Kesterson v. Kent State Univ.

Decision Date05 November 2018
Docket NumberCase No. 5:16-cv-298
Citation345 F.Supp.3d 855
Parties Lauren KESTERSON, Plaintiff, v. KENT STATE UNIVERSITY, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio

Ashlie Case Sletvold, Donald P. Screen, Marvin C. Brown, IV, Patrick C. Haney, Subodh Chandra, Chandra Law Firm, Cleveland, OH, for Plaintiff.

Jack Morrison, Jr., Richard P. Schroeter, Thomas R. Houlihan, Amer Cunningham, Akron, OH, Anthony J. Farris, Lisa M. Critser, Anna M. Seidensticker, James Donovan Miller, Office of the Attorney General State of Ohio, Columbus, OH, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SARA LIOI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Lauren Kesterson ("Kesterson") brings this civil rights action against defendants Kent State University ("Kent State"), Eric Oakley ("Oakley"), and Karen Linder ("Linder"). Each defendant has moved for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 164 ["Kent State MSJ"]; Doc. No. 161 ["Oakley MSJ"]; Doc. No. 166 ["Linder MSJ"].) Plaintiff opposes each motion. (Doc. No. 173 ["Kent State MSJ Opp'n"]; Doc. No. 171 ["Oakley MSJ Opp'n"]; Doc. No. 175 ["Linder MSJ Opp'n"].) Defendants have filed reply briefs. (Doc. No. 178 ["Kent State MSJ Reply"]; Doc. No. 177 ["Oakley MSJ Reply"]; Doc. No. 179 ["Linder MSJ Reply"].)

I. BACKGROUND

In the fall of 2012, Kesterson enrolled as a freshman student at Kent State on an athletic scholarship and joined the university's women's softball team. On December 7, 2012, she alleges that another student athlete, Tucker Linder ("Tucker"), raped her in her dorm room. (Doc. No. 156 (deposition of Lauren Kesterson ["Kesterson Dep."] ) at 67.1 ) The facts surrounding this unfortunate encounter were discussed at length in the Court's March 15, 2017 memorandum opinion denying defendants' motions to dismiss, and familiarity with that opinion is presumed. See Kesterson v. Kent State Univ. , No. 5:16-cv-298, 2017 WL 995222, at *1-2 (N.D. Ohio Mar. 15, 2017). While the Court will briefly revisit the facts surrounding the alleged attack now that the record has been developed after discovery, it must be emphasized that this lawsuit concerns the events that transpired in the months and years that followed, and, particularly, defendants' various responses to Kesterson's reports of sexual assault.

The Alleged Assault

Tucker, a member of the university's male baseball team, was the youngest son of Linder, the head coach of the women's softball team. Linder had recruited Kesterson and her twin sister, Chloe Kesterson ("Chloe"), to play softball for Kent State while the girls were still high school juniors. (Doc. No. 155 (Deposition of Karen Linder ["Linder Dep."] ) at 52-56.) Linder was responsible for arranging for both girls to receive athletic scholarships. (Id. at 52; see generally id. at 38.) Upon arriving at Kent State her freshman year, Kesterson developed a friendship with Tucker, and their relationship evolved to the point of a consensual romantic encounter in November 2012. (Kesterson Dep. at 42-45.)

In her deposition, Kesterson testified that, on the evening of December 7, 2012, Tucker contacted Kesterson and invited her to meet him in his room. (Id. at 49-51.) Kesterson went to Tucker's room and the two talked. Tucker appeared intoxicated. (Id. at 57.) Because Tucker's roommate was passed out in the room, Tucker and Kesterson jointly decided to retire to Kesterson's room. (Id. at 59.) When they first arrived, they found Chloe there, but she quickly retired to the adjoining room of another softball player. (Id. at 59-61.)

Once alone, Tucker and Kesterson began to kiss, which led to some consensual sexual touching, and the two began to remove their clothes. (Id. at 63-65.) After a brief interval where the two engaged in some discussion, Tucker attempted to remove Kesterson's underwear, at which time she told Tucker that she did not want to have sex. (Id. at 66.) According to Kesterson, Tucker ignored this and continued to remove her underwear. Kesterson tried to push him away, but Tucker continued to press his advantage and raped her. (Id. at 66-67.) The two eventually fell asleep. In the morning, Tucker "initiated again" with Kesterson and the two had sex for a second time. Kesterson testified that she would not call this second encounter "consensual," though she concedes that she neither consented nor withheld her consent. (Id. at 71.) Kesterson did not share the details of the alleged rape with any employee of the university for more than seventeen months. The first employee she told was Linder, her coach and her alleged attacker's mother.

The 2014 Exit Interview

In May 2014, Kesterson met with Linder for a routine exit interview following the 2014 spring softball season.2 (Linder Dep. at 309.) When Linder asked Kesterson if she was all right, Kesterson informed her that she had been raped.3 (Kesterson Dep. at 122; Linder Dep. at 92.) Linder then asked Kesterson if she was referring to her son, Tucker.4 (Kesterson Dep. at 122-23; Linder Dep. at 92-93.) Kesterson initially hesitated but ultimately confirmed that she was referring to Tucker. (Kesterson Dep. at 123; Linder Dep. at 93.) Linder asked her if she wanted to bring criminal charges against Tucker, and Kesterson told her that she did not.5 (Kesterson Dep. at 123; see Linder Dep. at 93.)

Linder then asked who else knew about the assault, and Kesterson informed her that she already told her parents, her twin sister, Chloe, and her roommate, Nicki. (Kesterson Dep. at 125.) Linder indicated that she believed that it would better if they kept this information limited to people who already knew and not tell anyone else, though Kesterson also testified that Linder "told me not to tell anybody" and "I mean, [Linder], had told me not tell anybody about me being raped." (Kesterson Dep. at 125, 131, 190-91, 198; see id. at 129 ["[Linder] asked me not to tell anybody about it."].) Linder did, however, suggest that Kesterson speak with Tucker about the incident. (Id. at 126-27; Linder Dep. at 138-39.) Kesterson "eventually" told Linder that she would not speak with Tucker. (Kesterson Dep. at 127.) Before the meeting concluded both women were crying, and Linder informed Kesterson that Tucker was struggling and that he "hadn't been right for a while." (Id. at 190; Linder Dep. at 136-38.) She also shared with Kesterson that Tucker was considering not returning to school in the fall. (Linder Dep. at 136.) Linder assured Kesterson that she would help her get through the rest of her time at Kent State. (Id. at 153.)

Later that same day, Linder contacted Kesterson's mom and relayed that she was sorry for what had happened between Kesterson and Tucker, and that she wanted to help Kesterson work through the situation. (Kesterson Dep. at 138-39; Linder Dep. 153.) She discussed possible counseling, and her mother advised Linder that Kesterson was seeing a counselor. (Linder Dep. at 153.) Linder also checked in with Kesterson throughout the summer of 2014 to see how she was doing. (Id. at 152-53; Kesterson Dep. at 194.) When Kesterson returned to school in the fall, Linder asked her how she was doing. (Linder Dep. at 153.) She also informed Kesterson that a former university employee and "life coach," Deborah Keith, would be available to speak with Kesterson or Chloe, if either woman wanted to receive counseling. (Id. at 154, 311.)

Kent State's sexual harassment policy designates all employees as mandatory reporters. (Doc. No. 164-8, Kent State Policy Register 5-16.2(D) (requiring employees to report all instances of sexual misconduct to the Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinator). Yet, it is undisputed that Linder did not report the alleged assault by her son to any employee at Kent State. While Linder testified that she believed that Kesterson did not want her to report the assault, she admitted that she was concerned about the fallout and how it would affect her son if he was accused of rape and the matter was investigated. (Linder Dep. at 104, 107, 109, 120.)

Linder Reports a Different Sexual Assault Claim

Linder did, however, report the sexual assault of another female student athlete. Within days of her 2014 exit interview with Kesterson, another female softball player informed Linder that she had been assaulted by a different male Kent State student athlete. Linder connected the other softball player with the Office of Sexual & Relationship Violence Support Services ("SRVSS") at the Women's Center on campus. (Id. at 77-78.) She also reported the other softball player's rape to Janet Kittell ("Kittell"), the senior woman administrator and a deputy Title IX coordinator. (Id. at 82-86.)

Linder's Behavior after Kesterson's 2014 Exit Interview

It is Kesterson's position that Linder's failure to report Tucker's alleged attack left her free to retaliate against Kesterson for mentioning the incident in her exit interview. Though Linder successfully coached Kesterson in a starting position for two years, Kesterson claims that Linder entirely changed her approach to coaching Kesterson in her junior year. (Kesterson Dep. at 195, 198.) According to Kesterson, Linder generally acted with extreme indifference toward Kesterson throughout her junior year. (Id. at 195 ["[Linder] didn't address me by my ... nickname, or she didn't seem to talk to me or look at me."]; id. at 198 ["[I]t seemed like [Linder] wanted to act like I wasn't a part of the team anymore .... I used to be one of [Linder's] favorites, then [Linder's attention] completely dropped off like to where it was almost like she didn't want to recognize that I was still there."].)

In her deposition, Kesterson testified that, in the fall of 2014, she became emotional during a practice. After the practice, in the locker room, she heard Linder tell Oakley, one of Linder's assistant coaches, that they could not have Kesterson lose her composure during a practice, and that if she did it again, Kesterson should be asked to leave. (Id. at 196.) When Kesterson approached the two coaches, Linder...

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