NASHVILLE (WATE) – A judge has issued a ruling on University of Tennessee’s motion to dismiss a Title IX lawsuit that alleges the university created an environment that enables sexual assaults committed by student athletes.
While United State District Court Judge Aleta A. Trauger denied most of the university’s request to dismiss the case altogether, saying its attorneys didn’t completely understand previous cases they referenced, she did grant part of the school’s request to dismiss a claim by Jane Doe I. Trauger said that while the claim was valid, it had reached the statute of limitations.
LMU law professor, Akram Faizer, said Trauger’s latest decision puts the plaintiffs in a good position moving forward.
“By holding in their favor, she now allows this case to proceed in federal court and go towards trial and allow for most importantly discovery to happen, depositions, all kinds of things which UT could find damaging and encourage UT to potentially settle the case,” he said.
The plaintiffs, eight anonymous women who go by “Jane Doe” in court documents, argued for the interpretation of a sexual assault case against the University of Colorado to be applied to their case. In the Colorado case, two women said they were sexually assaulted by football players and recruits while the high school recruits were visiting Boulder because they claimed the university had an “official policy” to provide recruits with female host students to entertain them. The case showed that the university ignored the fact that the event created an expectation of sex by the recruits, and that prior sexual assaults by recruits had occurred at similar past events. It added that the school also ignored warnings by the local District Attorney to develop policies for supervising recruits and training football players on sexual harassment.Previous story:University of Tennessee says plaintiffs are ‘throwing mud against the wall’ in Title IX case
In the University of Tennessee’s Motion to Dismiss the case filed against it in February, UT’s attorneys said the plaintiffs failed to articulate an “official policy” leading to the sexual assault cases and they said the Sixth Circuit Court should not apply the case to the lawsuit against UT because there was no precedent. However, Judge Trauger said the university’s lawyers misunderstood the wording in the case.
Trauger said that “official policy” could also include knowledge and deliberate indifference, which actually supports, rather than undermines, the likelihood that the Sixth Circuit would recognize the theory of liability relied on in the Colorado case. Also, she said the Supreme Court has taken up similar cases involving student-on-student harassment where the school was found liable for “deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment” that were “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Trauger said that while the Sixth Circuit Court has not taken up a case involving actual knowledge and deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment, the court would support it.More:
Motion to dismiss Jane Doe I’s “before” claim
Siding with the University of Tennessee, Trauger did dismiss a claim one of the plaintiffs filed after her statute of limitations had expired.
In the claim, Jane Doe I says she was forcibly raped by a University of Tennessee varsity basketball player at his apartment in Volunteer Hall. She said the reported the rape the next day to the University of Tennessee Police Department.
In the lawsuit, Jane Doe I claims the university attempted to limit access to the records of the investigation that was done by the University of Tennessee Police Department. She also said her assailant was represented by an attorney who is a former University of Tennessee athlete and member of the University of Tennessee Board of Athletics.
The plaintiff said the attorney “frivolously requested an administrative hearing, and then requested a delayed hearing date… to postpone disciplinary action until assailant had been able to complete the remainder of basketball season and successfully transfer to another school.” After finishing the Spring 2013 semester, she said the university publicly announced the player was leaving the school on “good terms”.
In December 2013, she said she was contacted by the player, despite having a no-contact directive that was established in February 2013. She said the player was not a student at UT, but it caused her to suffer from trauma and impaired her class attendance and academic performance.
In the lawsuit, she claims UT was negligent because even though it let her Spring 2013 teachers know she had suffered a traumatic experience and would likely miss classes and need additional support, it did not continue to let teachers know in other semesters or following the December 2013 contact from her assailant. As a result, Jane Doe I says her GPA dropped to .08 points below the mandatory minimum requirement in May 2014 and she was forced to drop out. She said the university was unwilling to offer any leniency on the policy, despite being provided with a letter from Jane Doe I’s therapist that her drop in academic performance was related to her assault.
On May 19, 2015, Jane Doe I signed a tolling agreement, which is often used when the parties in a dispute are nearing the end of the statutory limitations period and want time to continue negotiations rather than force the filing of a lawsuit. Trauger said the tolling agreement was filed after Jane Doe I’s statute of limitations had expired and the tolling agreement will not stand in court.
That means Jane Doe I will not be able to recover damages from the university for the alleged rape. However, Trauger said she may be able to recover compensatory damages because of UT’s response to her report of the assault and the actions taken in the aftermath that caused her injury, including her expulsion from the University of Tennessee’s nursing program.
Ultimately, Trauger said it will be up to a trial jury to decide if the facts and evidence laid out by the plaintiffs are enough to hold the university liable. However, she said there is enough burden of proof to move forward to a trial.
“She adjudicated the claim on the assumption that everything the plaintiffs said was true,” said Faizer. “Assuming everything the plaintiffs say is true, does the case still arise to a Title IX cause of action? And giving them every inference in their favor, she said this case can proceed. Now it’s going to be an open question if, indeed, going through discovery and depositions and all of that stuff, whether every claim they allege is actually true.”
Faizer said UT’s lawyers have ten days from the date the judge issued to her order to file an interlocutory appeal to the 6th circuit.Statement from University of Tennessee’s attorney
Full statement from Bill Ramsey, a Nashville attorney hired to represent the University of Tennessee in the lawsuit:
“We appreciate the Judge’s consideration of dismissal of certain issues with this case especially in light of the case’s difficult nature as it involves the lives and well-being of young people. Under the standard for a motion to dismiss, the Court was required to accept the allegations in the complaint as true for purposes of ruling on the motion. We maintain our position that the allegations put forth in the lawsuit regarding the University are unfounded and without merit. We are confident that once all of the facts are considered instead of only the allegations in the complaint, Plaintiffs will be unable to prove their claims.”