Home » Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Case Alleging Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment of Doctoral Student

Court Denies Preliminary Injunction in Case Alleging Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment of Doctoral Student

From today’s decision by Judge Renée Marie Bumb (D.N.J.) in Doe v. Rowan Univ.:

Plaintiff Jane Doe is a PhD student at Rowan University in the Department of Clinical Psychology. She alleges that between August 2019 and January 2021, … her professor and mentor, … Dr. Greeson[,] repeatedly asked her out on dates to lunch, dinner, and late-night drinks, and would forcibly hug Plaintiff without her consent while they were alone in his office with the door shut. Plaintiff alleges that when she told Dr. Greeson in July 2021 that she planned on leaving his lab due to his repeated advances, Dr. Greeson responded by telling Plaintiff that if she left his lab, he “would do everything in [his] power to get [her] dismissed” from the PhD program. {Dr. Greeson is subject to a no-contact order against Plaintiff.}

As part of the University’s clinical psychology graduate program, students must pass certain program benchmarks, including a qualifying PhD examination …. To pass the Qualifying Exam and matriculate within the program, a PhD student must receive passing marks across seven different content areas. If a PhD student fails four or more content areas, the student is deemed to have failed the entire exam and must re-take the exam at the next available testing date. A student who fails the Qualifying Exam in part or entirely twice will be dismissed from the program. The exams are blindly graded.

On October 25, 2021, the Department notified Plaintiff that she failed her first attempt at the Qualifying Exam. Because she passed only four of the seven content areas, she would have to re-take the entirety of the Qualifying Exam. [According to the declaration that the court cited for this proposition, she actually failed four of the seven content areas. -EV] On August 16 and 18, 2022, Plaintiff re-took the Qualifying Exam. She failed, only passing six of the seven content areas. The only section she failed—Integrated Health—was a section that Dr. Greeson (and another professor) scored. {Plaintiff alleges that the second exam grader is “known to be a close colleague and collaborator with Defendant Greeson.”} This issue was later addressed by the Department as discussed below.

Importantly, Plaintiff’s struggles with the Qualifying Exam were not the first time she had difficulty with program benchmarks. Since 2020, Plaintiff has been on academic probation. While Plaintiff has excellent coursework grades and some strong evaluations, she failed her (i) First Year Research Project (twice); (ii) Master’s Defense Thesis and (iii) her Case Conceptualization Benchmark—an oral presentation based on practicum experience. {Plaintiff mentions none of these failures in her pleading. After they were raised by Defendants in their opposition brief, she averred in a “counter affidavit” attached to her reply brief that she failed these benchmarks—also graded by Dr. Greeson— because she turned down Dr. Greeson’s advances.}

While Plaintiff ultimately passed both her First Year Research Project and Master’s Defense Thesis, she has not yet passed her Case Conceptualization Benchmark. Like the Qualifying Exam, if a PhD student fails the Case Conceptualization Benchmark in part or entirely twice, she will be dismissed from the program.

On October 6, 2022, Plaintiff timely appealed her second failure of the Qualifying Exam. Plaintiff’s appeal included a request that Dr. Greeson be excluded from the appeal process and to “throw[] out” Dr. Greeson’s grade from her failed Qualifying Exam section. Four days after filing her appeal—and nearly two years after Plaintiff alleges that Dr. Greeson’s harassing behavior ended—Plaintiff filed a Title IX complaint against Dr. Greeson. The University’s Title IX investigation remains ongoing…. [The University states] that the Department … honored her request to exclude Dr. Greeson’s grade, and that two new graders had re-scored Plaintiff’s Integrated Health section. After re-grading, Plaintiff still failed the Integrated Health section of the Qualifying Exam….

The Department’s Clinical Training Committee heard Plaintiff’s appeal on August 10, 2023, and voted to deny it on August 11, 2023…. On August 23, 2023, the Clinical Training Committee informed Plaintiff that based on the outcome of her appeal and her continuing probationary status in the program, she was required to cease all program-related activities including teaching, taking courses, and applying for her fall internship, unless and until she prevailed on [a further] appeal before the Dean. Plaintiff alleges that if she does not apply for a fall internship by October 2023, she will have to repeat another year in the PhD program…. On September 21, 2023, Dr. Elisabeth Morlino, Associate Dean for Academics and Research Affairs, informed Plaintiff that her [further] appeal was denied. Dr. Morlino explained that the Dean’s Committee considered Plaintiff’s allegations of misconduct against Dr. Greeson but “found no evidence that the score on the second attempt … was [compromised] in any way” given the blind grading system.

Having twice failed the Qualifying Exam and unsuccessful in her appeals, Dr. Haugh informed Plaintiff that she was dismissed from the Clinical Psychology PhD program but had the right to appeal the dismissal decision with the Dean’s office within ten business days…. As of the date of this Opinion, it is not clear whether Plaintiff has formally taken an appeal of her dismissal but all of the evidence submitted indicates that she plans to do so.

Doe sought a preliminary injunction reinstating her, but the court said no:

The evidence submitted demonstrates that Plaintiff is unlikely to succeed on her Title IX quid pro quo [sexual harassment] claim. Unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical actions of a sexual nature constitute quid pro quo harassment under Title IX when either “(A) the plaintiff’s submission to that conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of her education or employment experience in a federally-funded education program, or (B) submission to or rejection of that conduct is used as the basis for [an] education … decision[] that affect[ed] the plaintiff.”

Additionally, a Title IX plaintiff alleging quid pro quo harassment must show deliberate indifference by [“]an ‘official who at a minimum’ had ‘authority to address the alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures on the recipient’s behalf,’ had ‘actual knowledge of discrimination in the recipient’s programs,’ and failed adequately to respond.”

Here, and as Plaintiff admits, University officials are fully aware of her Title IX complaint and are taking appropriate steps to address it through the pending investigation. And once Plaintiff made the University aware of her concerns that Dr. Greeson failed Plaintiff as retaliation for rejecting his unwanted advances, the Department threw out that Qualifying Exam score and had two completely new graders blindly re-score Plaintiff’s failed section. Still, Plaintiff failed. It is also for that reason that Plaintiff cannot likely show that her rejection of Dr Greeson’s alleged conduct was the basis for her asserted adverse educational action (i.e., failure of the Qualifying Exam)—Plaintiff appears to have failed the Qualifying Exam every which way….

Plaintiff is also unlikely to succeed on her Title IX retaliation claim…. Plaintiff argues that the adverse action following the filing of her Title IX complaint was the University preventing Plaintiff from accessing the benefits of the program before her Qualifying Exam grade appeal was final. But again, the University was simply following its own procedures. As the Program Handbook makes clear, a student will be placed on probation following a failure of the Qualifying Exam. And once a student is on probation, she:

“may not be permitted to begin a practicum, participate in the Clinical Competency or Qualifying Exams, apply for Internship, or register for Dissertation credit until their probationary status has been resolved. Students may also be prohibited from engaging in other programmatic work (e.g., engaging in practicum) depending on the nature and reason of the probation. Probationary status may also affect eligibility for financial aid, assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships. Decisions regarding students moving forward while on probation will be made by the DCT in consultation with the CTC, Department Head/Chair, the College Dean and other appropriate constituencies.[“]

In other words, there appears to be nothing unusual with the University taking certain steps to remove program benefits from Plaintiff in light of her probationary status.

Further, there is an abundance of evidence—that Plaintiff failed to mention in a pleading subject to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11—supporting a conclusion that the only reason that the University dismissed Plaintiff was that she was unqualified. She failed her First Year Research Project (twice), her Case Conceptualization Benchmark (which she must still pass to remain in the program), and her Master’s Defense thesis. This is all in addition to failing her blindly graded Qualifying Exam twice and the blindly re- graded Integrated Health section of her Qualifying Exam. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s identified pretext that she is a strong student in the classroom does not convince the Court that she is likely to succeed on her retaliation claim.

James A. Keller (Saul Ewing LLP) represents the university.


October 2023