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Joyce v. Wright State University

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division

June 15, 2018




         Plaintiff Carolyn Joyce filed suit against Wright State University ("WSU"), alleging violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 ("Title IX"). Title IX prohibits institutions receiving federal funding from engaging in sex-based discrimination. 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Joyce's claims arise out of a sexual assault by a fellow student, Myron Walker. She maintains that WSU exhibited deliberate indifference to the threat posed by Walker, creating a hostile environment that limited her ability to participate in WSU's educational programs. This matter is currently before the Court on two pending motions: (1) Defendant WSU's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, Doc. #5; and (2) Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Portions of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, Doc. #10.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiff Carolyn Joyce was a student at WSU during the fall semester of 201 5. The Complaint alleges that, on November 8, 2015, Myron Walker, a fellow student, sexually assaulted her in the dormitory where they both lived. She reported the incident to WSU and sought medical treatment the following day.

         On November 12th, Walker was summarily suspended and instructed to leave campus after the Greene County courts issued a restraining order. A disciplinary hearing, held on November 19, 2015, involved not only Joyce's claim of sexual assault, but reports by several other female students that they too had been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by Walker on WSU's campus. On November 20, 2015, Walker was expelled from the university and forbidden from returning to campus for any reason.

         Nevertheless, in the following weeks, it appears that Walker returned to campus on at least two occasions. Over Thanksgiving break, Joyce learned from another student that Walker had been back on campus. Then, on December 16th or 17th, Joyce contacted the WSU Police after discovering, through a social media posting, that Walker was currently on campus. Although the police came to her dorm room to investigate, they said that there was nothing that they could do. No. report was filed and no further action was taken.

         According to Joyce, Katie Deedrick, an employee and representative of WSU, who knew of the sexual assault, was also aware that Walker had returned to campus after being expelled. Joyce alleges that she no longer felt safe on campus. She withdrew from classes and, although she applied for a tuition refund for the spring semester, none was given. She has been receiving psychological treatment since the assault, and has been unable to further her education elsewhere.

         Joyce filed suit on November 6, 2017, alleging violations of Title IX. Doc. #1. She alleges that WSU knew of Walker's high school history of sexual misconduct, and of Walker's assaults on other females on WSU's campus. She maintains that WSU was deliberately indifferent in allowing Walker to enroll at WSU, and in failing to protect its students from him.

         With respect to her own sexual assault, Joyce alleges that WSU was deliberately indifferent in failing to take interim measures to protect her from further incidents, allowing Walker to remain on campus for three days after she reported the rape. In addition, she alleges that WSU was deliberately indifferent in failing to enforce its order prohibiting Walker from returning to campus, thereby rendering her vulnerable to additional sexual assaults or harassment.

         On December 18, 2017, WSU filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, Doc. #5, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). It argues that Joyce's allegations fail to state a plausible claim of deliberate indifference under Title IX, that Joyce lacks standing to pursue certain claims, and that some claims are barred by the statute of limitations.

         Attached to WSU's motion were three exhibits: (1) an affidavit of Gary Dickstein, WSU's former Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs; (2) Dickstein's November 12, 2015, order prohibiting Walker from having any contact with Joyce; and (3) Dickstein's November 12, 2015, letter suspending Walker based on allegations of sexual misconduct and prohibiting him from being present on campus without permission and an escort. Doc. #5-1, PageID##25-27.

         Plaintiff then filed her Memorandum in Opposition to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, Doc. #9, along with a Motion to Strike Portions of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, Doc. #10. Both motions are fully briefed and ripe for decision.

         II. Plaintiff's Motion to Strike (Doc. #10)

         Plaintiff has moved to strike the three exhibits attached to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, Doc. #5, and any references to them. Doc. #10. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d) states, in relevant part, "[i]f, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56." Nevertheless, the court may consider exhibits attached to a motion to dismiss, without treating it as a motion for summary judgment, as long as the exhibits "are referred to in the Complaint and are central to the claims contained therein." Bassett v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008).

         In this case, the exhibits at issue are not mentioned in the Complaint. Nor can it be said that they are "central to" Joyce's claims, such as a contract might be in a breach of contract action. Rather, the exhibits are submitted by WSU to counter Joyce's allegation that WSU "failed to issue any interim measures to protect Joyce, and to provide her with a safe environment." Doc. #1, PageID#6. WSU argues that the exhibits show that, within days after receiving notice of the sexual assault, it "prohibited Walker from having any contact with Plaintiff, summarily suspended Walker and, following a disciplinary hearing, expelled him from the University." Doc. #5, PageID#17. According to WSU, disallowing consideration of the no-contact order and the summary suspension -which are clearly "interim measures"- would entitle Joyce "to rely on a revisionist history to support a legally and factually deficient claim which she is not permitted to do." Id. at PageID##17-18 n.1 (citing Weiner v. Klais & Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 86, 89 (6th Cir. 1997)).

         Joyce points out, however, that, rather than contradict her allegations, these exhibits actually support her argument that WSU waited three entire days after she reported the rape before taking any action to protect her from Walker. Her Complaint expressly alleges that "Walker was permitted to remain in the Hawthorn Hall dormitory, until either November 11th or November 12th, after a restraining order was issued by the Green[e] County courts." Doc. #1, PageID#2.

         The Court finds that the exhibits at issue do not fall within that narrow class of documents that may be considered without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. They are not referred to in the Complaint and are not central to Joyce's claims. Nor are they the kinds of documents that would allow Joyce to salvage an otherwise "legally and factually deficient claim" simply by failing to attach them. See Weiner, 108 F.3d at 89. Accordingly, the Court SUSTAINS Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Portions of Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, Doc. #10. It will not consider the exhibits or Defendant's references to them in ruling on the Motion to Dismiss.

         III. Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. #5)

         A. Relevant Law

         Title IX provides that "[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a).[1] This statute encompasses sexual harassment that creates an environment so hostile "that it effectively bars the victim's access to an educational opportunity or benefit, " Davis ex re/. LaShonda D. v. Monroe Cty. Bd. of Educ, 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999). "[Recipients of federal funding may be liable for 'subject[ingj' their students to discrimination where the recipient is deliberately indifferent to known acts of student-on-student sexual harassment and the harasser is under the school's disciplinary authority." Id. at 646-47.

         In order to succeed on a Title IX claim of student-on-student sexual harassment, a plaintiff must prove the following:

(1) sexual harassment so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it could be said to deprive the plaintiff of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school, (2) the funding recipient had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment, and (3) the funding recipient was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

Stiles ex rel. D.S. v. Grainger Cty., 819 F.3d 834, 848 (6th Cir. 201 6).

         WSU concedes that Joyce's allegation that she was sexually assaulted by Myron Walker is sufficiently severe to satisfy the first element. Accordingly, only the second and third elements are at issue. "Actual knowledge requires only that a single school administrator with authority to take corrective action had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment." Id. (citing Gebser v. Lago Vista Indep. Sch. Dist., 524 U.S. 274, 290 (1998)).

         The "deliberate indifference" standard sets a "high bar" for recovery. Title IX "requires only that school administrators respond to known peer harassment in a manner that is not 'clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.'" Id. (quoting Davis, 526 U.S. at 648). Typically, whether school officials acted with deliberate indifference is a question of fact to be resolved by the jury after considering all relevant evidence; nevertheless, the Supreme Court has held that, "[i]n an appropriate case, " a court may determine that a school's response was not "'clearly unreasonable' as a matter of law." Davis, 526 U.S. at 649.

         B. 12(b)(6) ...

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