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Columbia University Title IX Lawsuit

Case Description

Case Type: Sexual Harassment
Organization: Columbia University

Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP filed a sexual harassment suit under federal and New York law against the Trustees of Columbia University and the institution’s noted history professor, William V. Harris, in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.

The Complaint, brought under the federal Title IX law as well as the New York City Human Rights Law, alleges that Columbia University and Professor Harris have consistently and systematically violated the rights of the now 29-year-old Plaintiff Jane Doe, with Professor Harris, now age 79, subjecting her to sexual harassment and other sexual exploitation and Columbia University ignoring her complaints.

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The Sanford Heisler Sharp team representing Jane Doe is led by David Sanford, the firm’s Chairman; Jeremy Heisler, managing partner of the firm’s New York office; and Jennifer Siegel, a senior litigation counsel in the firm’s New York office.

“Columbia pays lip service to the ideals of a safe campus,” said Sanford. “However, the institution has demonstrated deliberate indifference to complaints of sexual harassment. Jane Doe is now among the women harmed by Columbia University trustees’ callous disregard for students’ safety, psychological health, and emotional well-being.”

Professor Harris has been a member of the history faculty at Columbia since 1965, serving as the William R. Shepherd Professor of History since 1995. He is also the longtime director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, a well-regarded interdisciplinary center of the institution.

In 2014, Professor Harris began sexually harassing Ms. Doe, a Ph.D. student. For the next two years, the world-renowned Greco-Roman scholar regularly pressured Jane Doe for inappropriate and unwanted sexual contact, both within and outside the university setting.

Jane Doe was 26 and Professor Harris was 75 when he initiated these unwanted sexual advances, in violation of Columbia University’s policies. According to the Complaint, this behavior included sexual groping; pressing his mouth on Ms. Doe’s breast; and repeatedly kissing her in his office, along with frequently pressuring Ms. Doe to have sexual intercourse with him.

When Ms. Doe rejected Professor Harris’ inappropriate advances, he retaliated by disparaging her professionalism to his colleagues and her fellow graduate students. Jane Doe’s mounting trauma due to Professor Harris’ behavior ultimately resulted in her withdrawal from Columbia for the 2015-2016 academic year, during which time Ms. Doe secured counseling.

In addition to telling several faculty about Professor Harris’ ongoing abuse, Jane Doe notified Columbia’s Title IX Coordinator, Associate Vice President Marjory Fisher, of Harris’ coercive and abusive conduct. Ms. Doe requested accommodations for the 2017-2018 academic year that would allow her to fully participate in completing her doctoral program. In response, the University has continued to provide Professor Harris with access to Jane Doe, limiting her participation in academic activities and her use of the academic and professional resources to which she is entitled.

“Columbia has known about Professor Harris’ abusive conduct toward women at the University for a long time,” said Jennifer Siegel. “Jane Doe is just the most recent person we are aware of who has experienced Professor Harris’ sexual harassment and exploitation.

Jeremy Heisler noted, “Columbia’s longstanding record of turning a blind eye to Professor Harris’ conduct has enabled and encouraged Professor Harris over the years.”

The Complaint asserts Professor Harris’ and Columbia University’s conduct violates the New York City Human Rights Law with respect to gender discrimination in its terms, conditions and privileges; quid pro quo sexual harassment; and hostile environment. It also asserts the University violated Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 in terms, conditions and privileges; quid pro quo sexual harassment, and hostile work and educational environment. The Complaint also alleges negligent supervision and retention of Professor William V. Harris; and that Harris owed Ms. Doe a duty of care, which he breached by negligent infliction of emotional distress through sexual harassment.

In addition to demanding a trial by jury, the Complaint asks for an award of compensatory and punitive damages; legal fees; pre- and post-judgment interest, and other remedies the Court considers appropriate.

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