The PII Blog

PII’s Role in a Class-Action Lawsuit a Decade Ago Connects to Current Changes in Military’s Handling of Sexual Assault

By Cathleen Watkins

In a move to toughen the military’s handling of sexual harassment, President Biden recently signed an Executive Order making sexual harassment a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The change encompassed both in person and online harassment, including sharing of sexual imagery.

This significant reform follows another fundamental change in how the military approaches sexual assault complaints. At the end of 2021, federal lawmakers restructured the complaint process for sexual assault allegations, stripping commanders of the authority to make decisions on whether those accused of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, murder, and other offenses will face prosecution. Instead, independent military prosecutors will have this authority.

Public Interest Investigations, Inc. (PII) has been close to the fight to remove commanders from this role for more than a decade. In 2011, PII was the lead investigator on litigation brought by attorney Susan Burke alleging that the military mishandled seventeen cases of sexual assault spread across different military branches. Plaintiffs in this federal class action, which included fifteen women and two men, had been required to bring their complaints to their commanding officers rather than to someone outside their chain of command. This resulted in situations in which victims were ordered to continue working with, and living in close proximity to, their alleged perpetrators, who often outranked them. Additionally, commanders decided which cases went to court-martial.

PII’s team – Keith Rohman, Barbara Dalton, and Li Fellers – interviewed dozens of survivors of military rape across the country as part of the class action. The service members’ disturbing accounts were then shared with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and became part of the body of evidence that eventually led lawmakers to make the recent shift to remove commanders from the reporting structure.

The idea that commanders would give up this role met strong opposition when it was first introduced. Rohman said, “The prospect of removing the military commander from the investigation process was a hard ‘No,’ from the Pentagon and its Congressional supporters in 2011. There is a direct line between PII’s work and this achievement.”

While Sen. Gillibrand, Rep. Jackie Speier, and others continue to fight for more changes, it is important to remember that this procedural shift toward a fairer complaint process was unthinkable a generation ago.

Cathleen Watkins is a senior investigator at PII. She is also a trainer and project director at T9 Mastered, an affiliate of PII that provides training to Title IX professionals on investigating and adjudicating campus sexual assaults.