Education

Judge sides with University of Iowa, accused of mishandling sex assault reports

'There is not sufficient evidence to show the University of Iowa acted with deliberate indifference'

The Old Capitol Building between Jessup Hall (left) and MacLean Hall (right) on the Pentacrest on campus of the Universi
The Old Capitol Building between Jessup Hall (left) and MacLean Hall (right) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

The University of Iowa on Monday was supposed to defend itself at trial against allegations it violated a student’s rights in its response to her sexual assault reports and then retaliated against her, but a judge preemptively ruled in its favor — nixing the need for a jury to weigh in.

Samantha Lange, 31 — in a 2017 lawsuit Des Moines attorneys Tom Newkirk and Beatriz Mate-Kodjo filed in Polk County — reported a fellow student in the UI Department of Political Science sexually assaulted her in 2012 and 2013. When she reported the incidents to UI officials, Lange asserted they failed to provide reasonable accommodations and discriminated and retaliated against her.

But District Court Judge Samantha Gronewald on Jan. 17 granted the university’s request for summary judgment, finding — among other things — that Lange did not show the university was “deliberately indifferent” to her suffering and retaliated against her for her complaint.

“Ms. Lange could not point to any position for which she was passed over in favor of a student who did not report an assault or any other tangible action taken by the University of Iowa against her,” according to Gronewald’s order. “Even giving all reasonable inferences in favor of Ms. Lange, there is not sufficient evidence to show the University of Iowa acted with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment.”

The Gazette generally does not name victims of sexual assault, but Lange identified herself in the lawsuit. Lange’s attorney Mate-Kodjo did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Lange — when reached by phone — told The Gazette she was sick and not feeling well enough to comment thoughtfully.

Lange was one of two UI graduate students to file lawsuits in Polk County in October 2017 accusing the university of mishandling their allegations of sexual assault and harassment. One of the attorneys representing the women also represented former UI athletics employees Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum, who in May 2017 reached a $6.5 million settlement with the university over their allegations the administration discriminated against them based on gender and sexual orientation.

The two subsequent lawsuits accused the university, Board of Regents, and state of failing to implement systemic change — despite the multi-million settlement. And they argued that without a judge order forcing the issue, “Ms. Lange and other women at the University of Iowa will continue to endure hostile educational environments and/or the threat of gender discrimination and retaliation in response to reports of sexual assault.”

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Both lawsuits sought compensation and also mandated change — including more campus climate surveys, mandatory training, and twice-yearly reports to the courts about the campus’ efforts.

“The defendants must address the effects that the following three biases play in their system-response to sexual assault: 1. Victim blaming, 2. Gender stereotypes, and 3. Implicit gender bias,” according to Lange’s original lawsuit.

The university in recent months has undergone an employment practices review and added more campus training.

State attorneys — in asking the court to summarily decide the Lange case and nullify the need for a trial — argued it acted “swiftly and appropriately” to the students’ allegations.

“It imposed an immediate and effective no-contact directive, conducted a full investigation of the allegations in only 12 days, and imposed discipline,” according to the state argument.

In addition to providing support services, academic accommodations, medical leave with benefits, and offers for housing support, the university imposed a three-year suspension on Lange’s assailant.

That punishment later was downgraded to one-year, plus mandated counseling, but the university argued “the discipline was indisputably effective at preventing sexual harassment.”

“Indeed, once the other student reapplied and was readmitted to the university upon completion of his suspension, the no-contact directive remained in place,” according to the UI argument. “The university responded promptly, effectively, and comprehensively.”

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Because Lange had to work so frequently with the university to avoid contacting her assailant in their small department, her attorneys argued their client “was forced to bear the unbearable — negotiating with her rapist for her need to feel safe at school and at work.”

“This negotiation fared well for her sexual assailant,” according to Lange’s attorneys. “He successfully bartered a reduced sanction at Ms. Lange’s expense, he didn’t lose a single day of progress of toward his PhD, and he was empowered to force himself back into Ms. Lange’s space and send her constant reminders through university employees that he could impose himself in her space with impunity.”

“A jury must answer the question of whether a series of institutional decisions that discourage, delay, and punish a woman that reports her sexual assaults while correspondingly protecting, advancing, and making exceptions to law and university policy for her male perpetrator creates a hostile environment that discriminates and retaliates on the basis of gender,” her attorneys argue.

A second lawsuit accusing the university, regents, and state of failing to appropriately handle a graduate student’s allegations of sexual assault and harassment — filed alongside Lange’s in 2017 — also failed to advance to trial after that student settled with the state in October 2019 for $21,250.

Ruth Bryant, 37, signed the settlement Oct. 7, agreeing to drop her lawsuit and not file any new charges over the incident in exchange for the payout — $12,180 to her and $9,070 to her attorneys.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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