BURLINGTON — A Vermont law school student says she was discriminated against because she is black and because she replied that she was heterosexual when she challenged a grade and the professor asked her if she was a member of the LGBTQ community, according to a lawsuit filed in United States District Court.
The second-year law student asked that she be allowed to sue under the pseudonym “Jane Doe” to avoid retaliation from other faculty members, ostracism from student groups, mental harm, harassment and professional ostracism, notes a court request.
In addition to Royalton’s law school, nine members of its administration and faculty are named as defendants for their alleged actions. They include Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Diversity Shirley Jefferson, Adjunct Professor Heidi Remick, Associate Dean of Students Joseph Brennan, and Acting Dean and President Beth McCormack.
Doe, in her 22-page lawsuit noted while challenging a grade for a written assignment, she first asked if she was named as the only black student in the class. Remick, an adjunct professor of narrative writing, said she was offended by the content of Doe’s opinion piece, known as an “editorial,” but complainant Doe asserted her First Amendment rights, according to the trial.
“Defendant Remick then asked the complainant if she was a member of the LGBTQ community because the defendant was a member of the community. The complainant replied that she was not a member and raised concerns as to whether if her sexual orientation was an issue. Defendant Remick reportedly responded that she wanted the plaintiff to understand why she received an 82,” the lawsuit states.
VLS had been told in November 2020 that Doe needed reasonable accommodations for attention deficit disorder, according to the lawsuit.
For the next assignment, Remick gave Doe a score of 25 on December 10, 2021 and said the complainant had “crossed the line from merely sloppy attribution to outright plagiarism” because the complainant who, although she provides quotes, did not “provide borrowed-language quotes,” the lawsuit noted. Doe took issue with Remick’s claims.
Doe contacted Jefferson as associate dean for student affairs and diversity and said she believed the plagiarism allegations “were racially motivated as the only black student with a disability who was heterosexual” in the class, according to court documents.
Doe noted that other students, who were white, failed to provide citations and made similar mistakes, but were not accused of plagiarism.
Jefferson then hinted that Doe’s planned complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office may have sunk her, the lawsuit noted.
“See, I told you not to file the last complaint, you made yourself a target. That’s why I have to protect the black students who stay with me because they do what I say. Nobody can’t touch my black students and they know not to be disturbed. I can only protect the black students under my wings from accusations of bs like this,” the lawsuit noted.
Jefferson added because plaintiff was “not under (her) wings” that she, defendant Jefferson, could not intervene, the lawsuit said.
Doe eventually filed a complaint with the US DOE for claims under Title VI, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program or activity receiving federal funds or assistance. The DOE Civil Rights Office in Boston acknowledged the complaint in a two-page letter on Feb. 16.
McCormack and Brennan did not respond to messages on their cellphones seeking comment on the report. Remick declined to comment, noting that she needed to speak to a lawyer. Jefferson declined to comment and referred questions to the public relations office.
VLS spokesperson Justin Campfield released a prepared statement on Monday that said in part, “Vermont Law School takes these accusations very seriously. Since 1998, when it instituted its first diversity plan, the school has regularly and tirelessly implemented measures to create an educational and working environment of fairness, respect and understanding between students, teachers and staff,” he said. “We believe we have followed all applicable school, state, and federal policies.”
He said VLS would have no further comment on the ongoing litigation.
Doe said she believed Remick — along with McCormack and Brennan — instigated a conspiracy to harm the plaintiff, according to the lawsuit. The conspiracy was designed to cause the plaintiff to withdraw from college or not be able to complete the year or graduate, Doe said.
Doe also maintains that Brennan shared medical information with a third party without the plaintiff’s consent, according to the lawsuit. Brennan also unenrolled the plaintiff from classes because of her disability, denied her reasonable accommodations and retaliated against her because she filed a complaint with the US DOE, according to the lawsuit.
Other defendants and claims named in the lawsuit include:
– Jessica Durkis-Stokes, acting director of the Academic Success Program and investigator in the case for apparently failing to provide exhibit notices during the investigation due to Doe’s race and sexual orientation, said the lawsuit.
– Maureen Moriarty, registrar and director of academic procedures, for apparently unenrolling Doe from her on-campus classes because of her disability, race and gender, the lawsuit said.
– Cynthia W. Lewis, associate dean of the faculty and professor, for denying Doe a copy of the investigator’s report based on her race and disability and retaliating against the plaintiff for filing the complaint to the DOE, according to the lawsuit.
Lewis should also have known that “the plaintiff has been subjected to harassment, discrimination based on her race (black), disability, gender (female) and sexual orientation (heterosexual) and retaliation by defendants Brennan, Jefferson, Remick, Stokes, and Moriarty when they denied notice, due process, subject to harsh grading, opting out of on-campus classes…” the lawsuit stated.
He also argued that Lewis allowed Doe “to be treated differently from white students and able-bodied students because of the plaintiff’s (black) race, and denied the plaintiff reasonable accommodations.”
— Ashley Ziai, director of student affairs and COVID-19 coordinator, for allegedly unenrolling Doe from her on-campus classes because of her race and disability, according to the lawsuit.
— Law professor Stephanie Willbanks, who allegedly graded Doe’s final exam in a Torts class in December 2020 harshly because of her race and disability and for not using the same grading system for white students, according to the trial.
Doe claimed she received a 14-point penalty on Jan. 8, 2021, for late submission of the Torts exam, the lawsuit said. He said she appealed the penalty after learning that a white student had not been penalized for being four hours late.
When she appealed four days later, Doe was told by the defendants that she could not attend the hearing on her appeal for a change in rank, the lawsuit said. The defendants argued that VLS students were not permitted to participate in the appeal hearings. Doe said she appealed the refusal to attend her hearing and that was also rejected, along with the request for a change in grade, the complainant said.
Doe filed another request for reconsideration on February 3, 2021, after defendant Jefferson informed her that if she withdrew her civil rights complaint about defendants with the US DOE and requested a 5-7 point penalty, she would speak to the Standards Committee to change the rating, the lawsuit says.
The defendants denied Doe the right to attend his hearing, but on February 4, 2021, they upgraded his grade from C to C-plus.
Jefferson tried again on February 10, 2021 to discourage Doe from moving forward with her civil rights complaint to the DOE, saying it would not be good for her, according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs appointed Burlington attorney Nell Coogan, a graduate of Vermont Law School, on March 17, 2021, to investigate Doe’s allegations, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff said she was interviewed on May 20, 2021, but believed Coogan was not an “independent” investigator, the lawsuit noted.
The school reported the investigation was complete on June 17, 2021, but declined to provide a copy of Coogan’s investigation report, according to court documents.
That’s when Doe filed his formal complaint with the US DOE on June 20, 2021, alleging discrimination based on race and disability, according to the lawsuit.
Doe started the online narrative writing course with defendant Remick in October 2021 and things went downhill even further, the lawsuit points out.