• October 30, 2014

5 Plaintiffs Reach Agreement With UConn in Sexual-Assault Lawsuit

The University of Connecticut announced on Friday that it would pay nearly $1.3-million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by five current and former female undergraduates who said that it had mishandled their complaints of sexual assault.

University administrators did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement agreement, but Connecticut did outline several steps it said it would take to deal with sexual violence on the campus, including establishing a new assistant deanship for victim support and forming a victims unit in the campus police department.

The settlement comes as colleges are confronting their legal responsibilities to investigate and resolve reports of sexual violence, under pressure from activists and federal officials. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has said she plans to introduce legislation calling for improvements in colleges' responses to cases of sexual assault.

Colleges that receive federal funds are responsible for investigating and resolving reports of sexual misconduct under the gender-equity law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. That is the case whether or not students also take their complaints to the police.

The U.S. Education Department is investigating more than 60 colleges, including the University of Connecticut, for possible mishandling of such complaints.

Laura Dunn, who founded the advocacy group SurvJustice after surviving a sexual assault, said the Connecticut settlement was a wake-up call to colleges that mismanaging sexual-assault cases can be expensive.

"If schools are looking at this from an economic perspective," she said, "there is a huge cost to violating the rights of survivors."

Public Awareness

Lawyers who have filed lawsuits on behalf of other sexual-assault victims, as well as on behalf of the accused, said the significance of the Connecticut settlement wasn’t necessarily the dollar amount. In fact, seven years ago, the University of Colorado at Boulder agreed to pay $2.5-million to one plaintiff, Lisa Simpson, who asserted that she had been sexually assaulted during her sophomore year and that the university had mishandled its investigation of her complaint.

The importance of the Connecticut settlement, observers said, is that the five women joined together, allowing their names and faces to be revealed publicly. "It’s really hard for an individual survivor," said Ms. Dunn. "You will face some form of retaliation."

The settlement shows that alleged victims are beginning to demand that colleges deal with their cases properly, she said. "They aren’t just going away and dropping out of school and saying nothing because they are ashamed and afraid. They are being very public and demanding their rights."

The Connecticut case also received attention because Gloria Allred, a high-profile civil-rights lawyer known for her work on cases involving women’s rights, represented the five women. "Many college students are aware of their rights under Title IX," she said at a news conference on Friday to announce the settlement. "They are retaining lawyers to learn more about all their legal remedies. … These young women are pioneers."

Ms. Allred said she hoped the outcome would encourage more survivors of campus sexual assault to become aware of their rights under Title IX.

Kylie Angell, one of the Connecticut plaintiffs, reported that she had been raped in a residence hall. She said a college police officer had told her, "Women need to stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home."

Another plaintiff, Carolyn Luby, said the institution had failed to take rape and death threats against her seriously after she wrote a letter to the president arguing that the university’s new logo, a snarling husky, perpetuates a culture of rape.

Rosemary Richi and Erica Daniels, two other plaintiffs, alleged that the campus police force had withheld information on the two women’s sexual-assault cases.

Silvana Moccia, the fifth complainant and a member of the women's hockey team at UConn, said that after she told the university she had been raped by a male hockey player, the coach told her that she would "bring the team down" if she continued playing. She received $900,000, the largest portion of the settlement.

Of the five plaintiffs, only Ms. Richi will return to the university in the fall.

In a statement on the settlement agreement, the university noted that even the plaintiffs acknowledged that some university officials had treated them humanely.

"Our hearts go out to all victims of sexual violence," said Susan Herbst, president of the university, in a written statement. "The university has taken many positive, important steps in the battle against sexual assault in recent years."

Title IX Implications

As part of the settlement agreement, the five women agreed to drop Title IX complaints against the university that they had filed with the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

However, three other students, who were not identified and who were not part of the lawsuit, have submitted complaints regarding Connecticut’s handling of sexual-assault cases. The federal agency will continue to investigate those complaints.

The settlement could alter the outcome of those complaints, said lawyers watching the case. Matthew G. Kaiser, a lawyer based in Washington who has represented students accused of sexual assault, said the university could use the settlement to show the Education Department that it takes cases of sexual assault seriously. "It can change the atmosphere of those conversations," he said.

For the plaintiffs, the settlement is a relief.

"As a result of UConn and our state government taking my claims so seriously," Ms. Angell said at the news conference, "I have begun to heal."

Robin Wilson contributed to this article.

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