a male student hugged Schuman in class, Schuman pushed the student away and said that he does not hug students; later, Schuman hugged the Plaintiff tightly and inappropriately; Plaintiff complained to Schuman and told him that she did not want to be touched or hugged by him, but Schuman ignored her complaints and hugged the Plaintiff at graduation.

The court held that plaintiff’s NYCHRL sex discrimination claim survived dismissal as to Schuman, noting that “[t]he Plaintiff alleges that Schuman’s comments were directed only at female students and that his physical hugging and touching was focused only toward women” and holding that “[t]hese details, when construed broadly in favor of the Plaintiff, are sufficient to show on a motion to dismiss that the Plaintiff was treated ‘less well’ than similarly situated male students.”

The court also, inter alia, held that plaintiff’s Title IX retaliation claims survived dismissal, holding:

Here, the Plaintiff alleges that “Defendants stopped making plaintiff aware of Academy functions, art shows, and networking events that could help her find employment as an artist”; Kratz “discouraged plaintiff from attending [Academy] events”; Professor “Bowland and other [Academy] faculty … refus[ed] to provide references or recommendations”; and the “alumni association stopped sending emails to plaintiff even though she had previously been elected Secretary of that organization.” (Compl. ¶ 38.) Even though the Plaintiff has not alleged specifically that NYAA or NYAA Holdings endorsed, condoned, or approved the alleged conduct, (see Defs.’ Br. 11, 17) the Plaintiff has satisfied the “exceedingly low burden of demonstrating a plausible minimal inference” of retaliation against her because of her complaints. Accordingly, this claim survives dismissal.

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