Ex-Student Sues Brown Over Rape Accusation

April 14, 2010

The New York Times

A former student has sued Brown University in federal court, saying university officials interfered with his efforts to clear his name after another student, the daughter of a prominent Brown alumnus and donor, accused him of rape.

In documents unsealed Monday, the former student, William McCormick III, said the university had failed to follow its own disciplinary policies and sent him home to Wisconsin after the woman’s father made calls to top university officials. The rape accusation was never reported to the police by Brown or the woman, according to the lawsuit. Within a month, Mr. McCormick had agreed to a private settlement with the woman’s lawyer: if he withdrew from Brown, she would not file criminal charges.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Brown said the university and its employees had acted appropriately. “As in all instances, the university respects and maintains the confidentiality of student and employee records,” said Marisa Quinn, the university’s vice president for public affairs. Mr. McCormick’s lawyer declined to comment on the lawsuit, and a lawyer for the accuser and her father did not return calls.

Some advocates for students say that university policies are particularly one-sided when it comes to sexual misconduct cases and that the McCormick case highlights a legal gray area in which students at private universities can be accused of potentially serious crimes, but are not always given access to the same due-process rights afforded by the police or in a court of law.

“They have tended to favor the accusers rather than the accused,” said Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which focuses on students’ rights issues and has criticized the sexual misconduct policies at Duke, Columbia and other universities. “It’s almost as if guilty when charged is the policy, instead of innocent until proven guilty.”

At a hearing on Monday, Judge William E. Smith of Federal District Court in Providence, R.I., questioned why Brown never reported the alleged attack to the police. “The thought that with all the people involved in this matter at different levels, a determination is made to not tell law enforcement, even the Brown Police Department – I’m having trouble getting that,” Judge Smith said, according to The Associated Press. He also characterized the lawsuit as “a mess” and told Mr. McCormick’s lawyer, J. Scott Kilpatrick, that some of the assertions appeared to be unsubstantiated.

According to his lawsuit, Mr. McCormick arrived at Brown in the fall of 2006 as a star wrestler and straight-A student with a financial aid scholarship to attend the university. He was assigned to live in the same dorm as the female student. In the first few days of school, the lawsuit describes the two as becoming “friendly, but not romantic.” But Mr. McCormick quickly drew attention in the dorm, the lawsuit says: his 250-pound frame cut a “physically imposing figure,” and the woman’s friends began describing him as “creepy” and called him her “stalker.”

The woman first told her resident coordinator that Mr. McCormick was following her. According to an e-mail message from a Brown associate dean that is part of the court record, the student was initially reluctant to name Mr. McCormick and complained that she “did not want to have anything bad happen.” The message also indicated that the woman’s parents had called a high-level Brown official to discuss the matter.

The lawsuit claims that Brown employees pursued the complaint vigorously, pressing the student to divulge Mr. McCormick’s name and pressing her to add to her complaint. According to the lawsuit, at one point the student felt that the officials were “yelling at her” and that the ordeal was taking time away from sailing practice and studying for a chemistry test. Eventually, with the help of her resident coordinator, she wrote a statement asserting that Mr. McCormick had raped her.

After the student amended her complaint to include rape, Brown officials met with Mr. McCormick and presented him with a one-way ticket home to Wisconsin. According to the lawsuit, they denied his requests for a copy of the complaint against him and he was not given an opportunity to provide his version of events. He was told only that he faced a complaint of “sexual misconduct,” the lawsuit asserts.

The McCormick case is not the first time Brown has been sued over a sexual misconduct case. In 1998, the university settled a lawsuit with Adam Lack, a student who was suspended for a semester after another student accused him of having sex with her without her permission. His accuser later acknowledged she was drunk and did not remember the incident. The story led to a national debate over what constitutes rape, and how colleges should handle such cases.

“The escalation of the story was the same in both cases,” said David Josephson, an associate professor of music at Brown who acted as an informal advocate for Mr. Lack. Mr. Josephson said he sat in on a meeting between Mr. McCormick and Brown officials at the request of Mr. McCormick’s faculty representative. “The case smells to me of injustice – left, right and center,” he said.

Courts have traditionally been reluctant to challenge the internal policies of private universities. In 2000, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Brandeis University in a similar sexual misconduct case, arguing that the university did not have to offer due process to a student who asserted that his date-rape case had been mishandled.

In court documents, Brown said it took appropriate action to safeguard one of its students from a possible attacker. Mr. McCormick’s lawsuit asserts, however, that the university interfered with his access to potential witnesses and refused to provide documents that might exonerate him.

The lawsuit also asserts that a Brown dean arranged for Mr. McCormick to face an administrative hearing rather than have his case heard by a panel of peers, faculty and deans. The university’s “actions and inactions,” the lawsuit asserts, “had the intended effect of largely crippling William’s ability to defend himself.”

Mr. McCormick, who is now a junior at Bucknell University, asserts that the agreement he reached soon after the rape accusation is invalid because he was coerced to sign it under threat of criminal charges. Lawyers for his accuser have asked the judge to dismiss the case because under the settlement, Mr. McCormick gave up his right to sue.

The case was initially filed in September under seal in Rhode Island state court at the request of Mr. McCormick, who argued he did not want to be seen violating the confidentiality terms of his agreement with the student. It was moved to federal court in October.

Schools: Brown University Duke University Cases: Duke University: Overbroad and Unjust Sexual Misconduct Policy