New York’s highest court to hear Maas sexual harassment case

Was famous Cornell professor a harasser or the victim of a witch hunt?

Washington, D.C.- The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, agreed today to hear an appeal from Cornell University psychology professor James Maas, the nationally known researcher and filmmaker accused of sexual harassment by former students. Maas is asking the court to reinstate his lawsuit, which charges that Cornell failed to follow its own procedures for investigating and adjudicating sexual harassment charges. Lower courts had previously dismissed the suit without reaching the merits of Maas’s claims.

Maas claims that Cornell prevented him from questioning his accusers, denied him the right to counsel and even the right to select an adviser, failed to adhere to its own definition of sexual harassment, and violated promises of confidentiality. Maas is represented by the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in Washington and New York attorney David Stoll.

The accusations against Professor Maas in 1994 set off a long-running and highly publicized debate on the Cornell campus and around the nation. The professor’s national reputation contributed to the attention surrounding the case. Maas, who continues to teach the most popular course at Cornell and has received numerous national and local teaching awards, is perhaps best known for the educational films and television programs he produces.

The allegations against Maas were first made by twin sisters that had worked on his film crews. They eventually found two other former crew members to join them as complainants. After graduating, the four women charged that kissing and hugs, exchanges of gifts, and various remarks made while working for Maas constituted a pattern of sexual harassment. Although Maas was not found, according to Cornell, “to have either had, or sought, an intimate sexual relationship with any of his students, nor to have engaged in [any] physically abusive behaviors,” the university imposed sanctions against the professor.

Michael Rosman, General Counsel for CIR, said today that he was particularly gratified with the Court of Appeal’s decision, because “the lower courts of New York have dismissed Professor Maas’s claims without ever reaching the substance of whether Cornell’s procedures violated his rights. We are hopeful that the Court of Appeals will reinstate the professor’s claims so that their merit can finally be determined. This is the very least Professor Maas deserves.”

Curt Levey, CIR’s Director of Legal and Public Affairs, hailed the Court’s decision as “an opportunity to bring some sanity back into sexual harassment law. For too long, those accused of sexual harassment have been denied the proceedural safeguards guaranteed to other defendants. It is time to restore some balance between the rights of accusers and the rights of the accused.”