NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.S. Military Academy cadet who said she was raped at West Point cannot pursue a lawsuit accusing senior Army officers of knowingly creating and tolerating a sexually hostile environment toward women there, a divided federal appeals court ruled.
Federal judges should not decide claims such as the equal protection claim raised by the former cadet, known as Jane Doe, because it would require them to oversee a wide range of military functions, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan concluded.
Wednesday’s 2-1 decision reversed a lower court ruling.
The majority said that because Doe suffered her injuries in connection with her military service, she could not seek damages from Lieutenant General Franklin Lee Hagenbeck and Brigadier General William Rapp, respectively West Point’s superintendent and commandant of cadets during her enrollment.
“Civilian courts are ill-equipped to second-guess military decisions regarding basic choices about the discipline, supervision and control of service members,” Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston wrote for the majority.
Circuit Judge Denny Chin dissented, saying Doe was “simply a student” at a “quintessentially” educational institution when the alleged pervasive sexual harassment occurred.
He said Doe’s injuries were “incident” to her being a student rather than to her military service, and that she should be allowed to pursue her equal protection claim.
Doe is “very disappointed with this decision” and reviewing her legal options, according to Alyssa Peterson, a student at Yale Law School who works at the school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represented the former cadet.
The decision “fails to value students’ rights to an education free from sexual violence,” Peterson said in an interview. “Ms. Doe experienced discrimination while she was a student, not on any battlefield.”
Hagenbeck and Rapp were represented by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, which declined to comment. A spokeswoman for West Point declined immediate comment.
Doe, a 2008 high school graduate, resigned from West Point and was honorably discharged in August 2010, three months after the alleged rape. She later graduated from a four-year civilian college.
The lawsuit began in 2013, a year the Pentagon faced several sex-related scandals. It has since taken steps to curb improper sexual conduct in the military.
Wednesday’s decision overturned an April 2015 ruling by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan.
The case is Doe v Hagenbeck, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-1890.
Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and David Gregorio