Helfman v. Ne. Univ.

Decision Date27 July 2020
Docket NumberSJC-12787
Citation485 Mass. 308,149 N.E.3d 758
Parties Morgan HELFMAN v. NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY & others.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Mark F. Itzkowitz, Boston (Kenneth I. Kolpan also present) for the plaintiff.

Daryl J. Lapp, Boston (Katherine A. Guarino Baker, Boston, also present) for the defendants.

Lisa A. Parlagreco & Jeffrey S. Beeler, Natick, for Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C., amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Rebecca J. Roe, of Washington, & Erin K. Olson, for National Center for Victims of Crime & another, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

LENK, J.

This case arises out of an allegedly nonconsensual sexual encounter between two first-year students at Northeastern University(Northeastern)2 in October 2013. The plaintiff claims that Northeastern3 is liable for failing to prevent the sexual assault, as well as for its allegedly inadequate response, including exonerating her alleged attacker after a disciplinary hearing.4 Following discovery, a Superior Court judge granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims. The plaintiff appealed, and we subsequently allowed her application for direct appellate review.

In light of the multifaceted relationship between a university and its students, we long have recognized that universities have a duty to protect students from the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties. Such a duty exists even when those criminal acts are made possible by the intoxication of the student victim. Nonetheless, we conclude that there was no duty to protect here, where the Northeastern defendants had at best minimal knowledge of the conditions that gave rise to the particular harm, rendering this assault unforeseeable. Further, although we now also recognize that a college or university will sometimes owe a duty to protect its students from the harms associated with alcohol-related emergencies, we conclude that this duty was met here. Accordingly, we affirm the order granting summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiff's negligence-related claims. Because there was no error in the motion judge's conclusions regarding the plaintiff's statutory or contract claims, we affirm the allowance of summary judgment on those claims as well.

1. Background. We recite the facts from the summary judgment record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, reserving certain details for later discussion.

In the fall of 2013, the plaintiff was a first-year student at Northeastern. As required of all first-year students, she lived in a university residence hall. A.G.,5 the alleged assailant, also was a first-year Northeastern student who lived in the same dormitory.

Northeastern residence halls were supervised by resident assistants (RAs), who were students hired6 to foster community within the dormitories and provide assistance to resident students. The RAs in turn were supervised by the residence hall director, a permanent staff person assigned to the same building, and more generally by the area coordinator. RAs were required to sign a "Resident Assistant Agreement," which set forth the terms of their position as well as some of their duties.

RAs were expected to serve as role models for the younger students, to be familiar with the provisions of Northeastern's code of student conduct (code), and to intervene if they encountered students violating "community norms." RAs were to hold office hours to meet with students in their assigned residence halls, and to coordinate programs and events in accordance with Northeastern's educational goals. The goals for first-year students included "understand[ing] the effects of drugs and alcohol," "identif[ying] moments of peer pressure," and "attend[ing] at least two on or off campus events that are alcohol free." RAs performed rounds of their assigned buildings during assigned shifts and were expected to report any code violations to their supervisors. In addition, RAs served as proctors at the entrances to some residence halls, where they regulated access to the hall.7

On October 31, 2013, the plaintiff and A.G. were invited to a Halloween party hosted by Sarah Smith,8 a sophomore at Northeastern and an RA in a different dormitory9 from the one in which the plaintiff and A.G. lived. Before leaving to attend the party, the plaintiff and A.G. drank alcohol in the plaintiff's dormitory room. They brought more alcohol with them to the party, carried in a plastic soda bottle to conceal its existence from any campus police they might encounter during the walk across campus.

While at the party, the plaintiff played drinking games with some of the partygoers, consuming alcohol provided by certain of them. A.G. also gave her whiskey that he had obtained from another guest. Between her rounds at multiple dormitories, Smith drank alcohol and participated in the drinking games. Another RA, Paul Jones,10 who had socialized previously with the plaintiff, A.G., and Smith, also attended the party. Both RAs (who themselves were underage) observed other underage students drinking alcohol, but neither RA provided any of the alcohol that the plaintiff consumed, nor did they provide any alcohol to any other guest.

Not long after arriving at the party, the plaintiff became intoxicated and vomited repeatedly in Smith's bathroom; two student acquaintances who were attending the party stayed with her in the bathroom and gave her water and crackers to try to control the nausea. The students also had the plaintiff wait in Smith's room and drink water, as they were somewhat concerned that the proctor at the plaintiff's residence hall might stop the plaintiff at the entrance because she was too visibly intoxicated. They offered to walk the plaintiff home, but she declined because she knew that they were planning to attend another party, and she did not want them to walk across campus to her residence and then have to walk back to the location of the second party.

As he was returning anyway in order to attend a sports practice early the following morning, A.G. then volunteered to escort the plaintiff to the dormitory where they both lived. On the way back to her residence hall, the plaintiff sent a text message to her roommate stating, "Okay I'm coming home I'm really sick." During the walk, A.G. and the plaintiff kissed multiple times. At one point, the plaintiff stumbled and fell; A.G., who himself was intoxicated, was dragged down to the ground. A.G. also took the plaintiff's telephone and identification card from her while en route. When they reached their residence hall, the plaintiff leaned on the counter for support as the proctor checked their identification. She then walked unsteadily from the proctor's desk to the elevator.

The two students went to A.G.'s room, where A.G. initiated sex with the plaintiff. The plaintiff later told Northeastern police that, "although she was very uncomfortable with what was going on, she didn't want to hurt his feelings by saying anything to him or telling him to stop." She "wasn't scared," but had not felt as if she could leave if she wanted to. She also said that she did not know whether A.G. believed she had consented to the things he was doing. At one point when A.G. went to the bathroom, the plaintiff sent text messages to her roommate, saying, "I'm ok," and, "Kind of." At another point, the plaintiff threw up in A.G.'s bathroom.

When the plaintiff returned to her own room the following morning, she told her roommate about the incident with A.G. In response to one of the roommate's questions, the plaintiff said that, if she had been sober, she would have said something to stop the encounter. The roommate, with the plaintiff's permission, then informed an RA of the incident. The following day, the plaintiff and her mother were escorted by Northeastern police from her dormitory to a local hospital, where the plaintiff was examined and an evidence collection kit was completed.

Northeastern police undertook an investigation; they interviewed the plaintiff, her roommate, and A.G.; reviewed the video recordings from the entrance to the plaintiff's residence hall; compiled a list of partygoers, which included the RAs Smith and Jones; and received screenshots of the various text messages sent by the plaintiff. The police created a report of their investigation and provided it to the office of student conduct and conflict resolution (OSCCR) director Mary Wegmann; Wegmann then shared it with Briana R. Sevigny, the assistant director of OSCCR, and Madeleine Estabrook, the vice-president of student affairs. Following their investigation, Northeastern police decided not to file any criminal charges against A.G. and did not report the incident to Boston police.

Based on the Northeastern police report, OSCCR charged A.G. with a code violation of "sexual assault with penetration."11 At a student conduct board (SCB) hearing on November 21, 2013, both the plaintiff and A.G. were appointed advisors to assist them. Each student asked questions of the other through the SCB chair.

On the day after the hearing, the plaintiff and A.G. both were sent letters explaining that the disciplinary panel had found that A.G. had not committed the alleged offense.12 Consistent with the procedures in the code at that time, only the letter to A.G. explained the SCB's reasoning.13 The SCB noted that it had spent a great deal of time reviewing the record, including the surveillance video recordings, due to the serious nature of the charges. The letter explained that the SCB had considered A.G.'s statements about those words and actions he had seen as the plaintiff's consent, the plaintiff's statements about what she had said and done, and what a reasonable person would have understood about the plaintiff's consent or lack thereof.

The plaintiff submitted an appeal on the ground of asserted issues of fact, without setting forth any requisite...

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