Doe v. Ohio Univ.

Decision Date27 March 2023
Docket Number2:21-cv-00858
PartiesJANE DOE, Plaintiff, v. OHIO UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Ohio

CHELSEY M. VASCURA, MAGISTRATE JUDGE

OPINION AND ORDER

EDMUND A. SARGUS, JR. JUDGE

This matter arises on Defendant Ohio University's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 56). Also disposed of in this opinion is Defendants' Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings. (ECF No. 43). For the reasons stated below Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED. Defendant's Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings is GRANTED as to the issue of punitive and emotional distress damages under Plaintiff's Title IX claim.

A. Factual Background

Plaintiff a graduate of Ohio University (the University), brings this action against the University and its employees for allegedly mishandling Plaintiff's sexual assault report and exhibiting deliberate indifference to known, actionable harassment by her peers. (ECF No. 56, at 2) (ECF No. 21, at 23) (ECF No. 1, at 1-2). Plaintiff maintains the University's inattention to her complaints caused her to be subjected to a hostile educational environment and peer harassment. She also claims that the University's investigation process was unfair and favored her attacker over her because of her gender. (ECF 21, at 1).

As described in her amended complaint, Plaintiff attended a house party on or about February 23, 2019. (ECF No. 21, at 12). According to her amended complaint, Plaintiff became intoxicated to the point where she vomited multiple times, was unable to talk or walk without assistance, and lost consciousness in various places in the house. (Id., at 12-13). While she was in this state, Plaintiff alleges that “there were numerous photos taken of her by the party attendees.” (Id., at 13).

Plaintiff states that the next thing she could recall was waking up in a dark room as “Smith was aggressively kissing her.” (Id., at 14). She was unable to stop his advances and fell in and out of consciousness. (Id.). Plaintiff then woke up in Smith's bed where he was having sexual intercourse with her. (Id.). At this point she was still unable to leave or speak. (Id.). When she finally told Smith that she wanted to go home, he ignored her and continued having intercourse with her. (Id., at 14).

a. Plaintiff Reports the Assault

Plaintiff received a rape examination at a hospital the next day, on or about February 24, 2019. (ECF No. 21, at 16). Four days later, she reported the incident to the University's Title IX office and submitted a Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence, and Stalking Incident Report to the University. (Id.) (ECF No. 52, at 20). Plaintiff “also made a formal criminal complaint with the local police department.” (ECF No. 21, at 16) (ECF No. 50, at 25)

b. The University Initiates an Investigation

Upon receiving her report, the University contacted Plaintiff and scheduled an interview. (ECF No. 21, at 16) (ECF No. 55, at 20-21). On or about March 5, 2019, Plaintiff met with the two Investigators assigned to her case to discuss the University's investigative process. (ECF No. 21, at 23). The investigators advised Plaintiff of her right to an advisor and to attend a hearing regarding the Complaint. (Id.). The University also issued a No Contact Directive which barred both direct and indirect contact between Plaintiff and Smith. (Id.)

The University provided Plaintiff with a Process Advisor named Andrew. (Id., at 23) (ECF No. 50, at 45). Plaintiff alleges that Andrew was obviously very inexperienced. (ECF No. 21, at 23). Further, Plaintiff avers there was no apparent evidence that Andrew had received any formal training in the Title IX, investigation, or adjudication processes. (Id., at 23).

The University began the process of interviewing witnesses on April 1, 2019. (Id., at 24). Many of the witnesses confirmed that Plaintiff “had blacked out,” “face planted on the floor,” “was like a zombie,” “could not walk properly,” was vomiting in the toilet and hit her head on the toilet, and “could not walk or talk.” (Id., at 24-25). The witnesses submitted videos and photos of Plaintiff on the night in question. (Id., at 25). One witness told investigators that Smith, the attacker, was “the most sober” she had ever seen him. (Id.). Another witness submitted a text message from Smith wherein he stated that he was “a piece of shit for this one” and admitted that he hooked up with Plaintiff and was “99 percent sure she was completely gone.” (Id., at 26). The University interviewed Smith on May 1, 2019. (Id.) (ECF No. 53, at 36).

c. Peer Harassment

During the investigation, Plaintiff attended several classes with Smith's friends. (ECF No. 21., at 27). They called her a liar, spread rumors about her, and accused her of filing a complaint against Smith, who is African American, because she is racist. (Id.) (ECF No. 59, Exhibit 1, at 47, 48, 50-51). In one classroom group, some of Smith's friends harassed her by calling her names. (Id.). The students taunted Plaintiff by physically poking and prodding her to get her attention only to call her a liar and a racist again for her complaint against Smith. (Id., at 27) (ECF No. 50, at 11, 47). A few of Plaintiff's classmates witnessed the harassment and asked her professor to step in and stop it. (ECF No. 21, at 29). Plaintiff suffered extreme stress and anxiety because of the harassment. (Id.) (ECF No. 50, at 15). She missed classes out of fear of experiencing further harassment. She had trouble sleeping and lost weight. As a result of these conditions, Plaintiff suffered a hernia and underwent an emergency surgery. (Id., at 28).

d. Plaintiff Reports Peer Harassment

Plaintiff reported the harassment to the University. (Id., at 29) (ECF No. 52, Page 20). In response, the University allegedly told her that it supported her efforts to fix the problem herself but took no steps to investigate the ongoing harassment. (Id., at 30). The University allegedly refused to investigate her complaint or talk to any students in Plaintiff's classes, unless and until Plaintiff specifically pinpointed each person and instance of harassment. (Id.). Two investigators told her that, in the meantime, there was “not much” the University could do. (Id.) (ECF No. 50, at 26). When Plaintiff told one professor that she had missed class because of peer harassment, the trauma of her assault, and the feeling that the classroom was no longer a safe environment, the professor allegedly responded that she was not surprised that the students in class were acting “less than mature” but assured Plaintiff that “eventually you will get stronger and be able to deal with these scenarios.” (Id., at 29). The professor allegedly advised Plaintiff that the best solution was for Plaintiff to stop attending class and Plaintiff should learn the material on her own. (Id.). After Plaintiff stopped going to classes, Smith's friends created a social media group dedicated to posting photos of Plaintiff whenever she was on campus. (Id., at 28) (ECF No. 50, at 19). She continued to suffer physically and mentally. As a result of her rapid weight loss and depression, Smith's friends allegedly spread rumors that she had cancer. (ECF No. 21, at 28).

e. The University Finds Smith Responsible

Following the investigation, the University released an investigative report and convened a Hearing Panel, consisting of Defendants Tackett and Bennett, to adjudicate Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 21, at 31-32) (ECF No. 54, at 21-22). Plaintiff alleges that she was treated less favorably than Smith throughout the proceeding. (ECF No. 21, at 32). The Panel permitted Smith to scream at Plaintiff several different times. (Id.). Plaintiff excused herself from the hearing due to emotional distress several times. (Id.). The Panel refused to continue the hearing without Plaintiff present, even though she had been told that the hearing could have occurred without her. (Id., at 32-33). On July 8, 2019, the Panel issued an outcome letter finding Smith responsible for non-consensual sexual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact. The Panel recommended Smith's immediate expulsion. (Id., at 33) (ECF No. 53, at 59).

f. The University Grants Smith's Appeal and Overturns the Initial Determination

Smith was permitted five business days to appeal the determination. The bases for appeal were limited to: (i) inappropriate sanction; (ii) procedural defect in the original hearing; and (iii) presence of new evidence that was not available at the time of the hearing. (ECF No. 21, at 34). Smith filed an appeal on July 15, 2019 contending that there was a procedural defect in the original investigation or hearing. (Id., at 34) (ECF No. 53, at 60). According to Plaintiff, Smith did not actually allege a procedural defect in his appeal and instead disagreed with the Panel's interpretation of the evidence submitted, particularly the text message he sent about his knowledge of Plaintiff's incapacitation. (ECF No. 21, at 34). Nonetheless, Vice President of Student Affairs Pina allowed the appeal to proceed. (Id., at 35). Pina ordered that a re-hearing take place on the issue of Smith's knowledge of Plaintiff's incapacitation on the night in question. (Id.).

The Panel held a limited re-hearing on September 6, 2019. (Id., at 36) (ECF No. 53, at 59-60). Plaintiff alleges that Smith did not present new evidence at the hearing. (ECF No. 21, at 35). Following the hearing Plaintiff continued to experience harassment from other students. Students approached her on campus and said, “aren't you that girl who was raped and is a total mess now?” (Id., at 36). Her grades and mental health suffered. Plaintiff and her father again complained to the University,...

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