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R.I. Supreme Court rules in favor of Brown in sexual assault lawsuit

Former Providence College student claimed U. mishandled investigation regarding her 2013 sexual assault at Brown, which U. denied

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed the dismissal of Title IX lawsuit Jane Doe v. Brown in an opinion filed June 28, ending an eight-year investigatory and legal process. The case involved what Doe and her attorneys characterized as the University’s mishandling of the investigation after her alleged sexual assault by three Brown football players in November 2013 while she was a student at Providence College, The Herald previously reported.  

The dismissal also ceases legal action against Yolanda Castillo-Appollonio ’95, senior associate dean of students, and Jonah Allen Ward, former senior dean of student life, two of the administrators involved in Doe’s investigation and individually named in court documents.  

The dismissal

Doe, who was allowed to file her lawsuits anonymously, claimed in court that the University did not conduct a Title IX investigation as she requested after her alleged assault and that it did not do enough to protect her from her alleged assaulters. The University claimed in federal court filings that it had assisted Doe with restraining orders, but was unable to conduct an investigation because Doe would not talk to the attorney it had hired.

The University did not have Title IX policies or a separate office for pursuing sexual assault complaints at the time — the federal guidelines for Title IX were not formalized until 2014. Instead, the University handled sexual assault complaints through the Office of Student Conduct, which Doe alleged did not adhere to federal Title IX standards. 

The Supreme Court ruled that Doe’s claims that the University violated her educational rights under the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act were properly dismissed by the Superior Court because they were “predicated upon defendants’ alleged violations of Title IX.” These allegations were dismissed in federal court because Doe was not a student at Brown, had not accessed University resources and did not claim that Brown had inhibited her from accessing those resources.  

Invoking RICRA, Doe had argued that the University was responsible for a decline in her academic performance and subsequent withdrawal from Providence College because of how the University handled her case. The Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of this claim since the University’s “actions were so attenuated from plaintiff’s contract with Providence College that we cannot say that any interference therewith was intentional as a matter of law.”  

In addition, the court rejected Doe’s argument that Brown infringed upon her Antidiscrimination Clause rights under the Rhode Island Constitution. In her original Superior Court complaint, Doe argued that Brown “discriminated against the Plaintiff on the basis of her sex and violated her right to equal protection of the laws by failing to comply with Title IX.”  

But the Supreme Court agreed with the Superior Court that Doe does not have the right to sue the University as a private cause of action, which would allow a plaintiff to sue on the basis of a law or statute.

“We’re very disappointed with the result of these four opinions, but we respect the right of the Supreme Court and the First Circuit to make the final decision,” said Patrick Jones, one of Doe’s attorneys.

“We remain fully confident in the decisions made at Brown related to Doe’s allegations and are pleased that all claims have been dismissed on both a federal and state level,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Brown continues to regard every report of sexual or gender-based misconduct as deserving of respectful consideration, regardless of the complainant’s affiliation with the University.”

Clark added that anyone can report sexual or gender-based misconduct by University-affiliated individuals to the Title IX Office, though those complaints are subject to the office’s ultimate discretion. 

Following the R.I. Supreme Court’s decision, Jones and Clark agreed that there is no further state or federal legal action available.

Castillo-Appollonio declined to comment. Ward, who now works at Clayton State University in Georgia, did not respond to a request for comment.  

The case

On Nov. 21, 2013, Doe, then a freshman at Providence College, was drugged at a bar, according to the court opinion. She was brought to Brown in a taxi and allegedly assaulted by three football players in a University dorm.

According to her original Superior Court complaint, she received treatment “related to the sexual assault” at Lawrence General Hospital in Massachusetts on Nov. 30.  

Several months later, in February 2014, Doe reported the assault to the Providence Police Department. Over the next few months, search warrants were executed on the dorm rooms and cell phones of two of the alleged assaulters, identified in court documents only as Students A and B, and on the cell phone of Student C.  

One text message between Student A and Student B, sent on Nov. 22, 2013, allegedly read, “YO LIKE CLASSIC [Student C] THO … NO INVITE JUST WALKS IN AND STARTS RAPING HER.”

The University also claimed in federal court that the search warrant affidavit mentioned a photo of Doe, naked, on top of Student B. 

According to documents filed in federal court by the University, Brown took measures to assist Doe after she reported the assault. A University police detective was present for one of Doe’s statements to the police, served no trespass orders from Providence College on Students A and B, went with Doe to Superior Court to get a restraining order against Students A and B, served those orders on the students and brought “physical evidence” from Doe to the Providence police.  

The University also stated that it helped the police execute the search warrants and had Students A and B leave campus, though court papers did not specify the conditions of this departure.

Doe later claimed that she was “in fear for her safety and well-being on campus and in the general Providence area, because Brown students and/or associates of the men who assaulted her were not prohibited from being near her or contacting her and her friends,” according to a federal court document.  

The University denied this allegation in later court filings.  

A grand jury voted not to charge the Brown students with the alleged assault, according to court documents and PPD Deputy Chief Thomas Verdi.  

According to a footnote in a brief filed by the University during the Supreme Court appeals process, in August 2014, “the grand jury returned a ‘no true bill,’ finding the evidence was insufficient to establish probable cause that a sexual assault occurred.”  

In that brief, the University claims that it tried unsuccessfully to access the evidence and Doe’s “cooperation in its investigation.”  

In June 2014, Brown informed Doe that she could file a complaint under the University’s Code of Student Conduct, according to the opinion. In a federal court document, the University wrote that “Doe did not respond.”  

The University was in touch with Doe again in August, according to federal court documents, and in September 2014, Doe provided a written statement. She also “requested response and redress pursuant to Title IX,” according to the recent opinion.  

In response, the University told her it “would proceed with its inquiry only under the student disciplinary code, which did not comply with Title IX standards,” she claimed in her original federal court complaint.  

According to a brief filed by the University in 2020 during the Supreme Court appeal process, the University did not have a Title IX policy regarding sexual assault until September 2015, so the Code of Student Conduct governed sexual assault complaints at the time. 

Then, on Oct. 11, 2014, Doe filed a complaint with the OCR. The same Brown-filed brief states that her OCR complaint was dismissed in 2018 “because ‘the same or similar allegations based on the same operative facts were filed against the University in federal court.’” 

After the alleged assault, Doe also had her hair tested for drugs and claimed, according to the opinion, that the “results of this test were positive for two over-the-counter drugs that are commonly used to induce incapacitation and memory loss.”  

Doe informed Brown of these results on Oct. 26, 2014, according to the recent opinion, and a day later Castillo-Appollonio notified her that the University “planned on issuing ‘charge letters soon’ in connection with the University’s inquiry into her sexual assault.” In federal court, the University claimed that it never received any “documentary evidence” of the presence of the drugs.

According to federal court documents filed by Brown, the University also hired James O’Neil, a former state attorney general, “to gather any relevant information and evidence.” He could not access the police investigation file or the grand jury evidence and testimony. In addition, Brown stated, “Ms. Doe declined to be interviewed by Mr. O’Neil because she claimed he had no specialized training with respect to Title IX.”  

After O’Neil reached out, Doe’s mother emailed him that they would only answer written questions and wanted to see proof of his Title IX training first, according to Brown’s federal court filings.  

According to that document, Wendy Murphy, an attorney who was not representing Doe at that point but would do so later, wrote to O’Neil in January 2015 that as “Brown has obtained a significant amount of information directly from the Does, and because Brown has failed to comply with Title IX in myriad ways, Ms. Doe is reluctant to enable further violations of Ms. Doe’s federal civil rights by responding to your request.”  

After that, Brown “was unable to move forward with the investigation and closed the matter,” the answer says.  

Doe asked for an update on April 20, 2016. The recent opinion states, “on June 21, 2016, Brown University informed plaintiff that it never completed any investigation and had abandoned all disciplinary action against the three Brown University students who were allegedly involved.” 

In federal court, Brown stated that the letter said, “As a consequence of the inability to obtain the evidence that was gathered by the criminal investigation or presented to the grand jury, the grand jury decision and (Ms. Doe’s) refusal to cooperate with Brown University’s investigator, the University was unable to move forward with the investigation and closed the matter.”  

That November, Doe filed suit in U.S. District Court against Brown as well as Castillo-Appollonio and Ward. That lawsuit and subsequent appeal were eventually dismissed, as were the Superior Court complaint and the appeal. 

“As a result of the Defendants’ conduct, Ms. Doe has incurred damages and suffered great pain of body and mind, serious emotional, psychological and educational harm, her access to educational programs and activities has been interfered with and denied and her ability to enjoy life has been permanently adversely affected,” Doe’s lawyers said in the Superior Court complaint. “She will continue to suffer these injuries in the future.”  


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