Judge allows disabled veteran’s gender discrimination lawsuit against university to proceed

A lawsuit that alleges anti-male gender discrimination by university officials against a disabled veteran will be allowed to continue, a federal judge recently ruled. 

Former graduate student John Harnois’s lawsuit alleges that several officials at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth sought to railroad him into leaving the school under threat of a baseless Title IX investigation, The College Fix reported. Harnois is currently representing himself in the case.

U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns rejected a motion to dismiss a number of Harnois’s claims, allowing them to proceed to the next legal phase. In particular, the claims of selective enforcement of the Title IX gender bias law, an erroneous outcome, the creation of a hostile work environment, and retaliation under Title IX will move to the discovery phase. The judge also approved claims related to violations of due process and state civil rights.

The background

As reported by The Fix, and detailed in the Oct. 28 ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Stearns, Harnois enrolled at UMass-Dartmouth in April 2015 to pursue a master’s degree and Ph.D. in oceanography. He was assigned a mentor and disclosed in the process a prior criminal conviction, which he was told would be kept confidential as he was placed in the “FastTrak” program toward the Ph.D. program.

According to Harnois’s suit, everything was going well until the spring of 2016 when the school’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Cynthia Cummings accused Harnois of “fraudulently disclosing” his prior criminal conviction and alleged that Title IX complaints had been filed against him. In what Harnois felt was blackmail, Cummings demanded Harnois voluntarily withdraw from the program — or be charged with trespass and be subjected to a Title IX investigation.

When he refused, an investigation was summarily opened against him. Cummings then proceeded to have him suspended and banned from campus and spread his personal information around campus, to faculty and students alike. Furthermore, as Harnois attempted to learn what he was being accused of, Cummings and others refused to provide him with details of the charges or a copy of the investigation report.

By the summer, Harnois said he began suffering from “panic attacks, insomnia, headaches, depression, PTSD flashbacks, loss of hair and hair color, and grinding of teeth so severe that two molars cracked.” He eventually took a leave of absence to seek psychological treatment.

By the fall, the school informed him that the Title IX investigation had not found sufficient evidence of a violation — yet he was still punished. Harnois was allowed back to school, but in a limited fashion which included him being removed from the “FastTrak” program, “being confined to a remote, supervised workspace,” and “exiled” from most faculty and students. He was also “sanctioned with a warning in writing.”

Title IX abuses

Harnois filed a lawsuit in April 2019, and as the basis for his selective enforcement claim, Harnois alleged that Cummings had threatened, “If you won’t leave, I’ll get your kind with a Title IX investigation,” which he took to mean his gender as a male. He noted that the school was “hypersensitized” to Title IX claims following a recent settlement with a female employee, and said that school officials expressed the opinion that “sexual assaults are perpetrated [exclusively] by men.”

Harnois had also argued, and the judge agreed, that there were “procedural flaws” in the school’s investigation against him, such as not allowing him to see the specific allegations against him, the withholding of exculpatory evidence, and “the official solicitation of baseless complaints from Harnois’s female fellow students.” According to the court documents (pg. 8):

During its investigation, UMass Dartmouth’s Title IX office asked two female students in Harnois’s graduate program to file complaints against Harnois but both refused to do so. Eventually, the Title IX investigator contacted every female student in Harnois’s classes in search of derogatory information.

The judge also agreed that Harnois was “intentionally subjected to unfounded allegations and an unfair process” which created a “hostile environment” that no reasonable person could be expected to endure.

This is potentially a huge case with far-reaching implications that could blow open the misuse of Title IX by school officials against men.

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