Under proposed settlement, plaintiffs in Dartmouth College lawsuit will each receive at least $75,000

  • FILE — In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evans, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. Dartmouth College has settled a federal lawsuit with nine women, including those pictured, who sued the school over allegations that it ignored years of harassment and assault by former psychology department professors. In a statement Tuesday, Aug. 6, both sides say the settlement includes $14 million for students who can prove they suffered abuse. The settlement's still subject to approval by a U.S. District Court judge in Concord. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) Mary Altaffer

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2019 4:43:52 PM
Modified: 9/13/2019 4:41:31 PM

HANOVER — Nine plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit stemming from alleged sexual misconduct by three former Dartmouth College professors will receive at least $75,000 each and can apply to receive more, according to a proposed settlement filed in federal court.

The settlement, which is subject to approval by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Landya McCafferty, outlines how the $14 million settlement amount will be distributed and to whom. The agreement, which was filed Tuesday in Concord, also outlines several efforts the college has pledged to make to address sexual misconduct on campus.

“The signing of this settlement agreement is only the beginning of (the plaintiffs’) historic partnership with Dartmouth, the goal of which is to ensure that their experiences inform and guide the College’s commitment to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Deborah Marcuse, a Baltimore-based attorney whose firm is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“We also hope and believe that their efforts have already transformed, and will continue to transform, the scientific and academic communities in which they work.”

The plaintiffs alleged in their complaint, first filed last November, that college administrators turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and assault for years, despite knowing about the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences professors’ behavior, which the plaintiffs alleged included furnishing alcohol, discussing sexual preferences in professional settings, engaging in unwanted sexual relationships and threatening their professional careers.

Dartmouth contends administrators took steps to remove the professors — Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley — once the allegations of misconduct came to their attention and admits no wrongdoing as a part of the settlement, which both parties first announced last month. The parties are bound by a non-disparagement provision.

Each of the nine plaintiffs will receive at least $75,000. Supplemental payments to them will be determined by an independent claims expert — a neutral third-party who will be retained by the plaintiffs’ attorneys — based on several factors, including: the severity of allegations; the duration of the mistreatment; and the severity and duration of resulting emotional distress, physical illness, economic losses and other harm.

Other women who were at Dartmouth who are deemed to be eligible under the class-action suit will receive at least $1,000, and could also be eligible for supplemental payments. The class is proposed to consist of current and former women graduate students at Dartmouth who were graduate advisees or assistants of one of the three professors between April 1, 2012 and Aug. 31, 2017, and those who co-authored papers with the professors during that time period. The class also includes those who do not fit within those categories, but were graduate students in the department between March 31, 2015, and Aug. 31, 2017, and say they experienced harm as a result of the professors’ alleged misconduct.

Attorneys’ fees are not to exceed 35% of the $14 million, or $4.9 million, according to the filing.

Eric MacLeish, a Boston-based attorney who is not involved in this case, but has represented victims of clerical abuse and litigated against several private schools in New England, said that while class-actions in cases involving sexual assault are rare, the way the settlement is proposed “makes a lot of sense.”

Each of the named plaintiffs “might have gotten more individually,” so MacLeish said it makes sense for them to each get a payment, and he said $75,000 per named plaintiff seemed “reasonable.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon lauded the settlement as “an opportunity to forge a historic partnership with the plaintiffs to improve Dartmouth.”

The plaintiffs will have a role in the college’s ongoing efforts to “address issues of sexual misconduct and to ensure that our campus is a welcoming and supportive learning environment for all,” Hanlon said in the statement.

In addition to the money for the plaintiffs, the filing indicates that the college will devote $1 million over the next 10 years to expanding the use of the Provost’s Diversity Recruitment Fund to support the hiring of junior and senior faculty members with expertise in gender and racial discrimination and violence.

The college will add two additional members to an external advisory committee that is tasked with evaluating the college’s progress in its “Campus Climate and Culture Initiative,” which was announced last January and aims to “foster healthy, professional and nurturing relationships among faculty, staff and students.”

The new committee members, who will be jointly nominated by Dartmouth and the plaintiffs, will have no connection to Dartmouth. The committee and the provost also will hold meetings with plaintiffs to allow them to offer input.

The college also will expand its relationship with WISE, the Lebanon-based nonprofit group that offers support for survivors of gender-based violence and has an office on Dartmouth’s campus. This expansion will either include adding staff to the campus office or providing $500,000 to WISE over a five-year time period, depending which method “would be the preferable mechanism for advocacy and support,” according to Tuesday’s filing.

The organization, which had an operating budget of $1.35 million for the year that ended June 30, has not been a party to the suit, WISE Executive Director Peggy O’Neil said.

Members of the Dartmouth community currently have access to WISE’s services through a dedicated campus advocate, as well as the organization’s 24-hour helpline, 866-348-WISE, O’Neil said.

“We’re really interested in hearing from Dartmouth and hearing from people that access WISE services how that money can be most helpful,” O’Neil said.

More broadly, O’Neil said, “WISE doesn’t lose sight of the tremendous strength that the plaintiffs needed to go through this … It couldn’t have been easy.”

Heatherton, Whalen and Kelley, who were ousted from their tenured jobs at Dartmouth last summer, were not defendants in the lawsuit.

A criminal investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is ongoing.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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