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Gonzales v. Marshall University Board of Governors

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

July 30, 2019

ALICIA GONZALES, Plaintiff,
v.
MARSHALL UNIVERSITY BOARD OF GOVERNORS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Marshall University Board of Governors' Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 82. Plaintiff Alicia Gonzales alleges, in her complaint, a single claim against Defendant for discriminating against her based upon her sex, in violation of 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et. seq., also known as Title IX. Compl., ECF No. 1, at 9. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on this single claim, arguing that Plaintiff cannot show that she was subjected to an ongoing hostile environment or that Defendant was deliberately indifferent to her harassment. Def's Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 82, at 1. Plaintiff, on the other hand, asserts that Defendant's motion must be denied because material questions of fact still exist. See Resp. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J., ECF No. 85, at 10.

         The parties have fully briefed and argued the issues and the motion is now ripe for adjudication. As explained below, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Background

         This case originates from the alleged sexual assault of Plaintiff that occurred while she was enrolled at Defendant's university. See Compl., at ¶ 17. On February 1, 2016, Plaintiff and a fellow student at Defendant's university, Joseph Hardin, entered Plaintiff's dormitory after she signed him into the building. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 82-1, at 7 According to Plaintiff, when she and Mr. Hardin were in her bedroom, he raped her. See Id. at 8.

         The following day, Plaintiff met with Officer McCallister of the Marshall University Police Department (“MUPD”) to discuss the incident, and on February 3, 2016, the MUPD took Plaintiff to the Cabell County Courthouse to obtain a temporary restraining order against Mr. Hardin. See Id. at 9, 11-12, 28-29. Seven days after the alleged rape, on February 8, 2016, Plaintiff told Lisa Martin-Defendant's Director of Student Conduct-that Plaintiff had been assaulted by Mr. Hardin and wanted to file charges against him. See Dep. of Martin, ECF No. 86-1, at 4-5. The next day, Ms. Martin sent Mr. Hardin a letter charging him with sexual assault, a violation of the Marshall University Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities, and initiated the Title IX investigation. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 86-2, at 29; Dep. of Martin, ECF No. 82-3, at 2-5; Dep. of Bullard, ECF No. 82-4, at 3-4. The letter directed that Mr. Hardin not contact Plaintiff or her acquaintances, and banned him from the residence halls. See Dep. of Bullard, at 3-4. Additionally, Ms. Martin testified that she reviewed both Mr. Hardin's and Plaintiff's class schedules to ensure that they would not cross paths. See Dep. of Martin, ECF No. 82-3, at 5.

         After investigating the incident, on March 10, 2016, Ms. Martin found Mr. Hardin responsible for violating the Marshall University Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities, sent him a sanction letter, and expelled him from Marshall University. See Dep. of Martin, ECF No. 82-3, at 4. Mr. Hardin appealed this decision on March 11, 2016, and an appeal hearing was conducted less than two months later on May 4, 2016. See Dep. of Bullard, at 8; Dep. of Barbour, ECF No. 82-5, at 2.

         At the appeal hearing Ms. Martin represented Marshall University and presented the case against Mr. Hardin, while Mr. Hardin was represented by counsel, Anthony Spenia and Elizabeth Estep. See Dep. of Barbour, 82-5, at 3-4. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Student Conduct Panel found that Mr. Hardin was not responsible for violating the Marshall University Student Code of Rights and Responsibilities, and issued no sanction against him. See Dep. of Bullard, at 9-11.

         After the panel issued their finding, Ms. Martin spoke with Plaintiff about an appeal, and subsequently emailed Title IX Coordinator Debra Hart to inform her that Plaintiff intended to appeal. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 82-1, at 19; Dep. of Martin, ECF No. 86-1, at 61. However, Plaintiff never formally appealed the decision of the hearing panel. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 82-1, at 20-22; Dep. of Bullard, at 12. Plaintiff then left campus after her freshman year concluded on May 6, 2016, and started the admission process to Slippery Rock University. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 82-1, at 23-24.

         On May 11, 2016, one week after the appeal hearing, Carla Lapelle-Defendant's Interim Dean of Student Affairs-sua sponte issued a recommendation to Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert that Mr. Hardin be completely banned from campus until the conclusion of his criminal case, but be permitted to take online courses. See Dep. of Gonzales, ECF No. 82-1, at 30; Dep. of Bullard, at 13-14. President Gilbert then adopted Ms. Lapelle's recommendations. See Dep. of Bullard, at 16. However, on May 12, 2016, Mr. Hardin appealed President Gilbert's decision to ban him from campus, and President Gilbert lifted the ban on Mr. Hardin pending his appeal. See Review Letter, ECF No. 82-7, at 2. The record indicates, however, that the no-contact order was never lifted. See Id. Mr. Hardin's appeal was then directed to Ms. Hart, and on August 18, 2016, Ms. Hart affirmed the decision to ban Mr. Hardin from campus until the resolution of his criminal case. See Id. Thus, Defendant investigated the alleged rape, expelled Mr. Hardin from school, conducted an appeal hearing on the expulsion, banned Mr. Hardin from campus despite the fact that his expulsion was overturned, and affirmed Mr. Hardin's ban from campus after he appealed, all within seven months of being informed of the alleged rape.

         Almost five months after Mr. Hardin's ban was affirmed, on January 11, 2017, Mr. Hardin entered a Kennedy Plea to the charge of battery and was sentenced to three years of probation. See Review Letter, at 2. On January 20, 2017, Mr. Hardin then requested a reconsideration of his ban from Marshall University due to the conclusion of his criminal case, and Ms. Gonzales objected to his request on February 1, 2017.[1] See Id. Mr. Hardin's ban was then lifted to allow him to return to campus to attend classes, but he was not permitted to enter the residence halls, to participate in extracurricular activities, or to attend the Rec Center. See Id. at 3. These restrictions were subsequently lifted in the Fall of 2018. See Dep. of Hart, ECF No. 86-3, at 14.

         Plaintiff then filed a complaint against Defendant on January 1, 2018, for violating Title IX, arguing that, as a result of Defendant's actions and deliberate indifference toward the sexual assault, she suffered various damages. See Compl. Defendant now moves for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim. Def's Mot. for Summ. J., at 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         To obtain summary judgment, the moving party must show that no genuine issue as to any material fact remains and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In considering a motion for summary judgment, a court will not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter[.]” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). Instead, a court will draw any permissible inference from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). Any inference, however, “must fall within the range of reasonable probability and not be so tenuous as to amount to speculation or conjecture.” JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). Therefore, summary judgment will not be granted if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party on the evidence presented. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.

         III. Discussion

         Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 states 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). Thus, to establish a Title IX claim on the basis of sexual harassment, “a plaintiff must show that (1) she was a student at an educational institution receiving federal funds, (2) she was subjected to harassment based on her sex, (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile (or abusive) ...


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