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A district court judge ruled that a Penn student can proceed with Title IX claims against the university after she sued in 2020 for allegedly facing sexual advances from former Counseling and Psychological Services Director William Alexander.

Credit: Cindy Chen

A district court judge ruled that a Penn student can proceed with Title IX and American Disabilities Act claims against the University.

On Jan. 31, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that April Ploeger — who first enrolled as an undergraduate in 2006 before being granted multiple leaves of absence — can proceed with two of four standing claims against Penn. Ploeger claimed that the University charged her a higher fee to re-enroll after she sued Penn for allegedly facing sexual advances from former Counseling and Psychological Services Director William Alexander.

In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio said that Penn does not usually comment on pending litigation. Ozio cited how the University made a partial motion to dismiss some of the claims made in Ploeger's complaint.

"It is worth noting that at the motion to dismiss phase of a case, the court is required to accept as true the allegations in a plaintiff’s complaint," Ozio wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "Penn denies the allegations and intends to vigorously defend this case."

The court's opinion said that when Ploeger first enrolled at Penn in 2006, she reported her diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, depression, and anxiety to the Office of Disability Services. Disability Services then granted Ploeger several requests for leaves of absence and test-taking accommodations for medical reasons between 2006 and 2015.

In 2009, Ploeger received counseling from Alexander, who began his role as director of CAPS that year and retired in 2018. She alleged that during these counseling sessions, Alexander made inappropriate sexual advances, touching her at least once without consent. These advances led Ploeger to attempt suicide in 2009, after which Alexander allegedly told her to “go home and put a Band-Aid on it," according to her complaint.

Ploeger attempted suicide again in 2015 by overdosing on medication prescribed to her by Alexander. He allegedly wrote her another prescription following this attempt but did not direct her to further mental health treatment.

Ploeger reported the alleged misconduct to Alexander’s supervisor and then-Penn President Amy Gutmann in 2015. Alexander allegedly threatened her in response to these reports.

Before the start of the spring 2016 semester, Ploeger allegedly applied for the same accommodations she had received since 2009. The opinion then stated that the University required that Ploeger meet with CAPS personnel to be granted the accommodations and denied her request to have a witness or advocate present in the meeting. She decided not to re-enroll at Penn as a result. She said that CAPS did not respond to her subsequent requests to set up a conversation with a counselor.

In the spring of 2018, Ploeger allegedly re-enrolled by sending a 'return from leave' letter, but did not sign up for classes because she was “fearful of further retaliation,” as quoted in court documents. She then attempted to re-enroll for the fall 2018 semester, but the University allegedly rejected her re-enrollment request. 

Ploeger, who is represented by Trial Law Firm, LLC, filed her initial complaint against Penn on April 1, 2020, in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. After she requested to re-enroll at Penn in 2021, the complaint said that the University required that she pay a fee of several thousand dollars, an increase from what the complaint said was an initial requirement for hundreds of dollars to re-enroll before she sued.

Ploeger has filed a series of complaints since April 2020. The court said that her assertion that the University imposed a higher re-enrollment fee following the lawsuit was sufficient to uphold the retaliation claims. The other claims have been dismissed, according to the opinion.

The dismissed claims include breach of contract, in which Penn allegedly did not provide its promised free, high-quality healthcare; and negligent supervision due to the University’s failure to supervise Alexander and terminate him after her report. The court dismissed both claims because they are barred by statute of limitations.