Sexual Harassment/Hostile Educational Environment Claim Survives Dismissal Against Trustees of Canisius College

In a recent case, Boucher et al v. Trustees of Canisius College et al, No. 1:22-cv-00381, 2023 WL 2544625 (W.D.N.Y. March 17, 2023), the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s “hostile educational environment” sexual harassment claim asserted under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.

Plaintiffs allege, in sum, that the defendant school is liable under Title IX due to its “deliberate indifference” to alleged sexual harassment by non-party Professor Michael Noonan.

After summarizing the applicable “black letter law”, the court applied it to the facts:

Plaintiffs allege that the College “received numerous complaints regarding sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination perpetuated by [Professor] Noonan” (Doc. 1 at 2, ¶ 7) and thus had actual knowledge of the risks posed by Professor Noonan long before a formal Title IX complaint was lodged. See Posso, 518 F. Supp. 3d at 701-02 (explaining that the court would focus on “the particularized risk posed by male swimmers–not on the risk to a particular person” when assessing actual knowledge). Those complaints include Professor Waldau’s 2014 reporting of Professor Noonan to the College’s Title IX office, see Doc. 1 at 39, ¶ 275; Plaintiff Tuhovak’s 2018 meeting with Ms. Margulis wherein she complained of Professor Noonan’s “verbal and emotional abuse[,]” id. at 35, ¶ 253; and an unnamed student’s alleged complaints to Professor Hogan. Plaintiffs also allege that Professor Noonan told Plaintiff Wood in January 2019 “that women students and staff had complained about his conduct in the past to the College, but [the College] never found a ‘significant violation’ of the rules and nothing ever came of those complaints.” Id. at 50, ¶ 368.

At the time Ms. Margulis and Professor Hogan were allegedly notified of Professor Noonan’s behavior, Ms. Margulis was Chair of the ABEC Program and Professor Hogan was Co-Chair of the Biology Department. While Plaintiffs allege that their complaints constituted notice to the College, satisfying the “actual knowledge” requirement, additional facts are necessary to determine whether these representatives of the College were “appropriate” people under Gebser.8 At the pleading stage, the court draws reasonable inferences in Plaintiffs’ favor and assumes that Ms. Margulis and Professor Hogan are “appropriate persons,” as each occupied a supervisory role. See Francis v. Kings Pork Manor, Inc., 992 F.3d 67, 72 (2d Cir. 2021) (“In assessing the complaint, we ‘accept all factual allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor.’ ”) (quoting Austin v. Town of Farmington, 826 F.3d 622, 625 (2d Cir. 2016)).

Accepting Plaintiffs’ allegations as true, Plaintiffs plausibly plead that the College neglected to take corrective action; inadequately investigated their complaints; declined to adjudicate their claims; and, when a formal Title IX complaint was filed, allowed Professor Noonan to retire mid-investigation without punishment. It also allegedly failed to apprise Plaintiffs of their rights and options and failed to provide sufficient academic supports.

Accordingly, the court concluded that since plaintiffs have adequately pled the essential elements of their claim, it denied defendant’s motion to dismiss on failure to plausibly plead deliberate indifference grounds.

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