Judge in Dartmouth lawsuit says settlement is likely

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2020 9:55:46 AM
Modified: 7/16/2020 11:00:33 AM

CONCORD — One of the nine named plaintiffs in a $14 million class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth College said in court Thursday that she was denied choice when she allegedly was sexually assaulted by a former professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

But by participating in the suit, which alleged that Dartmouth administrators turned a blind eye to sexual misconduct in the department, and sharing her story, Vassiki Chauhan said she has regained a sense of agency. Chauhan testified during a fairness hearing held in federal court in Concord via Zoom on Thursday morning.

Chauhan said she has become “one who has been able to aspire for some semblance of justice.”

Still a graduate student at Dartmouth, Chauhan said she has given up a long-held dream of becoming a scientist. Instead, she said she has become an activist.

“I will focus my energy on creating a culture of consent,” she said.

Chauhan was one of three of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, first filed in November 2018, who spoke during Thursday’s hearing.

The parties in the lawsuit said they were glad to be nearing the conclusion of the case. The college admits no wrongdoing in the proposed settlement, which the parties reached last summer. In January, Chief Judge Landya McCafferty gave the settlement her preliminary approval. On Thursday, the judge thanked all involved with the case for their work to bring it to a conclusion and said she is “likely” to give her final approval.

“To take a case like this with such highly charged allegations and reduce it to a settlement is commendable,” McCafferty said at the end of the 50-minute hearing. The attorneys in the case “have all performed a public service,” she said. She also commended Dartmouth, saying “settling this case in this manner is a credit to the institution.” In addition, she said the plaintiffs showed “courage, persistence and strength.”

In addition to distributing the $14 million — less attorneys’ fees and other costs — to 74 members of the class, the college through the settlement also commits to a range of reforms in the way it addresses misconduct on campus and in how it aims to increase the diversity of its faculty.

The members of the proposed class include the nine named plaintiffs, as well as current and former women graduate students at Dartmouth who were advisees or assistants of one of the three professors or co-authored papers with the professors; as well as other graduate students in the PBS department who say they experienced harm related to the professors’ alleged misconduct.

Under the proposed settlement, each class member would be guaranteed a base payment of $1,000 and the named plaintiffs would receive “service payments” of $75,000. Class members who submit claim forms also will be eligible for additional payments. The size of those payments would 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.

Six women who qualified to be members of the class asked to be excluded, potentially preserving their own right to pursue separate legal action if they choose.

It’s “not possible to fully restore what each member of this class has lost,” Sasha Brietzke, one of the named plaintiffs who is still a graduate student at Dartmouth, said during the hearing.

Brietzke described the toll the case has taken on their mental and physical health, as well as their ability to focus on their work.

But, Brietzke said, the settlement aims to “help restore wholeness” and to pave the way so that in the future female students at Dartmouth and other institutions won’t face the same mistreatment, which the plaintiffs alleged included derogatory comments about their appearance, gender-based questions about their scientific abilities and even sexual violence.

“Future women must be treated better by the academy,” Brietzke said.

The three professors, Bill Kelley, Paul Whalen and Todd Heatherton, all resigned or retired in 2018 before the college could fire them following internal investigations into their misconduct. They are all barred from campus, said Dartmouth Provost Joseph Helble during the hearing.

Chauhan has asserted that Whalen assaulted her at his home. The third woman who spoke on Thursday, Kristina Rapuano, has said Kelley sexually assaulted her at a hotel during an academic conference and subsequently pressured her to continue a sexual relationship with him. Kelley and Whalen could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

The professors’ “conduct flies in the face of our mission as an institution,” he said.

Helble thanked the plaintiffs for bringing the professors’ actions to light and welcomed the resolution to the case, including the steps toward reform the college has undertaken through its Campus, Culture and Climate Initiative.

“I view this as an important partnership as we collectively seek to address wrongs in higher education,” Helble said.

In addition to working to recruit more diverse faculty members, the college through the settlement has committed to adding members to an external advisory committee tasked with evaluating the initiative’s success and expanded the college’s partnership with WISE, the Lebanon-based nonprofit group that offers support for survivors of gender-based violence and has an office on Dartmouth’s campus.

A criminal investigation into the professors’ alleged misconduct remains ongoing, Senior Assistant Attorney General Geoffrey Ward said in an email last month.

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

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