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Columbia University settles Title IX lawsuit with former student involving ‘mattress girl’ case

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, carries a mattress in protest of the university’s lack of action after she reported being raped.
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Columbia University has settled a Title IX lawsuit filed by a former male student whose case attracted national attention after a young woman protested against the administration’s handling of her sexual assault allegations by carrying a mattress around campus.

A lawyer representing Columbia graduate Paul Nungesser issued a statement announcing a settlement in the case that dated to 2015. The lawsuit stemmed from what Nungesser described as gender discrimination on the part of the university after Emma Sulkowicz became known as the “mattress girl,” in what she called an artistic rendering of her dismay with the administration’s handling of her allegations. Sulkowicz claimed that Nungesser, a classmate, had raped her during her sophomore year in 2012. But after a university investigation, Nungesser was cleared.

“Together with Paul and his parents, we have fought for three long years,” said Andrew Miltenberg, a New York lawyer who frequently handles Title IX cases. “It gives Paul a chance to go on with his life and recover from the false accusation against him. We hope that the resolution of the case also ensures that no student will ever have to endure what Paul went through after he was exonerated.”

The announcement of the settlement comes the same day that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with representatives from survivor organizations and advocacy groups for accused students as she examines possible changes to Obama-era agency rules that she told reporters appeared to be unfair. Nungesser’s case also served to highlight the rising number of lawsuits filed by young men concerning whether universities equitably adjudicate allegations of rape.

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For a period of time the case embroiled the Columbia campus during a nationwide debate about how colleges address sexual assault. For many survivors, Sulkowicz became known as a cause celebre for embodying courage in the face of what she saw as a miscarriage of justice. Her senior visual arts thesis project, “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight),” earned her widespread attention and course credits toward her degree. During her 2015 commencement, she carried the mattress across the stage during the diploma ceremony.

It was Sulkowicz’s rise to prominence on campus — and the administration’s response — that prompted Nungesser’s lawsuit. In filing the claim in 2015, Nungesser said that the university had violated his rights under Title IX, the law which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools, by “abetting the woman’s gender-based harassment,” according to his lawyers. A federal court judge in New York twice ordered the case to be dismissed. Miltenberg said that after the setbacks, Nungesser had prepared an appeal before coming to a settlement agreement with Columbia. The terms of the settlement were confidential, Miltenberg said. Sulkowicz, who was not named as a party in the case, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Expelled for sex assault, young men are filing more lawsuits to clear their names

In a statement issued after the settlement, Columbia acknowledged that Nungesser was found not responsible for sexual misconduct “after a diligent and thorough investigation… Columbia University stands by that finding,” officials wrote. Police also declined to pursue charges against Nungesser.

“Columbia recognizes that after the conclusion of the investigation, Paul’s remaining time at Columbia became very difficult for him and not what Columbia would want any of its students to experience,” the administration wrote in the statement. “Columbia will continue to review and update its policies toward ensuring that every student — accuser and accused, including those like Paul who are found not responsible — is treated respectfully and as a full member of the Columbia community.”

Miltenberg said that the resolution in the case allows Nungesser, who is pursuing a career as an filmmaker, to focus on his future and not dwell in the past.

“I think this case fits into the larger debate in that the mark of being called a rapist is a significant one, and it follows you regardless of whether or not the university finds you responsible,” Miltenberg said. “It highlights in a way how polarizing the topic is and how much damage can be done just by having to go through the process, let alone worrying about whether it’s going to be handled fairly or not.”