Rullo v. Univ. of Pittsburgh

Decision Date26 March 2020
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 17-1380
PartiesHANNAH RULLO, Plaintiff, v. UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH - OF THE COMMONWEALTH SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION, A Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Non-Profit Corporation, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania

Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly

Re: ECF No. 47


KELLY, Magistrate Judge

Plaintiff Hannah Rullo ("Rullo"), a former law student at the University of Pittsburgh, commenced this action against Defendant University of Pittsburgh - of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education ("the University"), alleging that the University violated her rights to be free of gender bias, retaliation, and hostile environment under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Rullo's claims arise out of the University's alleged mishandling of her Title IX complaint and her allegations of assault and battery against a fellow law student.

Presently before the Court is the University's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 47, seeking the entry of judgment in its favor as to each of Rullo's claims. For the reasons that follow, the Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.1


On September 2, 2016, Rullo was arrested and charged with simple assault by City of Pittsburgh police officers after a physical altercation with Leonel Mendieta ("Mendieta"), a fellow law student she had dated for approximately one year. ECF No. 46 ¶ 20, ECF No. 53 ¶ 17. Mendieta sustained facial bruising and a bloody nose in the incident. Despite Rullo's assertion that Mendieta was the aggressor, he was not criminally charged.3 Rullo alleges that as a result of the assault, she suffered injuries to her face and body. Medical personnel photographed her injuries the following day after Rullo was released from police custody and went to a local hospital for treatment. ECF No. 74 ¶ 27. Rullo and Mendieta each sought and obtained Protection from Abuse Orders on September 6, 2016. Id.¶ 26, ECF No. 46-1 at 97-106. The Orders permitted each student to attend classes at the Law School but otherwise required them to have no contact.

Mendieta reported the altercation to Kevin Deasy ("Deasy"), the Law School's Associate Dean of Students and Title IX point of contact. ECF No. 68 ¶ 9, ECF No. 52-1 at 23. Deasy contacted Rullo on September 6, 2016 to set up a meeting for the following day to discuss the incident. ECF No. 48-1 at 57. Rullo alleges that during the meeting, Deasy made several statements that she categorizes as discriminatory based upon her gender. ECF No. 77 at 3. Deasy advised Rullo that "[Mendieta] told him everything, so there is no need to lie to him," and that Rullo "was 'not a victim'" and "should stop acting like a victim." ECF No. 74 ¶ 37. Deasy instructed Rullo that "she needed to take a leave of absence, and stated that she was 'making a scene intentionally' in showing her bruises." Id. ¶¶ 37-38, 42-43. Additionally, "Dean Deasy told Plaintiff that he 'would forget' that Hannah had any absences for the week if she stayed away from the school and 'did not cause a spectacle with [her] face." Id. Deasy denies each of these allegations and states he sought to reassure Rullo that the University would address her concerns, and he directed her to the University's Title IX office for assistance. Id.

Later that day, Rullo spoke with Kristy Rzepecki ("Rzepecki"), the University's Senior Title IX and Diversity Specialist. ECF No. 46 ¶ 14, ECF No. 74 ¶ 45. Rzepecki scheduled a meeting with Rullo and her criminal defense attorney. Rullo attempted to attend class but was stopped by University police officers who informed her that because of the Protection from Abuse Order entered against her, she was not allowed on the Law School campus or to attend class. Id. ¶ 47. Rullo reminded the officers of the exemption for education but they refused her entry. Rullo reported this incident to the University, and Deasy assured her that she was permitted to attend classes without restriction. Id. ¶ 49; ECF No. 74-1 at 20.

Rullo attended her scheduled meeting with Rzepecki and Katie Pope ("Pope"), the University's Title IX Coordinator, on September 9, 2016. ECF No. 46 ¶ 11, ECF No 74 ¶ 50. Rullo was accompanied by her legal counsel and contends she brought a completed Title IX complaint form to the meeting to initiate charges against Mendieta. Id. ¶¶ 60-61. Rullo states that Rzepecki discouraged her from submitting the form, and then failed to act upon the complaint until she submitted a second complaint on September 27. Id. ¶¶ 62, 98-101. The University disputes Rullo's allegations, and states that during the meeting, Rzepecki provided Rullo with a complaint form and explained the Title IX complaint and investigation process, and the possible sanctions that could be imposed. Id.; see also, ECF No. 48-1 at 132.

On September 16, 2016, the University's Title IX office issued a "no contact order" to both Mendieta and Rullo, instructing them that they must "cease and desist from any intentional contact with one another." ECF No. 46 ¶ 24. Despite these measures, Rullo alleges she experienced a hostile educational environment at the Law School that the University failed to ameliorate. In particular, the designated Title IX officials failed to address intimidating conduct by Mendieta and his friends who congregated outside a classroom to block her entrance, or who stared at her during class, which frightened her. Mendieta's friends also passed around a copy of Rullo's mugshot and at one point, during a class taught by Deasy in which both Mendieta and Rullo were enrolled, Deasy placed a project sign-up sheet in front of Mendieta's desk, requiring Rullo to stand in front of him while he glared at her. ECF No. 52-1 ¶¶ 20-26. Rullo alleges that she reported these incidents to Rzepecki but was treated dismissively, with Rzepecki accusing her of lying about the mugshot incident and instructing Rullo "to stop using social media because Mendieta did not like it and ... to stop posting quotes supportive of feminism." ECF No. 52-1 ¶¶ 27-28.

The University denies that Rzepecki made any disparaging statements and states that she investigated each of Rullo's complaints but was unable to corroborate any allegations of intimidating or hostile conduct by Mendieta or his friends. ECF No. 74 ¶¶ 69-80.

Rullo alleges that the University's failure to address instances of intimidation caused her to suffer anxiety to such a degree that she contacted Deasy to discuss the possibility of taking a leave of absence. Id. ¶¶ 82-83. Immediately after scheduling this meeting, Rullo received notification from her student loan provider that because she was no longer a full-time student, she was required to begin repayment. Id. 85-88. The University denies that it played any role in adjusting her status to trigger the student loan repayment notification. Id.

Rullo met with Deasy on September 22, 2016, and was accompanied by Professor Judith Teeter ("Teeter"). Rullo alleges that Deasy repeated his admonition that she was not a victim and informed Rullo that the Title IX office determined "that she was 'guilty,'" and that he believed Mendieta "would never 'do this.'" Id. ¶¶ 90-94. During the meeting, Teeter expressed her strong opposition to Rullo taking a leave of absence and her belief that Mendieta should be viewed as the aggressor. Id. ¶ 95. Rzepecki subsequently interviewed Teeter. Teeter relayed that Rullo was friends with her daughter and that Teeter believed Rullo wouldn't lie. ECF No. 52-1 at 103-105. Teeter stated that the Law School's reaction "made people believe[] him - he was the victim" and Teeter was upset that the Law School didn't accommodate both students. Id. Teeter additionally reported that on one occasion, Mendieta and his friends were by a door "trying to intimidate [Rullo]." Id.

On September 26, 2016, Rullo learned that the Title IX office "did not believe" she had submitted a Title IX complaint. ECF No. 52-1 ¶ 32. Rullo was directed to submit a complaint in order to commence an investigation into her allegations. The University contends that it first received Rullo's Title IX Complaint on September 27, but that it had inquired into her allegations over the prior three weeks and had issued interim measures since first learning of the September 2nd incident. ECF No. 74 ¶ 102.

On September 29, 2016, Rullo was provided a list of alternative courses to substitute for her class with Deasy and Mendieta, and attended a meeting with Pope, Deasy, and Law School Dean John Burkhoff. ECF No. 52-1 ¶ 33. At the meeting, Rullo also received a list of options relative to her student status, including a leave of absence. Rullo contends that Deasy stated her best option was a leave of absence and that she felt forced to take a leave "due to the University's actions and inactions in response to her Title IX complaint." ECF No. 74 ¶ 106. Rullo contacted Deasy on October 3 and notified him of her intention to take a leave of absence. ECF No. 52-1 ¶¶ 33-34. The University contends that it offered other alternatives, but that Rullo rejected each as "not 'viable.'" ECF No. 74 ¶ 104.

After withdrawing from school, Rullo remained in contact with Rzepecki and provided documentation of her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder related to the Mendieta incident. Rullo contends that Rzepecki did not consider this information as evidence of Mendieta's alleged assault or the impact of the harassment and hostility Rullo faced on the University campus. Rullo also complained to Rzepecki that she learned a former classmate was circulating an old photograph of her in a revealing Halloween costume to other law students. Rullo alleges that Rzepecki stated "[w]hy do you girls dress up like that? What do you expect?" Id. ¶¶ 107-111. Rullo alleges that Rzepecki accused Rullo of lying and expressed impatience at Rullo's allegations by sighing and rolling her eyes. Id. ¶¶ 117-120. Rzepecki denies making these statements or...

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