Dr. Mukund Vengalattore v. Cornell University and U.S. Dept. of Education

CASE SUMMARY

Dr. Vengalattore was a tenure-track professor of physics at Cornell University with an impressive history of conducting ground-breaking research. After a graduate student left his program for academic reasons, the student falsely accused Dr. Vengalattore of sexual harassment.

Following mandatory “guidance” from the U.S. Department of Education, Cornell had set up a campus disciplinary process that dispensed with every fundamental notion of due process. Dr. Vengalattore was not allowed to see the accusations against him, much less challenge the “evidence” collected by the college, provide evidence of his innocence, confront his accuser, or even defend himself at a hearing.

Unable to prove his innocence in this unfair process, Dr. Vengalattore was denied tenure, disciplined by Cornell, and faced the loss of his promising career. NCLA sued Cornell for its violations of due process, but also the Department of Education for forcing Cornell to adopt such an unfair process.

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CASE STATUS: Active

CASE START DATE: September 18, 2018

DECIDING COURT: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

ORIGINAL COURT: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York

CASE DOCUMENTS

January 5, 2021 | Appellant’s Reply Brief
August 21, 2020 | Appellant’s Opening Brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
May 1, 2020 | Order on Motion to Dismiss
September 16, 2019 | Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Cornell University's Motion to Dismiss

Dr. Mukund Vengalattore was subjected to a fundamentally unfair and gender and racially biased disciplinary proceeding that falsely branded him as someone who committed sexual misconduct with a student and then lied about it. Cornell never disputes that this process was unfair, and never denies the rampant procedural irregularities, numerous discriminatory comments lodged at Dr. Vengalattore, or the devastating impact that its finding has had on his professional and personal life. Instead, Cornell engages in evasion, claiming that this case is really about tenure, and wrongly trying to litigate disputes in a pre-discovery motion…

Click to read the full Memorandum of Law 

July 15, 2019 | Vengalattore Memorandum in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss Complaint

Much of the Department’s Motion is dedicated to arguing that Dr. Vengalattore lacks standing to challenge its unlawful conduct. (See Doc. 36-1 at 8.) On the contrary, he has standing against the Department because he has suffered both substantive and procedural injuries from the guidance documents at issue. These injuries can be remedied by action from this Court invalidating the documents and enjoining the Department from reissuing similar letters…

Click to read the full Memorandum of Oppostition

September 18, 2018 | Vengalattore v. Cornell University and U.S. Dept of Education Complaint

WHEREFORE, for the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff Dr. Vengalattore demands judgment against Defendants as follows:
(i) on the first cause of action for violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a judgment awarding Plaintiff damages in an amount to be determined at trial, including, without limitation, damages to reputation, past and future economic losses, loss of career opportunities, and loss of future career prospects, plus prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees, expenses, costs and disbursements;

(ii) on the second cause of action for violation of Title VI, a judgment awarding Plaintiff damages in an amount to be determined at trial, including, without limitation, damages to reputation, past and future economic losses, loss of career opportunities, and loss of future career prospects, plus prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees, expenses, costs and disbursements;…

Click to read the full Complaint

PRESS RELEASES

April 2, 2021 | NCLA Releases Case Video Showing How Cornell’s Title IX Kangaroo Courts Ruin Lives

Washington, DC (April 2, 2021) – Last month, President Biden issued an Executive Order related to Title IX, but the order will do little to reduce gender discrimination in educational settings. The EO also directly attacks one of the most sacred protections that we have as citizens—the right to due process when accused of wrongdoing—by ordering the Department of Education to take steps to repeal a Title IX rule promulgated by Secretary Betsy DeVos in the prior administration. For the wrongly accused, President Biden’s Title IX order signals a return to the Obama-Biden national policy whereby the mere false allegation of sexual harassment or misconduct will suffice to destroy the educational opportunities and careers of accused students and professors alike.

One such professor is Dr. Mukund Vengalattore, pictured above, one of the nation’s leading experts in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, who taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He was on track for tenure when a graduate student who was dismissed from his lab for academic reasons retaliated by falsely accusing him of inappropriate sexual activity that simply never occurred. Cornell’s ensuing Title IX disciplinary process, adopted in response to “Dear Colleague” letters and other guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, was biased, discriminatory, and fundamentally unfair. It deprived Dr. Vengalattore of the opportunity to cross-examine his accuser or provide witnesses in his defense. It also applied a very low standard of proof for a proceeding implicating such significant professional consequences—a mere preponderance of the evidence.

Today, the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group, released a video about Dr. Vengalattore’s case against Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Education. The case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on appeal from the decision of the trial court, which dismissed the case on a flawed theory of Title IX without ruling on the substance of the deprivation of due process and other claims presented by Dr. Vengalattore. NCLA argues that the disciplinary proceedings against him themselves violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. By prevailing in this case, NCLA means to restore the due process guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to accused parties in campus Title IX hearings.

Excerpts from the video:

“We’ve arrived at a time where university campuses investigate, adjudicate, and punish people on the basis of ambiguous Title IX accusations. And those accused of wrongdoing have lost their right to due process.”
—  Dr. Mukund Vengalattore, Plaintiff, Vengalattore v. Cornell, et al.

Title IX has no application here. Title IX says nothing about disciplinary process. Title IX says nothing about what colleges should do when people are accused of misconduct. Title IX simply says that schools should not discriminate on the basis of sex. And unfortunately, what’s happening is colleges and universities have used these disciplinary proceedings as a way to discriminate.”
—  Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

“For some reason, these schools have made the determination that in Title IX proceedings, they’re not going to follow those very basic due process dictates. That’s what’s happened here. They violated our client’s constitutional rights. They had what I would call a ‘kangaroo-type’ proceeding, and our client has suffered immensely as a result of it.”
—  Harriet Hageman, Senior Litigation Counsel, NCLA

“Cornell denied him any hearing. It denied him a right to cross-examine witnesses. It even denied him the right to present his own live witnesses. Instead, Cornell appointed a single individual as both the investigator and the jury, and the result was a totally unfair process.”
—  Richard Samp, Senior Litigation Counsel, NCLA

For more information about the case visit here.

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Download the full document

January 5, 2021 | NCLA Second Circuit Brief Rebuts Cornell and Dept. of Educ. Efforts to Deny Title IX Hearing Rights

Washington, DC (January 5, 2021) – The New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group, today filed a reply brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the case of Dr. Mukund Vengalattore v. Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Education. NCLA’s client, Dr. Vengalattore, was a tenure-track physics professor at Cornell University when a Title IX investigation launched by a false accusation ruined his promising career. NCLA seeks to reverse the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, which dismissed the case against Cornell and the Dept. of Education without ruling on the substance of the claims presented by Dr. Vengalattore.

NCLA’s brief argues that the disciplinary proceedings violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Cornell is trying hard to deny Dr. Vengalattore his day in court by wrongly interpreting Title IX to allow only students and not faculty a right to sue under the statute. But the overwhelming majority of federal appeals courts have rejected this restrictive reading of Title IX, as it is inconsistent with Supreme Court Title IX case law. Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” which is broad enough language to encompass students and employees.

Cornell’s highly improper investigatory procedures and low ‘preponderance of the evidence’ burden of proof were adopted in response to a threat from the Department of Education (ED) to comply with its Title IX “guidance” or else lose federal funding.

NCLA further argues that the disciplinary proceedings at Cornell that led to the false finding against Dr. Vengalattore were conducted in a racially discriminatory manner in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Faculty members who reviewed Dr. Vengalattore’s employee file made racist comments about Dr. Vengalattore and about his and his students’ national origin in official documents that were reviewed by the dean of the college without any rebuke. This evidence should have sufficed to withstand a motion to dismiss.

The once-stellar academic career of Dr. Vengalattore, one of the nation’s leading experts in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, now stands in disarray as a result of a false accusation by a disgruntled grad student. NCLA is asking the Second Circuit to reverse the district court’s grant of ED’s motion to dismiss and its grant of Cornell’s motion for judgment on the pleadings. The court should remand the case to the district court for a trial on the merits.

Read case background here.

NCLA released the following statement:

“Cornell has never denied that it used a biased, secretive and fundamentally unfair process to ruin Dr. Vengalattore’s career based on a baseless and vindictive accusation. Cornell has just insisted that it has no legal responsibility to provide fairness to its students or faculty. The Court must enforce Cornell’s basic obligations to provide due process and the U.S. Department of Education’s obligation to implement Title IX in a constitutional manner.”

—  Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Download the full document

August 21, 2020 | NCLA Appeals NDNY Ruling that Ignored Ex-Cornell Prof’s Claim for Due Process in Title IX Hearing

Washington, DC (August 21, 2020) – The New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group, filed its opening brief today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the case of Dr. Mukund Vengalattore v. Cornell University and the U.S. Department of Education. NCLA represents Dr. Vengalattore, one of the nation’s leading experts in atomic, molecular, and optical physics and a former professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He was on track for tenure when a graduate student who was dismissed from Dr. Vengalattore’s lab for academic reasons retaliated by falsely accusing him of inappropriate sexual activity that simply never occurred. NCLA’s brief seeks to reverse the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York granting the university’s and the government’s motions to dismiss the case without ruling on the substance of Dr. Vengalattore’s claims.

In the appeal, NCLA argues that the district court erred in concluding that the Title IX cause of action does not extend to victims of employment discrimination. The great majority of federal appellate courts that have addressed the issue have concluded that victims of employment discrimination are entitled to seek relief under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and federal regulations explicitly recognize that right. Consequently, denying Dr. Vengalattore a private right of action for sex discrimination would be inconsistent with Title IX’s broad statutory language and with the majority judicial view.

NCLA also maintains that the trial court applied the wrong pleading standard in dismissing Dr. Vengalattore’s Title VI claim that Cornell discriminated against him on the basis of race, color, and national origin. The amended complaint relates numerous instances in which university officials conducted their investigation in an unjust manner not authorized by Cornell’s procedural rules. And those deviations hindered Dr. Vengalattore’s ability to defend himself against an unfounded allegation. Faculty members who reviewed Dr. Vengalattore’s employee file also made racist comments about Dr. Vengalattore and his students in official documents that were reviewed by the dean of the college without any rebuke. This evidence should have sufficed to withstand a motion to dismiss.

The vendetta against Dr. Vengalattore was directly enabled by the Department of Education’s (ED) Title IX “guidance” that unlawfully coerced Cornell into removing critical due process protections. It is not mere “speculation” that Cornell adopted Policy 6.4 regarding sexual misconduct in response to ED’s 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter. Cornell officials who sponsored adoption of the new policies expressly stated that the change was necessary to bring Cornell into compliance with the letter.

The Second Circuit should reinstate Dr. Vengalattore’s claims against Cornell and ED and address the problems associated with university-led investigations of alleged sexual misconduct, including the serious lack of due process in these hearings that leads to terrible reputational injuries.

Read case background here.

NCLA released the following statements:

“Dr. Vengalattore was the victim of a years-long effort by a disgruntled graduate student who had vowed to do whatever she could to make sure he never got tenure after the student was forced to leave his program for subpar academic performance. Using a rigged and one-sided system, Cornell investigators ignored multiple witnesses who highlighted the student’s history of making false allegations, as well as racially and sexually inappropriate comments in the lab, so it could reach an outcome designed solely to find people responsible for misconduct.”

— Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

“The Title IX proceedings that destroyed Dr. Vengalattore’s career as a rising star in his field of physics are an all-too-familiar story of what ensued after the Department of Education’s infamous “Dear Colleague” letter forced colleges across the country to jettison constitutional safeguards. Many federal courts are conscientiously recognizing that due process must be restored for defendants on campus. NCLA is confident that the Second Circuit will join them and reverse this erroneous and unjust dismissal.”

— Peggy Little, Senior Litigation Counsel, NCLA

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Download the full document

June 16, 2020 | NCLA to Appeal NDNY Ruling that Stymies Ex-Cornell Prof’s Fight for Due Process in Title IX Hearings

Washington, DC (June 16, 2020) – Dr. Mukund Vengalattore was a well-liked and well-regarded young physics professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He spent all his time running a bustling lab full of graduate students and attracting steady streams of federal funding when his Title IX nightmare began. In 2014, a former grad student whom Cornell dismissed for academic reasons accused him of sexual misconduct. She had sworn publicly when leaving campus that she would make sure Dr. Vengalattore never got tenure, and she followed through with a Title IX complaint filed on the cusp of his tenure decision. Cornell’s ensuing Title IX disciplinary process was not only biased, discriminatory and fundamentally unfair, it also lacked due process.

Cornell structured its Title IX hearings based on U.S. Department of Education (ED) guidance designed to enhance the likelihood that accused parties would face discipline—whether or not they were guilty. At ED’s direction in a series of “guidance” documents, Cornell revamped its disciplinary system to guarantee that Dr. Vengalattore never had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the validity of the charges against him. For starters, investigators refused to tell Dr. Vengalattore what charges he was facing, yet they applied a presumption of guilt and demanded that he prove his innocence. They invented accusations of a year-long consensual relationship which neither party alleged. Although male and female professors and students supported Dr. Vengalattore’s testimony, the investigators refused to interview defense witnesses. Instead, they credited testimony of the charging party despite very good indications that she was filing the charge to settle a score. The investigators even helped the charging party modify her accusations when they failed to line up with the evidence. In the end, with ED’s blessing, the charging party was allowed to weaponize Title IX even though she was no longer a student at Cornell.

The New Civil Liberties Alliance, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group announced today that it will appeal this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. NCLA filed a complaint against Cornell and ED in 2018 to right this wrong. Last month, District Judge Gary Sharpe granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss the case, without ruling on the substance of Dr. Vengalattore’s claims that the university and the government subjected Dr. Vengalattore to a biased process.

NCLA’s filings asked the Court to declare that ED’s Title IX guidance, much of which the Department has since withdrawn, is unlawful and unenforceable. But Judge Sharpe said he could not see a connection between the guidance ED sent Cornell and the disciplinary findings. Yet the Court denied any opportunity to develop these facts in discovery or at trial.

Further, the judge took the unusual view that Title IX, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex in education, does not apply to faculty, even though the statute does not distinguish between students and faculty. The court also concluded that even though Dr. Vengalattore never had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the validity of the charges against him in the disciplinary proceeding used by Cornell, the Constitution’s Due Process Clause does not provide him with relief in federal court because Cornell is a partially private institution. The court reached this conclusion even though ED had coerced Cornell to change its policies with a threat of eliminating all federal funding to the college—and even though federal funds partly paid for Dr. Vengalattore’s physics lab and salary.

Cornell’s flawed disciplinary findings continue to interfere with Dr. Vengalattore’s ability to get another tenure-track position, but he is deeply committed to clearing his name and making sure Cornell’s unfair process cannot be used again on anyone else.

NCLA released the following statements:

“The judge never questioned NCLA’s point that the Department of Education’s Title IX ‘guidance’ unlawfully coerced colleges into removing critical due process protections. Nor did he dispute that Dr. Vengalattore was subjected to a biased and unfair disciplinary process. Instead, he made the untenable decision that federal law provides no remedy for those harms. NCLA looks forward to vindicating our client at the Court of Appeals.”

Caleb Kruckenberg, NCLA Litigation Counsel

“NCLA hears many horror stories about abusive Title IX cases, but the vendetta against Dr. Vengalattore is one of the very worst. We are disappointed that the judge has dismissed this complaint before discovery could even occur. The Department of Education has mostly repealed the flawed mandatory ‘guidance’ Cornell relied on to prosecute Dr. Vengalattore. But Cornell is still using the flawed process that treated him so unjustly. We are grateful that Dr. Vengalattore is willing to fight the weaponization of Title IX proceedings and seek to abolish the process that harmed him. We fully expect that the Second Circuit will put this case back on track.”

Mark Chenoweth, NCLA Executive Director and General Counsel

ABOUT NCLA

NCLA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit civil rights group founded by prominent legal scholar Philip Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State. NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore Americans’ fundamental rights.

Click here to download

September 18, 2019 | NCLA Refutes Cornell University’s Motion to Dismiss Its Former Professor’s Title IX Lawsuit

Washington, DC (September 18, 2019) – The New Civil Liberties Alliance has filed
a response opposing Cornell University’s Motion to Dismiss the Complaint NCLA submitted
on behalf of Dr. Mukund Vengalattore last year. Professor Vengalattore, a former tenure-track
physics professor at Cornell, was subjected to a Title IX disciplinary proceeding utterly lacking
in due process and infected by racial and gender bias. As a direct result of its flawed process,
Cornell falsely branded Dr. Vengalattore as guilty of a consensual sexual relationship with a
graduate student—something that neither he nor the student alleged.

Dr. Vengalattore never had a full and fair opportunity to challenge the validity of the charges
against him in the disciplinary proceeding used by Cornell. Cornell’s falsehoods continue to
interfere with his ability to get another tenure-track position, and Dr. Vengalattore is committed
to clearing his name and making sure Cornell’s unfair process cannot be used again. Rather than
attempt to defend its unfair processes, Cornell has tried to portray this case as being about
Vengalattore’s tenure decision—which was already litigated—rather than about Cornell’s
unlawful disciplinary regime.

“Cornell violated Title IX through its gender-biased disciplinary process. They hid the precise
accusations from Dr. Vengalattore yet obligated him to prove his innocence to investigators who
worked hand-in-hand with the accuser. Dr. Vengalattore never had a hearing on these charges
and was not allowed to confront his accuser. This shoddy investigation violated every notion of
due process.” —Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel, NCLA

ABOUT NCLA
NCLA is a nonprofit civil rights organization founded by prominent legal scholar Philip
Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State.
NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power
of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore
Americans’ fundamental rights.
For more information visit us online: NCLAlegal.org.

Contact:
Judy Pino
New Civil Liberties Alliance
judy.pino@ncla.legal
202-869-5218

Click here to read

July 15, 2019 | NCLA Challenges ED’s Title IX Guidance for Campus Disciplinary Proceedings

WASHINGTON DC – The New Civil Liberties Alliance today filed a Memorandum of Law opposing the Department
of Education’s Motion to Dismiss the Complaint NCLA filed last fall on behalf of Dr. Mukund
Vengalattore. NCLA’s client was an assistant physics professor at Cornell on track for tenure
when in 2014 a graduate student working in his labs falsely accused him of sexual misconduct.
Since then, Dr. Vengalattore has been the victim of what Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
described as a “failed system” of “kangaroo courts” “imposed by political letter.”

The Department of Education (ED) sent colleges and universities across the country three edicts
(in 2001, 2011, and 2014) requiring them to create campus disciplinary systems that lacked basic
elements of due process and failed to ensure fundamental fairness. If colleges refused to
cooperate with this “rule by letter,” ED threatened to withhold their federal funding. Cornell
receives a significant amount of federal funding each year conditioned on the university’s
continued compliance with Title IX. With this level of dependency, schools like Cornell do not
have a meaningful choice between following the three unlawful guidance edicts and forgoing
funding.

At the Department’s insistence, Cornell tore down basic protections in its own disciplinary
proceedings. For example, the school did away with the “clear and convincing” standard for
assessing guilt it had been using and instead adopted ED’s preferred “mere preponderance of the
evidence” standard. In short, Dr. Vengalattore was subjected to a biased, discriminatory and
fundamentally unfair system that was structured, by the Department, to ensure he would be
disciplined.

Despite withdrawing the 2011 and 2014 guidance, the Department of Education continues to
enforce its unlawful commands, while simultaneously trying to avoid responsibility for the
harms its unlawful guidance has caused students and faculty subjected to these “kangaroo
courts.”

“The Department of Education must bear full responsibility for putting Dr. Vengalattore through
a horribly unjust proceeding. His personal reputation and professional standing have suffered
greatly as a result of the flawed and baseless findings made by his campus inquisitors, acting on
mandatory instructions from the Department.”—Caleb Kruckenberg, Litigation Counsel,
NCLA

NCLA’s filings are asking the Court to declare that ED’s Title IX guidance is unlawful and
unenforceable.

ABOUT NCLA
NCLA is a nonprofit civil rights organization founded by prominent legal scholar Philip
Hamburger to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State.
NCLA’s public-interest litigation and other pro bono advocacy strive to tame the unlawful power
of state and federal agencies and to foster a new civil liberties movement that will help restore
Americans’ fundamental rights.
For more information visit us online: NCLAlegal.org.

Click here to read

OPINION