After the University filed a motion in March to dismiss Soenen et al. v. Brown — the class-action lawsuit filed August 2021 that claims that the University fails to protect students from sexual violence — plaintiffs in the case expect to file their response in early May, lawyers for the plaintiffs told The Herald.
The suit, which was amended in January, claimed that the University both neglected to protect students from sexual harrassment and abuse while attending Brown, including unsolicited recording, abusive relationships, assault and rape, as well as abusive professor-student relationships, The Herald previously reported. It additionally stated the University “actively prevented the reporting of such harm.”
By the time the amended complaint reached the Rhode Island District Court on Jan. 28, it included four named plaintiffs: Chloe Burns ’19, Taja Hirata-Epstein ’20, Katiana Soenen ’24 and Emma Dennis-Knieriem ’21. It also included an undergraduate and a PhD student both under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.” They received anonymity due to the “sensitive nature of the acts perpetrated upon them," according to court documents.
On March 4, the University filed its motion asking Rhode Island District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. ’80 to dismiss the case, accusing the plaintiffs of raising “implausible claims.”
“This putative class action lawsuit should end at its beginning for many reasons,” the motion reads, offering three arguments in support of dismissing the case.
The first argument notes that Hirata-Epstein, Burns and Dennis-Knieriem’s claims are time-barred by the three-year statute of limitations for Title IX in the state of Rhode Island. Because these claims “accrued” before Aug. 6, 2018, the plaintiffs “cannot resurrect their clearly time-barred claims.” And since none of the three have indicated that they are presently academically involved with the University, they lack standing to seek relief, the motion said.
The University’s second argument details how each plaintiff “implausibly pled Title IX and state law claims fail as a matter of law.” It notes the absence of “intentional gender discriminatory conduct” and discusses how the events leading to two of the plaintiffs’ claims ocurred in third-party owned buildings. They also invoked Title IX’s “deliberate indifference” standard — which requires schools to respond to Title IX sexual harassment in a “way that is not clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances,” according to the Department of Education — which they argue the University fails to meet.
Brown’s third argument, which seeks to strike the class-action nature of the suit, notes that there is “no justification to allow any of the six Plaintiffs to litigate collectively in a single lawsuit,” as the plaintiffs’ allegations fail to meet all of the necessary prerequisites to file a class-action lawsuit under federal law, according to the motion.
“Throughout their pleading, Plaintiffs have tried futilely to escape the inherently individualized nature of their sexual misconduct claims by focusing on alleged common practices of ignoring complaints of harassment,” the motion reads. “However, courts have declined to gloss over the highly individualized nature of the proof that is typically at issue in cognizable sexual misconduct claims.”
“Plaintiffs want to redefine the university-student relationship under Rhode Island law, with serious and immediate implications for every Rhode Island college and university,” the introduction to the motion to dismiss reads. If the district court does not dismiss the claims, the suit calls for the Rhode Island Supreme Court to hear “appropriate questions.”
In an email, University Spokesperson Brian Clark told The Herald that the motion to dismiss is the “most current” update to the University’s response to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs have until May 2 to file their response to the motion to dismiss, according to public records from the Rhode Island District Court. According to Kimberly Evans, a lawyer for the plaintiffs from Delaware law firm Grant & Eisenhofer, their response will come in on that day.
“We’re still very confident in the complaint,” Evans said in an interview with The Herald. “We’re looking forward to putting forward our opposition to their motion to dismiss.”
Evans and Irene Lax, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, declined to share the details of their response to the motion to dismiss.
Following a motion to dismiss in any given case, if a judge determines that a complaint’s allegations “fail to state a claim,” that judge could dismiss a suit as a whole, according to Julie Goldscheid, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law who focuses on gender equality.
But if a case proceeds to litigation, she added, it could go on for “many years.” Last June, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island dismissed a Title IX lawsuit, Jane Doe v. Brown, after an eight-year investigatory and legal process, The Herald previously reported.
While Goldscheid stressed the difficulty of generalizing, she noted that it is “relatively rare that cases go to trial.” Cases, she said, often end through settlements or preliminary motions from judges.
The University has not approached the plaintiffs about a settlement for the case, Evans said.
Since filing the initial complaint in August 2021, one name has also dropped from the case: Carter Woodruff ’22, who helped spearhead the End Sexual Violence campaign on campus in Spring 2021.
Woodruff declined to comment, instead referring The Herald to a statement released on her Instagram page on April 10.
“When I returned to Brown from my leave, I was overwhelmed in many ways,” the statement said.
“It was a chance for me to start fresh,” it continued. “In order to do this, I needed to take a step back from my activist efforts, as well as from the lawsuit.”
Evans said that Woodruff is “still very much part of the process” and that her departure stemmed from personal reasons.
“I am completely confident that (the suit) will remain just as strong, valid, and necessary as it would have been should I have stayed a plaintiff,” Woodruff’s statement read.
Burns, Hirata-Epstein, Soenen, Dennis-Knieriem and the Jane Does were not made available for comment by Evans and Irene Lax.
“They’re doing well in terms of dealing with the real emotional toll that a litigation has,” Evans said, “especially in these types of cases.”