University’s Denying Fellowship to Student Isn’t “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”
University’s Denying Fellowship to Student Isn’t “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”

In Campbell v. Columbia Univ., decided Friday by Judge Vernon S. Broderick (S.D.N.Y.), Campbell, who had been admitted to Columbia’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution problem, sued Columbia for intentional infliction of emotional distress, based on Columbia’s denying her an “Impact HBCU Fellowship.” “After being denied the fellowship, Campbell reported depression and hormonal imbalances that ultimately led to a trip to the emergency room.” Campbell also ended up alleging “a far-reaching conspiracy involving collusion between Columbia and numerous figures, including high-level officials in the state government of Pennsylvania. The essence of these claims is that Columbia bribed the governor of Pennsylvania and a range of other officials to target Campbell and interfere with this lawsuit.”

The court granted Columbia’s motion to dismiss:

Taking this record together and construing it liberally [because plaintiff is representing herself] reveals two causes of action. The first cause of action is the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, based on Columbia’s failure to award Campbell a scholarship through the Impact HBCU Fellowship, or any other grant or work study-based support to allow her to attend Columbia. Campbell alleges that this occurred because “Columbia University wanted [her] to die.” She further alleges that she “suffered from continual blood loss, anemia, anxiety, depression, shakes, shills, vomiting, body aches, nightmares, [and] hot flashes, due to her trauma of not being selected for the fellowship, being denied financial aid, and being ignored by [Columbia personnel].”

Taking all of these as true for the purposes of Columbia’s motion to dismiss, Campbell does not plead a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The four elements of a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress are “(1) extreme and outrageous conduct, (2) intent to cause severe emotional distress, (3) a causal connection between the conduct and the injury, and (4) severe emotional distress.” Columbia challenges only the first two elements (extreme and outrageous conduct and intent to cause the same), and so does not suggest, taking Campbell’s allegations as true, that she has failed to allege causation or severe emotional distress.

Beginning with the first element, Campbell’s allegations do not meet New York’s “high threshold for conduct” that is “extreme and outrageous.” … Denying a student like Plaintiff a fellowship or grant funding is not an act “so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.” Every year, thousands of students across the United States receive unfavorable academic fellowship or financial aid decisions. While such decisions are understandably disappointing, they do not involve the “combination of public humiliation, false accusations of criminal or heinous conduct, verbal abuse or harassment, physical threats, permanent loss of employment, or conduct contrary to public policy” necessary to show outrageous conduct.

Campbell also fails to plausibly allege the second element: that Columbia intended to cause severe emotional distress. This element is satisfied when a defendant intentionally causes emotional distress or disregards a substantial probability of causing severe emotional distress. Intent must frequently inferred from a defendant’s actions and “the very nature of a defendant’s act may lead a fact finder to infer that the act was done with intent.” Additionally, knowledge of the particular sensitivity of a defendant can support a finding of intentional infliction of emotional distress,” so long as the acts complained of are not “too mundane to give rise to a colorable claim.”

Construing her allegations on this point liberally, as I must, Campbell asserts that various Columbia officials knew that she was at risk for various mental health issues and could not attend Columbia without financial aid because she disclosed this to Columbia officials in various communications. Despite this, Columbia and its officials refused to provide her with financial aid because they wanted her to die.

Even accepting that Columbia knew of Campbell’s particular medical sensitivities, the denial of student aid from which she seeks to infer intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress are the kind of mundane acts that happen to thousands of students every year. Nowhere in Campbell’s voluminous filings is there any evidence, no matter how liberally construed, of actual personal animus, ill-will, or malice towards her by Columbia staff that would provide a basis to infer an intent to inflict distress.

Campbell’s second cause of action is the somewhat more nebulous set of conspiracy claims based on alleged collusion between Columbia and the governor of the state of Pennsylvania, as well as alleged harassment by various unknown assailants employed by Columbia to prevent her from continuing this lawsuit. Campbell has proposed that these allegations similarly support a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Even given the special solicitude afforded pro se litigants, this latter set of allegations is too “fanciful, fantastic or delusional” to withstand a motion to dismiss. Her allegations paint the picture of a vast conspiracy in which Columbia has carried out a bribery campaign targeting her sorority sisters in an effort to convince them to stalk or kill Campbell, a coordinated campaign of harassment and assassination attempts, and a scheme in which the governor of Pennsylvania, the Staff Member, and a Pennsylvania state trooper were bribed to file a false police report implicating Campbell in various crimes. The verification Campbell has provided for these claims consists primarily of police reports and court documents alleging an extended campaign of harassment on her part against the Staff Member, and along with highly suspect “confession letters” purportedly sent to her by Columbia trustees and members of the Pennsylvania governor’s staff. In other words, the only connections to Columbia are the conclusory or fantastical allegations by Campbell….

And the court also denied Campbell motion to seal the case:

Campbell’s motions to seal must be denied given the stringent standard for sealing an entire case. Sealing a case file is a “last resort.”

Campbell’s grounds for sealing the case are that she wishes to avoid directing excessive media attention to this case out of concern for the stresses such attention would put on her health. She also asserts safety concerns given the alleged conspiracy against her. Given the high bar for sealing an entire docket, neither of these concerns are sufficient to merit sealing the entire docket.

A desire to prevent the press and public from accessing case materials is insufficient to warrant sealing, particularly the sealing of an entire case. Furthermore, for the reasons discussed in § III.A, I do not find the alleged conspiracy to be plausible. Thus, by extension I do not find it to be a credible basis to seal this docket. Campbell’s motions to seal this case are therefore denied….

Eugene Volokh

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