Jan. 11, 1999

Appellate court upholds dismissal of Maas suit against Cornell

In a decision dated Jan. 7, 1999, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, in Albany, unanimously upheld the dismissal, in its entirety, of a lawsuit brought by Professor James Maas against Cornell University. The court's ruling, the fourth successive judicial determination that Maas' lawsuit against Cornell was without merit, affirmed the dismissal of Maas' final two claims that Cornell acted negligently in handling sexual harassment charges brought against him.

In affirming, with costs, the March 23, 1998, ruling of Supreme Court Justice Phillip R. Rumsey dismissing the lawsuit, the five-member Appellate Division panel specifically noted that, in responding to Cornell's summary judgment motion (which the court noted was the equivalent of a trial), Maas had conceded "that his mental injuries were the consequence of [Cornell's] lawful personnel decisions taken in good faith during the disciplinary action. This being the case, he cannot also establish that defendant was negligent in carrying out the disciplinary procedures against him."

The lawsuit, which was filed in August 1995, sought damages allegedly suffered by Maas in connection with the university'' resolution of sexual harassment charges leveled against him by four of his former students. As a result of the charges, an elected faculty committee of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Professional Ethics Committee, unanimously found that Maas "repeatedly behaved both unprofessionally and inappropriately in his relationship with [three of] these students and that in effect this behavior constituted sexual harassment" and that Maas "committed harassment of a more manifestly sexual and egregious sort" with the fourth student. The dean of the college and the university provost upheld the committee's determination.

The lawsuit originally alleged eight separate claims and damages of more than $1.5 million. In a Sept. 10, 1996, decision, Justice Rumsey dismissed six of the eight claims. Following Maas' appeal of this ruling, the Appellate Division affirmed Rumsey's decision in a Dec. 11, 1997, opinion, ruling that Cornell properly adopted its sexual harassment guidelines and properly applied those procedures to the Maas case. In a Feb. 23, 1998, decision and order, the Appellate Division also denied Maas' requests for reargument of the appeal and for permission to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

In the March 23, 1998, ruling just affirmed by the Appellate Division, Rumsey dismissed the remaining two claims in Maas' lawsuit and denied Maas' request to amend his complaint to allege new theories of liability against Cornell. In his decision, Rumsey wrote, "It is not the court's function to judicially tailor the complaint to make it fit the plaintiff's need or desire for a forum." In affirming, the Appellate Division noted that Maas' efforts to assert a new claim were inconsistent with his earlier position in the lawsuit and held that he could not now assume a contrary position "owing to changed interests since all claims in this action have been dismissed...." The court also noted that Maas had abandoned his attempt to assert a fraud cause of action against the university, having not pursued it in his brief on appeal.

The Appellate Division's ruling totally disposes of Maas' claims against the university, although Maas may make a motion to be permitted a further appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

Cornell University Counsel James J. Mingle said today that he is gratified that the courts of New York continue to confirm the university's position from the outset that the lawsuit had no merit. "This case has now been reviewed on at least four separate occasions by two separate courts, both trial level and appellate, and the university's position has been upheld on each review. This case has received more judicial scrutiny than most, and Professor Maas' concession, as expressly noted by the Appellate Division, that the university's action was both lawful and taken in good faith, further supports the propriety of the university's actions in this matter," Mingle said.

The lawsuit against Cornell was filed by the Center for Individual Rights, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Maas in 1995. He was also represented by David A. Stoll of New York City and Raymond M. Schlather of Ithaca.