Two students sue Yale Law administrators for alleged retaliation in Amy Chua case
The students, both unnamed in the suit, argue the administrators kept them from obtaining fellowships and job opportunities after they refused to endorse a formal complaint against Chua. Since the suit’s filing, some have called it “frivolous” and “embarrassing.”
Madelyn Kumar, Contributing Photographer
Two unnamed Yale Law School students filed a complaint Monday against three Law School administrators and the University for allegedly “blackball[ing]” them from job opportunities after they refused to endorse a statement in the ongoing investigation against law professor Amy Chua.
The students, referred to as Jane and John Doe throughout the lawsuit, are suing the University and Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken, Law School Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove and Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Yaseen Eldik on the grounds of breach of contract, intentional interference with prospective business relationships and defamation, among others. The complaint — a copy of which was obtained by the News — was filed in the United States District Court of Connecticut. The plaintiffs requested punitive damages of at least $75,000 and compensatory damages of at least $75,000, among other monetary rewards.
“Two Yale Law School deans, along with Yale Law School’s Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, worked together in an attempt to blackball two students of color from job opportunities as retaliation for refusing to lie to support the University’s investigation into a professor of color,” the complaint reads.
Yet various legal experts expressed questions over the goals and origins of the lawsuit. They explained that one outcome of the case could be the revelation of private communications between the Law School administrators during the discovery process, and flagged that it was unusual for the plaintiffs to remain anonymous in a case of this nature.
“The lawsuit is legally and factually baseless, and the University will offer a vigorous defense,” University spokesperson Karen Peart wrote in an email to the News.
Law professor Monica Bell LAW ’09 said that she believes the sole point of the lawsuit is to generate press attention. She said that she does not believe the two law students “think they can win” the lawsuit, and that the lawsuit’s purpose is to “make things … look bad.”
David Lat LAW ’99, founding editor of the legal news website Above the Law, noted that the $75,000 in damages is the “bare minimum” for entering into federal court, suggesting that the plaintiffs may have other goals besides monetary rewards, namely seeking an official acknowledgement of wrongdoing on behalf of the University or wanting some sort of redress.
Lat also said that this lawsuit comes at a poor time for Gerken, whose deanship is soon up for review. Bell also noted the timing of Gerken’s upcoming possible reappointment, saying that it is important to keep in mind a “broader context” for the lawsuit. Yale’s deans are reviewed for reappointment every five years, and Gerken was appointed dean in 2017.
“Given that, it’s unsurprising that we would see these stories escalate at this particular moment,” Bell said. “But I think the point is really to cause a stir, because the lawsuit frankly is embarrassing for those who filed it.”
Chua told the News that the issue underlying the lawsuit was “absolutely not about me. I am just trying to put this whole horrific nightmare behind me and I wish it would just go away… I don’t ever want to speak of it again.”
The Chua investigation
Chua and her husband, currently-suspended law professor Jed Rubenfeld, first came under public scrutiny in September 2018 when they reportedly told female law students that they needed to look and dress a certain way to attain clerkships for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90. In 2020, Rubenfeld was suspended until at least 2022 due to allegations of sexual misconduct. University President Peter Salovey has not released specifics about Rubenfeld’s case.
Chua faced her own allegations of misconduct that she drank heavily with Law School students and remarked inappropriately on both students and faculty, according to a 2019 letter from Gerken that was obtained by the News. The Law School punished her — privately — by mandating that Chua not teach a small group for the 2020-21 academic year, imposing a financial penalty and removing her from the judicial clerkship committee. Chua also agreed “on her own initiative” to stop drinking with her students and socializing with them outside of class and office hours, according to Gerken’s letter.
The Law School’s investigation into Chua’s behavior was first made public in April 2021, when the News reported that she was hosting private gatherings in her New Haven home — despite having agreed to cease such out-of-class interactions in 2019. After Law School administrators were informed of these gatherings, including from a 20-page dossier that was compiled by a law student with personal knowledge of the gatherings, the Law School revoked Chua’s ability to lead a first-year small group for the 2021-22 academic year.
The Doe v. Gerken lawsuit
According to Monday’s filing, the Jane and John Doe mentioned in the lawsuit were the main subjects of the 20-page dossier of emails and text messages which became central to the Chua investigation, as they were the law students who allegedly went to Chua and Rubenfeld’s private residence.
Chua told the News that she has maintained a “friendly but distant relationship” with the two unnamed students since news of the dossier came to light, and that she has continued to offer herself as a mentor to them only if “there was no one else for them to talk to.”
The two law students claimed in the filing that the dossier placed them at the center of an “ongoing campus-politics feud” between Gerken and Chua. They objected to the dossier’s contents and reported this to the University.
According to the complaint, when the Law School administration became aware of the dossier, Cosgrove and Eldik pressured the two students to substantiate the claims in the dossier by submitting a formal complaint against Chua. The complaint claims that the dossier, and by extension the complaint, would have contained “knowingly and materially false statements.”
The lawsuit further alleges that after the students denied the contents of the dossier and declined to sign onto the statement against Chua, Cosgrove and Eldik called the students on a daily basis during one week in April 2021, saying that the two had a “moral obligation” to “future generations of students” to make the statement against Chua.
The lawsuit also states that Eldik told Jane Doe that the dossier would likely end up in “every judge’s chamber,” keeping her from receiving job opportunities if she did not comply with the Chua investigation.
“I think this lawsuit does advance the public good because Yale Law School is a powerful institution, and people should know, and Yale Law School administrators should know, that they could be in a position of intimidating students — however privileged and fortunate those students may be to have gotten into the school,” said John Balestriere LAW ’98, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
After the two students ultimately refused to endorse the statement against Chua, the lawsuit alleges that Gerken and Cosgrove spoke with an “esteemed law professor and expert in constitutional law” who already employed the two students as research assistants, and attempted to dissuade him from hiring the students for the prestigious Coker Fellowship, annually offered to select third-year law students. The lawsuit alleges that Gerken and Cosgrove cited Jane and John Doe’s “lack of candor” regarding the dossier as reason for the professor not to hire them. Neither of the students were ultimately hired as Coker Fellows, according to the lawsuit.
Multiple sources have confirmed that the constitutional law professor in question is Paul Kahn, who could not immediately be reached for comment.
Lat spoke to the News about the intricacies of this suit and said that it is “unusual” for parties in a lawsuit to remain anonymous, explaining that the judge will have to approve the motion for the plaintiffs to retain anonymity. In certain circumstances, plaintiffs may drop the case entirely if their motion for anonymity is denied by the judge, according to Lat.
In this case, Lat explained, the students may be pursuing anonymity in order to avoid this story being tied to their names for years to come. Bell similarly said the students may be worried about attaching their names to “this frivolous lawsuit” — especially given that they are pursuing careers in the legal profession.
“It actually has to do with what I like to call the Google footprint,” Lat said. “They just don’t want this to be the thing that pops up for years and years and years when [you] Google their name.”
Lat further added that one possible goal for this lawsuit is what might be produced during the discovery process.
“They want to get documents, they want to subpoena the other side [and] get internal emails between Gerken, Cosgrove and Eldik,” he said. “All of those emails would be… discoverable, meaning that they can be produced and turned over to the plaintiffs. The other thing about discovery is you get to ask questions of the relevant people under oath or deposition.”
He said that, even if the plaintiffs do not win the case, they could still force Law School administrators to reveal some “embarrassing” documents and emails.
Eldik and Cosgrove have already gained national attention this semester, after reports revealed that they had urged a student to send out a pre-drafted apology email after the student sent an invitation to a “trap house”-themed party that some students found to be racially insensitive.
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Update, Nov. 16: This article has been updated with additional sourcing and analysis.