A two-and-a-half-year drama has moved from a local campus disciplinary panel to a federal court room.
It involves a former University of Maryland student accused and later exonerated of a sexual assault accusation who has now filed a civil lawsuit against the school, two Title IX coordinators and two former students who were part of a campus sexual assault advocacy group. The suit is asking for at least $1 million in damages.
According to the lawsuit, on Oct. 27, 2020, a student referred to in the suit as “Jane Roe” accused two students — including the plaintiff in this case who uses the pseudonym of “John Doe” — of sexually assaulting her.
After an investigation and a hearing conducted by the University of Maryland’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct on Sept. 1, 2021, the hearing officer found “Roe” lacked credibility and found both “Doe” and his friend “Jacob Poe” were not responsible for the two claims that she made, according to “Doe’s” suit. The man referred to now as “Jacob Poe” makes no other appearance in this case.
Suit: Members of campus group tried to ‘ruin his life’
The civil lawsuit filed by “John Doe” claims the 10-month process, from the day the accusation was formally made to when he was cleared, cost “Doe” over $100,000 in legal fees. “Doe’s” Virginia-based lawyers — who also represented him in the school’s sexual misconduct investigation — have repeatedly declined to comment on the case.
The suit claims even after the university panel cleared “Doe,” he was repeatedly defamed by two former students, who are identified as “Defendant 2” and “Defendant 3” in the lawsuit. Their names were originally part of the lawsuit, but they were granted anonymity by the judge because of the impact this case could have on them professionally. The two students are being sued for defamation.
“Doe” alleges in the suit that the two students, who used to hold leadership roles in the on-campus organization “Preventing Sexual Assault,” which is recognized by the school, repeatedly called him a rapist to his friends and classmates despite knowing he was cleared of the sexual assault allegations.
He claims in the suit that they “undertook a campaign” against him to “ruin his life at the University” and that their continued defamation ultimately caused him to be kicked off the university’s club lacrosse team.
When first approached last year, a Baltimore County-based lawyer representing the two students pro-bono declined to comment. He’s now the lead counsel for only Defendant 2, and again declined any comment this week.
School’s Title IX office accused of indifference
“Doe” also accuses the university, as well as Title IX coordinator Grace Karmiol and deputy coordinator Angela Nastase, of allowing the defamation to go on without punishment.
His lawsuit says the school violated his Title IX rights by acting with indifference to the harassment he received because he was a male, and says the school also ultimately participated in retaliation against him after he was “slandered as a ‘rapist’” and then kicked off his club team.
Karmiol and Nastase are accused of violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in their individual capacities by not investigating his complaints against Defendants 2 and 3. “Doe” claims that showed bias toward females and against males.
In particular, the lawsuit says Karmiol initially offered to reach out on his behalf to put a stop to what the suit calls the “defamatory actions” of Defendants 2 and 3, but ultimately refused to do anything.
The Maryland Office of the Attorney General is representing the university and the Title IX coordinators in the case. The office declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The suit claims “Roe” — whose 2020 accusations first led to “Doe” being investigated for alleged sexual assault — has continued to publicly harass “Doe,” including calling him a rapist, but she is not being sued.
The lawsuit says “Roe” and her boyfriend confronted “Doe” outside of a bar in May of 2022, and that “Roe’s” boyfriend attempted to physically assault him. The plaintiff claims he complained to the school’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, but was told the incident did not constitute harassment or retaliation, and was dismissed.
“Doe,” and Defendants 2 and 3 — the two students associated with the campus sexual assault advocacy group — have since graduated from the school.
In court this week
The lawsuit was filed nearly a year ago when all three students were still enrolled at the university. Last fall, the attorneys representing the various defendants all filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit, and that motion sat dormant for more than six months until a hearing on Tuesday.
In that hearing, which lasted just over an hour, U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis pushed back hard on the state’s arguments, though it was a hearing that also required her to take a viewpoint most favorable to the “John Doe” plaintiff.
In motions filed last August, and then repeated in court on Tuesday, an assistant Maryland attorney general handling the case for the university and its two employees argued “Doe” “fails to allege a plausible claim” under Title IX, and also “fails to allege a plausible claim for violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The state has also argued the two complaints made against Karmiol and Nastase in their individual capacities should be dismissed because they’re entitled to qualified immunity for acting within the scopes of their government employment.
Assistant Attorney Gen. Ann Sheridan argued in a filing that “John Doe” can’t factually state that he was discriminated against because of his gender. In her motion, she states “it is not at all clear that Ms. Roe and Defendants Two and Three were motivated by bias against males, as opposed to personal animus against Mr. Doe or mistaken perceptions about his conduct toward Ms. Roe, when they accused Doe of sexual misconduct.”
The filing went on to argue that “Doe alleges no facts that would cause us to plausibly infer he was harassed because he is a man, rather than because his harassers believed he raped their friend.”
Judge allows case to move forward
In court, Sheridan also argued that a ruling in the plaintiff’s favor could open the “floodgates” by allowing anyone exonerated over a Title IX complaint to make similar claims, though Xinis seemed to be somewhat skeptical of that idea. Sheridan also worried the court could put schools in a difficult position of regulating speech, which constitutionally, it can’t do.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Xinis repeatedly stressed this was a “very important case,” and one that wasn’t easy. But she also hinted it may not be a slam dunk case for the plaintiff.
At one point, Xinis seemed skeptical of the allegation that the Title IX office acted with indifference to the plaintiff, by noting the Title IX office at least considered his complaint, and that not doing anything about it isn’t the same thing as being indifferent to it.
In the end, the judge declined to dismiss the case at this point and is allowing discovery to move forward in a way that would reveal more facts before considering any requests for summary judgment. Xinis also made it clear that she’ll closely supervise that process too, warning not to expect “a frolic for the plaintiff.” She also suggested arguments for qualified immunity for the two university employees could still win later in the future.
Defendant 2 was also denied her request for dismissal, despite offering evidence she says proves she couldn’t have defamed “Doe” because she wasn’t even on campus in the fall of 2021, when at least one of the alleged defamatory comments were said to have occurred.
At the time, she was recovering from a medical condition. Her lawyer argued in court that, essentially, the wrong person was being sued. Ultimately, evidence offered up in discovery could still lead the court to remove her from the case if it’s proven that she wasn’t involved.
The state of Maryland now has three weeks to file a detailed response to the lawsuit. From there, both sides will start scheduling future deadlines and responses.
Editors note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said two Title IX staffers initially offered to reach out on Karmiol’s behalf to stop what the suit calls “defamatory actions.”
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