Rowles v. Curators of the Univ. of Mo.

Decision Date18 December 2020
Docket NumberNo. 19-1946,19-1946
Citation983 F.3d 345
Parties Jeremy A. ROWLES, Plaintiff - Appellant v. CURATORS OF the UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI; Ellen L. Eardley; Andrea Hayes, Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Civil Rights & Title IX; Salama Gallimore; Cathy Scroggs, Defendants - Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

983 F.3d 345

Jeremy A. ROWLES, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
CURATORS OF the UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI; Ellen L. Eardley; Andrea Hayes, Interim Assistant Vice Chancellor for Civil Rights & Title IX; Salama Gallimore; Cathy Scroggs, Defendants - Appellees

No. 19-1946

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit.

Submitted: September 22, 2020
Filed: December 18, 2020


Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellant and appeared on the appellant brief was John Andrew Hirth, of Columbia, MO.

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellee and appeared on the appellee brief was Antwaun Smith, of Columbia, MO. The following attorney(s) appeared on the appellee brief; Emily W. Little, of Columbia, MO.

Before LOKEN, SHEPHERD, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

SHEPHERD, Circuit Judge.

983 F.3d 351

Jeremy A. Rowles, an African-American male, was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri (University) when a white female undergraduate student filed a Title IX complaint against him. Following an investigation, Rowles was found to have violated the University's policies prohibiting sexual harassment and stalking on the basis of sex, and he was suspended for two years. Rowles filed this action against the Curators of the University and four individual Title IX investigators (collectively, Appellees), asserting nine claims. The district court1 dismissed certain claims for failure to state a claim, denied Rowles's motion to compel discovery, and granted summary judgment in favor of Appellees on the remaining claims. Rowles now appeals, and having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.

I.

Rowles was a Ph.D. candidate in the University's cultural anthropology program. In 2015, while he was working as a teaching assistant, an undergraduate student filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. The University deemed the claim unsubstantiated. However, during the investigation, Appellee Salama Gallimore, one of the University's Title IX investigators, allegedly told Rowles that he "looked like someone who might commit sexual assault." R. Doc. 1-1, at 4.

In September 2016, Rowles met A.B., a white female undergraduate student, at a dance fitness class that she taught at the University "Rec Center." Rowles asked A.B. out on a date, and she declined. Subsequently, Rowles sent A.B. numerous flirtatious Facebook messages, prompting A.B. to ask him to stop because she said he had crossed the line and the messages made her feel uncomfortable. Thereafter, Rowles continued to attend A.B.’s dance classes and attempt to speak with her. He also asked A.B. for private dance lessons and gave her a three-page letter expressing his romantic feelings for her. A.B. filed a Title IX complaint, alleging sexual harassment. The University's Title IX Office informed Rowles that it was investigating A.B.’s allegations as "fall[ing] under the sexual harassment and stalking provisions" of the Standard of Conduct for Students and Student Organizations. R. Doc. 1-1, at 70. After an investigation, Rowles was found to have violated the University's policies prohibiting sexual harassment and stalking on the basis of sex. The University suspended Rowles for four years and permanently banned him from the residence halls and Rec Center. Rowles appealed within the University process, and his suspension was reduced to two years.

983 F.3d 352

The University's sexual harassment policy prohibits:

1) Unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual activity by a person or persons in a position of power or authority to another person, or

2) Other unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature by a person to another person, when:

a) Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used explicitly or implicitly as a condition for academic or employment decisions; or

b) Such conduct creates a hostile environment by being sufficiently severe or pervasive and objectively offensive that it interferes with, limits or denies the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from educational programs or activities or employment access, benefits or opportunities.

R. Doc. 1-1, at 70. Additionally, the University's policy prohibiting stalking on the basis of sex provides:

Stalking on the basis of sex is following or engaging in a course of conduct on the basis of sex with no legitimate purpose that puts another person reasonably in fear for his or her safety or would cause a reasonable person under the circumstances to be frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed.

R. Doc. 1-1, at 70.

Rowles filed this action against the Curators of the University and four individual Title IX investigators: Cathy Scroggs, Ellen Eardley, Gallimore, and Andrea Hayes. He asserted nine claims: three alleging First Amendment violations—substantial overbreadth, void for vagueness, and retaliation—as well as claims for violations of procedural due process, substantive due process, Title IX's prohibition on sex discrimination in education, Title VI's prohibition on race discrimination in federally funded programs, and the Missouri Human Rights Act's (MHRA) prohibitions on race and sex discrimination in public accommodations. Appellees moved for dismissal of all claims, and the district court dismissed the substantial overbreadth, Title IX, and MHRA claims.

In an effort to obtain evidence in support of his Title VI claim, Rowles sought information in discovery regarding prior Title IX complaints received by the University. Appellees provided summary information for 60 complaints, including the date of the complaint, the race and sex of the accused, the policies which the accused was found to have violated, and the punishment imposed. Rowles moved to compel the production of the Title IX complaints, investigations, and findings pertaining to the 60 complaints. He argued he needed the actual records for two reasons: (1) to show that the University disproportionately sanctions African-American students; and (2) because the records would reveal the factual circumstances underlying each complaint, which were necessary for him to identify similarly situated comparators. The district court denied the motion. It explained that a showing of disproportionate sanctions required statistical analysis and that Rowles had not designated an expert witness for such analysis. It further stated its belief that the existing discovery was sufficient for Rowles to identify similarly situated comparators, which it said were graduate students accused by undergraduate students of sexual harassment and stalking on the basis of sex. Additionally, the district court reasoned that disclosure of the records would unduly burden Appellees.

Rowles moved for summary judgment on his First Amendment claims, which the district court denied. Appellees moved for summary judgment on all remaining

983 F.3d 353

claims. In granting Appellees’ motions, the district court held that: (1) on the Title VI claim, Rowles failed to demonstrate that similarly situated comparators were disciplined less harshly; (2) the University's sexual harassment and stalking policies were not unconstitutionally vague as applied to Rowles; and (3) the record established that Rowles did not engage in protected speech nor was he punished for his speech, and even assuming he had engaged in protected speech, he failed to demonstrate that he was deprived of a clearly established First Amendment right.2 Rowles appeals the district court's dismissal of his substantial overbreadth, Title IX, and MHRA claims; its denial of his motion to compel discovery; and its grants of summary judgment on his vagueness, First Amendment retaliation, and Title VI claims. Due to the nature of the issues, we will begin by addressing the denial of Rowles's motion to compel.

II.

Rowles challenges the district court's denial of his motion to compel, which is most relevant to his Title VI claim. "A district court has very wide discretion in handling pretrial discovery and this Court is most unlikely to fault its judgment unless, in the totality of the circumstances, its rulings are seen to be a gross abuse of discretion resulting in fundamental unfairness in the trial of the case." United States v. One Assortment of 93 NFA Regulated Weapons, 897 F.3d 961, 966 (8th Cir. 2018) (citation omitted). For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that Rowles has failed to meet his burden of showing a gross abuse of discretion.

We begin by observing that Rowles took a "kitchen sink" approach in his complaint. In his 58-page, 282-paragraph amended complaint, he asserted nine different causes of action under both federal and state law. In addition, Rowles alleged few facts in support of his Title VI claim: (1) Gallimore told him in a prior investigation that he looked like someone who might commit sexual assault; (2) a forthcoming law review article posited that the University's enforcement of Title IX "likely" discriminates against African-Americans; (3) "[o]n information and belief, a statistical analysis of Title IX sanctions imposed by the University over the last several years will show a pattern and practice of selective enforcement against male students"; and (4) Rowles would have been treated less harshly if he were a white Ph.D. candidate. R. Doc. 1-1, at 51-52. He...

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