Judge grants preliminary approval of $14 million lawsuit settlement

by The Dartmouth Senior Staff | 1/30/20 2:20am

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Dartmouth and the nine plaintiffs suing the College first announced a settlement in August.

Source: Staff Photo

A federal judge on Wednesday granted preliminary approval of a $14-million settlement in the class action sexual misconduct lawsuit against Dartmouth brought by nine former students who claim the College turned a blind eye to years of allegations against three former psychological and brain sciences professors.

In a 43-page order, Judge Landya McCafferty of the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire wrote that the court will likely approve the proposed settlement and scheduled a hearing on June 25 to help the court determine final approval of the terms.

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote in an email statement that the College is “pleased” the court granted preliminary approval, noting the judge’s recognition that the settlement “would achieve an efficient resolution of the class claims, avoiding unnecessary and duplicative litigation for all parties and the judicial system.”

“We remain grateful for the courage of the plaintiffs who came forward alongside other students to shine a light on the unacceptable environment created by three former faculty members,” Lawrence wrote.

Under the terms of the settlement, which the parties first announced in August, the College condemned the actions of the former professors but admitted no liability for their conduct; Dartmouth, however, sought “to eliminate the burden, expense, inconvenience, uncertainty, distraction, and risk of further litigation,” as well as to compensate any individuals harmed by the conduct of the professors. 

The College agreed to a $14-million compensation for the settlement class, which was broadly defined to include the original plaintiffs as well as any current or former female student of the PBS department who can attest to have experienced harm as a result of the professors’ actions. Every member of the proposed class, unless they choose to opt out, is entitled to a payment of at least $1,000, subject to the evaluation of an independent claims expert, whom the court named to be Maria Walsh of Boston, MA.

In an email statement to The Dartmouth, Deborah Marcuse, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said the settlement brings “significant benefits” to both current class members and future students.

“We are supremely proud of the plaintiffs who pursued justice here,” Marcuse wrote. “As they had hoped, Dartmouth will be a stronger institution as a result of their courage.”

The lawsuit, Rapuano et. al. v. Trustees of Dartmouth College, was filed in Nov. 2018 by seven former students who accused the three professors — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — of having turned the PBS department into a “21st-century Animal House” and claimed that Dartmouth did not sufficiently act to address over 16 years’ worth of allegations against the professors. 

The professors were initially placed on leave in 2017 after a Title IX investigation by the College. In October of that year, The Dartmouth reported on the professors’ absence from campus, prompting the New Hampshire attorney general’s office to open a criminal investigation, which is still ongoing. In a response to the lawsuit filed in Jan. 2019, the College denied many of the plaintiffs’ claims and argued that “prompt action” was taken in response to the allegations. 

In May 2019, two additional former students, whose identities were kept anonymous, joined as plaintiffs to the lawsuit, bringing to light additional allegations against the former professors and also prompting a response by the College challenging the ability of litigants to justifiably use pseudonyms when making specific accusations. However, later that month, the two parties announced that they would be seeking mediation, and the settlement was announced after three days of negotiations.