A federal judge on Monday allowed a majority of the counts in a lawsuit filed last year against Harvard alleging that the University ignored sexual harassment and retaliation complaints against professor John L. Comaroff to proceed while dismissing one count.
In an 81-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Judith G. Dein wrote that the May 2020 Crimson investigation into allegations against Comaroff and two other senior Anthropology professors, as well as subsequent reporting by The Chronicle of Higher Education, “support a finding that Harvard engaged in a long-term pattern and practice of indifference to complaints of sexual harassment against professors in that Department.”
Dein denied most of Harvard’s motion to dismiss nine of 10 counts of the lawsuit. She dismissed count three, writing that “plaintiffs have failed to allege plausible claims against Harvard for gender discrimination under Title IX.”
Last week, Dein denied Harvard’s motion for summary judgment on the 10th count, which alleges Harvard violated Kilburn’s privacy by obtaining and distributing her private therapy notes as part of an internal investigation. In her ruling, Dein wrote Harvard’s arguments were “unpersuasive” and that the “facts are sufficient” to support Kilburn’s claim that the University illegally breached its fiduciary duty.
A total of nine counts of the lawsuit will proceed to discovery.
The plaintiffs — Anthropology graduate students Margaret G. Czerwienski, Lilia M. Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava — first sued Harvard in February 2022, claiming that Harvard was aware of complaints about Comaroff’s alleged misconduct as a faculty member at the University of Chicago when he was hired in 2012 and mishandled reports of sexual harassment and professional retaliation since then.
The suit was amended in June to include additional allegations of sexual harassment from Comaroff’s time as a professor at UChicago. Comaroff and his lawyers have consistently denied all allegations of misconduct made against him.
Over the summer, Harvard asked the court to dismiss counts one through nine of the lawsuit, which claim Harvard’s response to complaints against the professor violated federal law.
On a count-by-count basis, Dein refuted the University’s arguments, except for count three. On count one — which alleged the University maintained “a policy and practice of deliberate indifference” — Dein wrote that “the issue whether Harvard acted with deliberate indifference must await further development of the record.”
Dein rejected Harvard’s argument that the plaintiffs failed to “plausibly” allege Harvard had “a policy and practice of deliberate indifference to sexual misconduct in the Anthropology Department.”
Dein wrote that Comaroff’s stature as a leader in his field, as well as the plaintiffs’ allegation that “no one in a position of authority at Harvard” was “willing” to confront him, meant the plaintiff’s allegations were “sufficient to satisfy” a standard of “severe and pervasive” conduct — a legal requirement for claiming a “hostile educational environment” under Title IX regulations.
“A factfinder could reasonably conclude that Comaroff’s threats against graduate students in his Department were severe enough, and so pervaded their educational environment, that they undermined the victims’ educational opportunities,” she wrote.
Dein similarly rejected Harvard’s arguments of dismissing counts two and four through nine, which included Harvard’s assertion that the statute of limitations on some of the charges had expired.
Dein, however, dismissed count three of the lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs alleged that Harvard engaged in gender discrimination and argued that the University’s Title IX policies are structurally biased against women.
“The problem with the plaintiffs’ theory, however, is that they have failed to allege any facts, as opposed to conclusory allegations, to show that Harvard’s alleged practice of failing to credit complaints of sexual misconduct without independent corroboration applies only to women who file complaints and not to men who file complaints of sexual misconduct,” Dein wrote.
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment.
One of Comaroff’s attorneys, Ruth K. O’Meara-Costello ’02, wrote in a statement that discovery will show that “the case against Harvard is built on a house of cards.”
“The decision on the motion to dismiss does not reflect factual findings by the court, merely that the court believes the case against Harvard should proceed to discovery,” O’Meara-Costello wrote. “As the case moves forward, we believe the evidence will show that Professor Comaroff did not engage in any of the activities he’s been wrongly accused of.”
The attorneys representing the plaintiffs — Russell L. Kornblith, Sean R. Ouellette ’12, and Carolin Guentert — wrote in a statement that “this ruling is an important victory for our clients and other survivors.” Ouellette is a former Crimson Editorial editor.
“We are pleased that Judge Dein denied Harvard’s attempt to dismiss this case and avoid responsibility, and we look forward to litigating our clients’ claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under Title IX and violations of Massachusetts civil rights statutes and common law,” they wrote. “Our clients showed great courage in speaking up, and this victory should hearten survivors and their advocates everywhere.”
In a statement, Rosalie P. Couture ’26, an organizer with campus advocacy group Our Harvard Can Do Better, wrote that she was “heartened” by the judge’s ruling.
“Survivors of Comaroff’s abuse deserve justice, and Harvard must be held accountable for its role in that abuse,” Couture wrote. “We hope this lawsuit, combined with ongoing direct action, will force Harvard’s leadership to take significant and urgent action.”
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.