Ithaca, N.Y. — A new lawsuit filed Thursday against Cornell claims the university wrongly expelled a male student for what was “clearly consensual” sex.


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The former student, a senior at Cornell, was found guilty of sexual misconduct by the university’s judicial system after an encounter with a female student in December 2013, according to the lawsuit. There is no indication criminal charges were ever pursued.

The male student is referred to throughout the lawsuit under the pseudonym “John Doe.” He was expelled in May 2014, shortly before his graduation, and has had his diploma withheld and his reputation “tarnished” as a result, according to the lawsuit.

In a 53-page complaint, the student’s attorneys launch a wide-ranging critique of both Cornell’s handling of the specific case and the overall framework of the university’s judicial system.

The lawsuit also assails the university’s decision in 2013 to lower the burden of proof for sexual assault cases from a “clear and convincing” standard of evidence to the much-lower “preponderance” standard of evidence.

But Cornell failed to administer even this lower standard of evidence fairly, the lawsuit contends.

“Cornell has created an environment where an accused male student is fundamentally denied due process by being prosecuted through the conduct process under a presumption of guilt,” the lawsuit states.

“By allowing the (Judicial Office) to take on the role of ‘judge, jury and executioner,” there were no safeguards or checks and balances in place along the way to ensure that the JA’s ultimate conclusion was objective and sound.”

A Cornell spokesperson said in a statement that the university does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In the past, the university has defended the lower burden of proof and maintained that it will not lead to wrongful convictions of students accused of sexual assault.

Cornell and universities across the country have been under pressure from the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to make it easier for women to initiate sexual assault proceedings.

The crackdown on sexual assault on college campuses has won widespread acclaim from victim’s rights advocates and feminist organizations, who say as many as 1-in-5 women are victims of “completed or attempted” sexual assault in college, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the effort has also triggered an occasionally fierce backlash from those who say the new measures go too far and imperil the rights of the accused.

More than two dozen suits against colleges across the country have been filed since the start of last year, with men “largely alleging that the schools’ disciplinary processes are stacked against them,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The new lawsuit

The woman who accused “John Doe” of sexual assault at Cornell is referred as “Jane Doe” throughout the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, she claimed two months after the encounter that she had been too intoxicated to consent to having sex with “John Doe.” That claim should have been found to be inconsistent with the facts, the lawsuit states.

“A fair reading of the evidence reveals that Jane Doe’s account is contradicted and inconsistent, while John Doe’s account is corroborated and substantiated. Yet the burden of proof was incorrectly placed on John Doe,” the lawsuit states.

In support of this claim, the lawsuit makes the following points:

— Victim’s level of intoxication

There was “no credible or reliable evidence” that Jane Doe was too drunk to consent to sex, according to the lawsuit.

“All of the eye-witnesses to her behavior just prior to the incident concurred that she was in control and was not intoxicated,” the lawsuit says.

In particular, the lawsuit says an unreasonably high Blood Alcohol Content level of the victim was invented weeks later after the encounter, but wrongly taken as fact by the investigating officials.

— Witness testimony

The lawsuit says that there’s no evidence from witnesses suggesting John Doe acted in a predatory manner.

“In no way do the collective statements from the witnesses lead to the conclusion that John Doe was a ‘sexual predator’ or engaged in ‘predatory behavior,’ yet that was the conclusion presented to the Panel,” the lawsuit states.

— Investigation took too long

The lawsuit says the university failed to issue its investigative report until 71 days after administrators met with Jane Doe about the alleged attack, “despite Cornell’s self-imposed policy that an investigation be completed and a finding rendered within 60 days.”

— Removal of bra

With several other witnesses in the room, “At some point during the conversation, Jane Doe removed her bra from under her shirt, in front of the whole group. As she did this, she motioned toward John Doe and got closer to him,” the lawsuit says.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.