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- Paula LavigneESPN Staff Writer Close
- Data analyst and reporter for ESPN's Enterprise and Investigative Unit.
- Winner, 2014 Alfred I. duPont Columbia University Award; finalist, 2012 IRE broadcast award; winner, 2011 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism; Emmy nominated, 2009.
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit against Baylor University involving 10 women — including one who alleged she was raped by a football player — can proceed in court, allowing attorneys to start requesting records from Baylor and conducting interviews.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pittman has been assigned to all six lawsuits regarding the school, and Baylor has filed motions to dismiss in all but the two most recently filed. This is the first case on which Pittman has ruled on Baylor's request to have one of the Title IX lawsuits thrown out.
In his 27-page order filed Tuesday, Pittman wrote that each woman "has plausibly alleged that Baylor was deliberately indifferent to her report(s) of sexual assault, depriving her of educational opportunities to which she was entitled."
He also wrote that, if true, the women's claims that they were misinformed of their rights under Title IX and discouraged from naming alleged assailants or pursuing a case against them — all while the university was reporting no sexual assaults to the U.S. Department of Education — could lead a jury to infer that such actions put Baylor women at a higher risk for assault.
Representatives from Baylor have yet to respond to a request for comment.
Houston lawyer Chad Dunn, one of the women's attorneys, wrote in an email Tuesday that Pittman's ruling has impact far beyond this lawsuit.
"The ruling is [a] great leap forward for each of our 10 clients, and all Baylor victims," he wrote. "Full discovery now starts, and real transparency can come to Baylor."
In the five Title IX cases that involve women reporting sexual assaults, the two main arguments are similar. They say that after their alleged assaults, the university failed to properly investigate their specific complaints and provide them with needed services. And they assert that even before they were allegedly assaulted, the university had an ongoing system of discouraging or neglecting sexual assault reports and a policy of discrimination that put them at greater risk of assault.
The lawsuit in which the order was granted Tuesday was initially filed June 15, 2016. It includes 10 women — identified as Jane Does 1 through 10 — whose reports of sexual assault range from 2004 to 2016. All but one of them allegedly happened in housing owned or operated by Baylor.
Each woman has said that she reported her assault to someone at Baylor, such as the counseling center, Baylor police, university medical personnel or another campus office, and was met with "indifference and inadequate response." They say they were denied their rights under Title IX, the federal gender equity law that requires universities to investigate and address complaints of sexual violence.
Jane Doe No. 1 alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a football player — who is not named in the lawsuit — in a dorm room on April 26, 2014, and that she first reported it to a campus physician who the woman said misinformed her of her rights. She also said she reported her alleged assault to the Baylor advocacy center, but she said no action was taken. She stated that her anxiety and depression caused her grades to slip, and she lost her scholarship as a result.
The other plaintiffs' stories vary in the details, but several of them reported failed efforts to get help from Baylor, leaving them with mental trauma that affected them academically, emotionally and financially. Four of the women reported that their efforts to pursue their case were thwarted because they had been drinking at the time of the assault.
At least one of them reported that when she informed judicial affairs of her sexual assault, the judicial affairs staff member instead questioned her about her alcohol consumption and she "left the judicial affairs office with only a lecture on drinking."
In Baylor's motion to dismiss, the university argued that the women's allegations were "an amalgam of incidents that involved completely different contexts, offenders, and victims," and "evidence of a general problem of sexual violence is not sufficient."
In response, Pittman wrote in his order issued Tuesday that the women weren't saying Baylor knew about allegations against their specific assailants before they were assaulted, "but what they have alleged — a widespread pattern of discriminatory responses to female students' reports of sexual assault — is arguably more egregious."
He continued, "Indeed, even those Supreme Court justices who expressed skepticism regarding holding institutions liable for sexual assaults on individual students under Title IX have suggested that 'a clear pattern of discriminatory enforcement of school rules could raise an inference that the school itself is discriminating.'"
Baylor had also tried to argue that the women did not notify an "appropriate person" at Baylor, to which Pittman wrote that the women reported their assaults to "a Baylor office established by the university specifically to provide services and support to students, such as the Baylor Police Department or the Baylor Counseling Center," and that those were appropriate people who could take further action.
A major issue for some of the women in this case — and for women in other Title IX cases against Baylor — was whether time had run out for them to make their claim regarding Baylor's actions, or inaction, after their assault. In the case Pittman ruled on Tuesday, he was divided, saying four of the women's cases fell outside the statute.
However, Pittman ruled that all 10 women had a timely claim under the allegations that Baylor's overall actions — before their alleged assaults — had put them at greater risk of assault to begin with, what he termed "heightened-risk liability."
That means, at least in part, that all 10 women's cases can proceed. According to Pittman's order, the clock didn't start ticking on the two-year statute of limitations for heightened risk liability claims against Baylor until spring 2016, "when media reports regarding the rampant nature of sexual assault on Baylor's campus first came to light."
The women had also filed claims under Texas state law for negligence and breach of contract, but Pittman dismissed those claims, saying they were not supported by the facts of the case.