KJK Student & Athlete Defense attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler appeared before Judge Denise J. Casper in a Boston courtroom Friday to argue on behalf of their client, former Harvard University student Damilare Sonoiki, who was denied his degree following allegations of sexual assault made against him by three fellow students. Sonoiki is suing Harvard for the unfair process he was subjected to – which Stone and Supler argue was marred by implicit racial bias – and egregious violations of his rights.
Harvard Says It Was Right To Hold Diploma For Assault Probe
By Brian Dowling
Law360, Boston (February 28, 2020, 4:19 PM EST) — Harvard University was right to withhold a student’s diploma while it investigated and later upheld sexual assault allegations against him, the Ivy League school told a Massachusetts federal judge Friday, trying to diffuse claims by the former student that its inquiry was byzantine and unfair.
In a short hearing Friday morning on Harvard’s motion to dismiss Damilare Sonoiki’s lawsuit, lawyers for the university told Judge Denise J. Casper that Sonoiki got every single right and process that was laid out for him in his student handbook and other documents.
Harvard counsel Anton Metlitsky of O’Melveny & Myers LLP took on Sonoiki’s argument that the charges against him were untimely because it took the three women 20 days, one year, and a year and nine months, respectively, to make formal complaints. Sonoiki has cited the school’s handbook, which says complaints “must ordinarily be brought to the college in a timely manner.”
“I don’t think any reasonable student would read that and say if I commit a serious sexual assault one year and nine months ago, that means that the Ad Board has to let it go,” Metlitsky said, referencing the Harvard College Administrative Board, which reviews misconduct claims. “Nothing says a year and nine months is untimely, and the word ‘ordinarily’ is by its term a delegation of discretion.”
Days before Sonoiki’s graduation in May 2013, two women made complaints to Harvard that he sexually assaulted them, and a third added her complaint days after the commencement exercises. The school let Sonoiki walk at graduation, the complaint said, but the university withheld his diploma because of the pending complaints.
The university upheld the complaints in November 2013. Sonoiki said in his filings that the three sexual encounters were consensual. Sonoiki filed this breach-of-contract suit against Harvard in October 2019.
Sonoiki’s attorney, Susan Stone of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz LLP, said the central issue in the case is that the language of Harvard’s contract with students like Sonoiki — strewn over multiple documents that often don’t align — is far too confusing to follow and should be sorted out by a jury at trial.
“Contracts should be easy to read and understand, and if at any time there’s confusion or debate, this matter should be either allowed for some discovery, or advance and have a jury decide as a matter of fact how to construe it,” Stone told the court.
For instance, a school document says students “not in good standing or who have disciplinary charges” laid against them don’t get degrees and that “except in the rarest of circumstances” students involved in disciplinary cases ultimately will graduate, Sonoiki said in court papers. Harvard didn’t issue charges from the complaints until June. Therefore, since he was in good standing, he should have received a degree, Sonoiki said.
But Harvard points to school documents that explain that a student can’t get a degree while there is a pending disciplinary case and that a complaint, not a charge, starts such a case.
Though he lacked his degree, Sonoiki went on to work at Goldman Sachs as a stock analyst but was later charged with insider trading by tipping off NFL linebacker Mychal Kendricks to deals before the companies announced them publicly. He pled guilty and is awaiting sentencing in the federal case.
Goldman Sachs was not immediately available to answer questions about how or why it hired Sonoiki if Harvard had withheld his degree.
Sonoiki is represented by Susan C. Stone and Kristina W. Supler of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz LLP.
Harvard is represented by Anton Metlitsky of O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Victoria L. Steinberg of Todd & Weld LLP.
The case is Sonoiki v. Harvard University et al., case number 1:19-cv-12172, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
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