What Are We Suing Our Colleges Over Today?

Judge Joe BrownBoth of my parents are lawyers, so I grew up on stories of hearings and motions, trials and briefs. Romantic it was not. One time when my dad was in court in New Mexico, the judge got word that someone had brought in a gun. His Honor made an announcement: “All right, everyone, we know that feelings are running high around this case. Why don’t we take a break and all of us who might have brought in a weapon can rethink whether we wanted to have done that and maybe go back to our trucks and leave the weapons there.” The way my dad told it, half the courtroom emptied out and returned from the parking lot looking sheepish.

Incidents like that aside, though, my parents made clear that the law is 60% tedium, 30% paperwork, and 10% bombast. Like any system made up of people — many of them well-meaning, others less so — the legal system often fails. When something happened to me at a job straight out of college, and educated folks told me I had grounds to or should sue, I was able to draw on my knowledge that lawsuits are expensive, drawn-out, difficult procedures with uncertain outcomes. My injury wasn’t so extensive that I needed restitution; I settled for an apology from the malefactors in question and walked away.

I’m intrigued, then, when and why people in similar situations make different choices. After all, it’s one thing to sue a hospital for damages when medical malpractice scars your child for life. It’s another to sue a school when your college experience doesn’t meet expectations. Which is what seems to be happening right now at Columbia.

Even the New York Post can’t work up too much outrage on behalf of the young man suing his alma mater:

A Columbia University student accused of raping a classmate — who turned the alleged assault into an international media story by carrying a mattress around campus — claims he’s the real victim in a new gender discrimination lawsuit against the Ivy League school.

Student Paul Nungesser was cleared by school officials and law enforcement of allegations by Emma Sulkowicz that he choked, slapped and then anally raped her in August 2012. …

“We do not want Columbia University to allow Emma Sulkowitz to hijack the joyous, sacred celebration of graduation for her continuing personal agenda of celebrity at the expense of Mr Nungesser,” his lawyer Andrew Miltenberg told The Post.

“Joyous, sacred celebration” is laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it? The first college graduation I attended, it was 45 degrees and rained the whole time. Students spent half an hour filing into a huge gym only to hear James Carville speak for ten minutes, and then it was over.

The New York Times explains further:

The lawsuit alleges that Jon Kessler, the professor who is named as a defendant, not only approved the project but also “publicly endorsed her harassment and defamation” of Mr. Nungesser.

“She is actively earning course credit from Columbia for this outrageous display of harassment and defamation,” the lawsuit says, with the school aware that “Paul’s legal rights are being violated and that his well-being and future prospects are suffering immensely.”

Ms. Sulkowicz is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan. The suit seeks damages in an amount to be determined at trial for what it calls the harm caused to Mr. Nungesser’s reputation, and his loss of educational opportunities and future career prospects.

I understand Nungesser wanting to do something drastic to regain some agency, some semblance of control, in a “Don’t like what’s being said? Change the conversation” kind of way. That is, presumably, also what Sulkowitz is doing by channeling her resentment into her “Carry That Weight” project. They’re both dealing with feeling wronged by the school, though she gets points from me for figuring out how to cope and get class credit at the same time.

But before Nungesser filed this suit, I didn’t know his name, and now I do. For someone who’s supposedly afraid of harming his future career prospects, that’s a bit of an odd choice. Unless he thinks he’ll be high-profile from now on no matter what and he would rather be known as The Guy Who Sued His School After Being Accused and Cleared of Several Sexual Assaults than just The Guy Who Was Accused and Cleared of Several Sexual Assaults.

That last link provides some background, if you’re interested:

The groping case was initially decided against him, with a largely symbolic punishment of “disciplinary probation,” but he appealed. By the time the case was heard again his accuser had graduated and was unable, she said, to participate in the process. The decision was overturned. The university dropped the intimate partner violence charge after that accuser, saying she was exhausted by the barrage of questions, stopped answering emails over summer vacation. And in Ms. Sulkowicz’s case, the hearing panel found that there was not enough evidence. Her request for an appeal was denied.

For context, who else is suing colleges these days? Here’s a sampling:

+ In Kentucky, former students have been cleared to proceed with a suit against their for-profit alma mater “for enticing them to enroll through allegedly bogus statements about job placement, transferring credit and other false claims.”

+ In Oregon, a community college “student whose roommate is accused of stabbing him in his dorm room last fall has filed a notice of intent to sue …  A tort claim notice dated March 17 states James Briles ‘nearly died’ and the ‘full extent of his injuries, both physical and psychological, remains uncertain.'”

+ In Utah, “two former Dixie State University women’s basketball players are accusing the college of racial, sexual and religious discrimination in a federal lawsuit.”

+ And in South Carolina, the parents of a 19-year-old who was killed when he fell off a bridge are suing Clemson University and the boy’s fraternity, “alleging that Hipps [their son] died as a result of a confrontation with a fraternity member over breakfast food.” 

Comparatively, suing your school because it allows another student to carry a mattress around as part of her thesis project seems pretty frivolous to me. I imagine the courts will decide.

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