Sanford Heisler Sharp and Public Justice Prevail on Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgment in Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Lawsuit against Harvard

Plaintiffs Have Stated Claims for Deliberate Indifference to Sexual Harassment & Retaliation, Violations of Massachusetts Civil Rights Laws, Court Rules

BOSTON, April 04, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- On March 31, 2023, Magistrate Judge Judith Dein of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts affirmed that the claims of Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava may go forward. Ms. Czerwienski, Ms. Kilburn, and Ms. Mandava allege that Harvard acted with deliberate indifference to sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title IX, Massachusetts Civil Rights Laws, and Massachusetts common laws. The decision comes on the heels of an earlier decision handed down on March 27, 2023, in which Judge Dein affirmed that Ms. Kilburn had presented evidence that Harvard obtained her confidential medical records without her consent.

“We are pleased with the Court’s decisions, which confirm that Harvard cannot evade responsibility for its actions,” said Russell Kornblith, Partner and General Counsel of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP and counsel for the plaintiffs. “These decisions mark an important step forward for our clients and for accountability.”

Sanford Heisler Sharp and Public Justice represent Ms. Czerwienski, Ms. Kilburn, and Ms. Mandava, who are graduate students in Harvard’s Anthropology Department. The plaintiffs filed their Complaint in Massachusetts federal court against Harvard on February 8, 2022, alleging that Harvard willfully ignored nearly a decade of sexual harassment and retaliation by tenured Anthropology Department professor John Comaroff, one of the world’s leading anthropologists. The Complaint details that Harvard ignored numerous warning signs, including prior Title IX complaints. This deliberate indifference, the Complaint pleads, allowed Professor Comaroff to sexually harass Ms. Kilburn and to upend the careers of Ms. Czerwienski, Ms. Kilburn, and Ms. Mandava.

The Complaint asserts that Harvard’s conduct violates Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act, and Massachusetts’s prohibition on sexual harassment in educational institutions. The Complaint also alleges that Harvard was negligent in its supervision and retention of Professor John Comaroff, and that Harvard breached its contract with the students as well as the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Ms. Kilburn also alleges that Harvard violated Massachusetts law by obtaining and disseminating her private therapy records without her consent.

After the plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on June 21, 2022, Harvard sought to dismiss nine of the plaintiffs’ ten claims and filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment as to the last, Ms. Kilburn’s privacy claim. These motions were denied except as to one claim, leaving intact the principal theories of the plaintiffs’ claims—that Harvard failed to respond to prior reports of harassment, that Harvard ostensibly ignored the plaintiffs’ complaints of harassment and retaliation until spurred to action by the press, and that Harvard’s educational environment was discriminatory and retaliatory towards the plaintiffs. Ultimately, the Court said, “a factfinder could reasonably conclude that Comaroff’s threats against graduate students in his Department were severe enough, and so pervaded their educational environment, that they undermined the victims’ educational opportunities.” (Op. 51-52)

“This is an important victory for our clients, as well as other survivors and their advocates,” said Carolin Guentert, Partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for the plaintiffs. “This ruling confirms that schools cannot ignore complaints of sexual harassment and retaliation by professors—no matter how famous and powerful they may be.”

With the Motion to Dismiss and Motion for Summary Judgment largely denied, the case will now proceed to discovery. The plaintiffs anticipate seeking documents and testimony relevant to their pleadings over the coming months.

“These clients have shown tremendous courage in coming forward,” said Sean Ouellette, Staff Attorney at Public Justice and counsel for the plaintiffs. “They went to Harvard to get an education, not to become plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit. But their example should give courage to students everywhere to stand up for their rights.”

About Sanford Heisler Sharp

Sanford Heisler Sharp is a public interest and civil rights law firm with offices in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Atlanta, Baltimore, Nashville, and San Diego. The firm focuses on employment discrimination, Title IX, wage and hour, whistleblower and qui tam, criminal/sexual violence, financial services, and Asian American litigation and finance matters. Our lawyers have recovered over $1 billion for our clients through many verdicts and settlements.

In 2022, The National Law Journal named Sanford Heisler Sharp Civil Rights Firm of the Year, and it recognized the firm in 2021 as both the Employment Rights Firm of the Year and the Human Rights Firm of the Year. Law360 recognized the firm as Employment Practice Group of the Year in 2021, 2019, 2018, and 2016. Benchmark Litigation recognized the firm as the Labor & Employment Firm of the Year in 2021 and 2020.

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About Public Justice

Public Justice is a national public interest advocacy organization that fights against abusive corporate power and predatory practices, the assault on civil rights and liberties, and the destruction of the earth’s sustainability. Public Justice specializes in connecting high-impact litigation with strategic communications and the strength of its partnerships to fight these abusive and discriminatory systems and win social and economic justice.

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