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FRAAD-WOLFF v. VASSAR COLLEGE

July 12, 1996

MAX FRAAD-WOLFF, Plaintiff, against VASSAR COLLEGE, Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: CONNER

 CONNER, Senior D.J.:

 Plaintiff Max Fraad-Wolff filed this diversity action on October 12, 1994. He alleges that defendant Vassar College violated New York state law by failing to comply with its established disciplinary procedures in investigating and adjudicating a harassment charge against him. He also asserts a claim under New York state law for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant has moved, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), for summary judgment dismissing both claims. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion is granted.

 BACKGROUND

 The following facts are undisputed, unless otherwise noted. Under the procedures set forth in defendant's student handbook, a student who believes that he or she has been the victim of harassment by another student may bring a complaint to the Chair of defendant's Harassment Committee. A screening committee selected by the Chair reviews the complaint without knowing the identities of the students involved and makes a determination of whether there is probable cause to proceed. If so, the complaint is transmitted to the College Regulations Panel. See Vassar Student Handbook § 2, at 68-69, attached as Exhibit B to Affidavit of Leon Friedman, dated Sept. 18, 1995. The Panel then adjudicates the charges in accordance with the procedures outlined in the student handbook and the College Regulations Panel Rules and Procedures.

 Plaintiff, a citizen of Connecticut, entered Vassar College, a private college in New York, as a freshman in the fall of 1991. By the fall of 1993, plaintiff was a junior. During the night of September 17, 1993, John Reinish, another Vassar student, received two messages on his answering machine. Those messages, apparently consisting of statements made by three different callers, contained abusive language and threats of physical violence directed against Reinish because of his homosexuality. Reinish reported the incident to Pamela Neimeth, the Assistant Dean of Student Life and Chair of the Harassment Committee. With the assistance of other members of defendant's administration, Neimeth conducted an investigation by playing a tape of the messages throughout the campus and soliciting information about the incident. According to defendant, a number of students informed the investigators that they believed that plaintiff was one of the callers. Those students included two unidentified women who told Neimeth in confidence that they believed they were in the room from which plaintiff made the phone calls. Plaintiff asserts that during this period, Neimeth told several students that she believed plaintiff was involved in the incident; Neimeth contends that she spoke about plaintiff only with those students who came to her with information that he participated in making the phone calls.

 On October 29, 1993, Faith Nichols, the Associate Director of Residential Life and the Chair of the College Regulations Panel, informed plaintiff in writing that he had been charged with harassment and that a formal hearing before the College Regulations Panel was scheduled for November 3, 1993, at 6 p.m. Both plaintiff and his parents met with Nichols on November 1, 1993, to discuss the hearing and the charge against plaintiff. Plaintiff and his parents requested a voiceprint analysis of the tapes. Nichols denied their request. On November 2, 1993, plaintiff met with Neimeth. Plaintiff contends that Neimeth told him that she would not be testifying at the hearing; Neimeth disputes this.

 The hearing took place as scheduled. Four witnesses testified against plaintiff, including Neimeth. Eight witnesses testified for plaintiff, and the Panel accepted written testimony from numerous other character witnesses. The hearing concluded around 1:30 a.m. On November 8, 1993, Nichols gave plaintiff a letter that informed him that the Panel's deliberations were concluded and that it had been unable to reach a conclusion with regard to the charge brought against him. According to plaintiff, Nichols informed him that the Panel had not found him guilty or innocent and that if Reinish had new evidence to present in the future, the hearing would resume. Plaintiff, however, would not be permitted to reopen the proceeding to present new evidence in his defense.

 On November 11, 1993, plaintiff sent a letter to the Dean of Studies requesting permission to withdraw from Vassar immediately because his physical and mental exhaustion prevented him from continuing his studies. On November 15, 1993, defendant granted his request.

 DISCUSSION

 Summary judgment should be granted when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A material fact is one that "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law . . . ." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). No genuine issue for trial exists unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for that party. See id., at 248-49. In order to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings and . . . designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). The burden on the nonmoving party is tempered, however, by the rule that "the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

 I. Failure to Comply With Disciplinary Procedures

 Plaintiff contends that defendant's failure to follow the procedures outlined in its student handbook and in the Panel's rules in investigating and adjudicating the charge against him (1) violated a contract between plaintiff and defendant, the terms of which were set forth in the student handbook and in the Panel's rules, (2) denied plaintiff a fair and reasonable disciplinary hearing pursuant to fair and reasonable procedures in violation of New York state law and (3) demonstrated that defendant acted arbitrarily, capriciously and in bad faith in violation of New York state law. Plaintiff asserts that these are three distinct legal claims.

 It is apparent, however, from our review of the case law that the New York Court of Appeals set forth the legal standard applicable to the facts alleged in the complaint in Tedeschi v. Wagner College. In that case, the Court held that when a private college or university "has adopted a rule or guideline establishing the procedure to be followed in relation to suspension or expulsion [of a student for nonacademic reasons] that procedure must be substantially observed." Tedeschi v. Wagner Coll., 49 N.Y.2d 652, 427 N.Y.S.2d 760, 764, 404 N.E.2d 1302 (N.Y. 1980). Therefore, whatever the legal theory underlying plaintiff's claim may be, the crucial issue is whether defendant conducted the disciplinary proceedings ...


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