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Court Grants Columbia University Motion to Dismiss Title IX Lawsuit With Prejudice

As reported in Newsweek, Reuters and other media outlets, Judge Gregory Woods of the Southern District of New York granted Paul, Weiss client Columbia University’s motion to dismiss a Title IX complaint filed by former Columbia undergraduate Paul Nungesser. 

The dispute arose in 2013 after Emma Sulkowicz accused her fellow classmate Mr. Nungesser of sexual assault in a complaint with Columbia.  Following the school’s investigation, the University found Mr. Nungesser not responsible for sexual assault. In protest of the University’s handling of her case, Ms. Sulkowicz began a widely publicized performance art project, "Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight)," in which she carried a mattress around campus throughout her senior year. Ms. Sulkowicz became a well-known figure in the ongoing public debate surrounding sexual assault on college campuses.

Mr. Nungesser filed suit in April 2015, alleging that, by permitting Ms. Sulkowicz to carry out her art project and by awarding her academic credit for doing so, the University violated his rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Although Judge Woods had initially dismissed the case in March 2016, he gave Nungesser leave to replead.

In its second motion to dismiss, Columbia argued that the conduct alleged by Mr. Nungesser did not state a Title IX violation, as Ms. Sulkowicz's art project and other public statements were directed at Mr. Nungesser's alleged conduct, rather than his status as a male; that the conduct he alleged was far different than that alleged in other Title IX student-on-student harassment cases; that the University did not deprive Mr. Nungesser of access to educational opportunities; and that the University was not "deliberately indifferent" to the alleged harassment.

In a comprehensive, 46-page opinion dismissing all Nungesser’s claims with prejudice, Judge Woods accepted these arguments. With respect to the Title IX claim, Judge Woods found that Nungesser still failed to plead facts giving rise to a plausible inference that Ms. Sulkowicz’s actions were motivated by his gender, and that he still did not allege a sufficient deprivation of access to educational opportunities, even if Mr. Nungesser’s “senior year at Columbia was neither pleasant nor easy.”  Judge Woods went on to hold that, “[a]lthough Nungesser includes more detail in his [Second Amended Complaint] than in his previous pleadings, he still fails to allege a concrete, negative, and systemic effect on his ability to receive an education.”  Judge Woods also noted that Columbia “raises a number of significant arguments in its briefs in support of its position that its response to the events at issue in this case was not ‘clearly unreasonable’” including Columbia’s “responsibility to account for students’ rights to free speech.”

The Paul, Weiss team included litigation partner Roberta Kaplan, Michele Hirshman, counsel Darren Johnson and associates Caitlin Grusauskas, Jordana Haviv and Jacob Taber.

March 24, 2017

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