Title IX Lawsuit Against UNL Advances, Judge Drops Seven Women From Suit
By Elizabeth Rembert , Food, Energy and Agriculture Reporter Nebraska Public Media, Harvest Public Media and Will Bauer, Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
May 12, 2022, 5 p.m. ·
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A federal judge ruled a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln can proceed on the basis of two women’s allegations that UNL didn't protect them after they were sexually harassed. In the same ruling, he dismissed seven other women making similar claims.
Chief Judge Robert Rossiter dismissed all four named women’s accusations, along with the claims of three other unnamed women in a memo released Wednesday.
"We're really glad, of course, that the two cases are going to continue," Karen Truszkowski, one of the women's attorneys, said. "It's never easy for the plaintiff in this situation. But we are hoping that we can move forward with the two people that are left and we really appreciate that the court recognized that they had viable claims. Title IX cases are getting harder and harder to get through, there is a very high bar to overcome."
The judge’s dismissal comes with prejudice, which, in the legal field, means the claims cannot be brought back.
The civil lawsuit – dubbed Thomas v. Regents for its lead plaintiff, Sheridan Thomas – originally alleged nine women were victims of sexual violence, and the university failed to properly respond. The women were raped, groped, stalked, targeted with racist remarks or otherwise harassed by other students, according to the original court filings.
The nine women, including former Nebraska volleyball player Capri Davis, said the university’s Title IX office did not make academic accommodations for sexual assault survivors, asked victim-blaming questions and did not put in place proper measures to protect the survivors from the assaulters.
In Wednesday's ruling, Rossiter said the seven women’s claims generally did not provide enough evidence to connect the university’s action or inaction to their experiences of sexual harassment.
Davis, who transferred to the University of Texas at Austin and later left volleyball for good, was among the women whose claims were dismissed. Lead plaintiff Thomas was also among that group.
In a statement, the university praised the judge’s recent decision.
“The University is pleased with the Court’s decision to dismiss seven of the nine plaintiffs and all but two of the claims in this case,” spokesperson Leslie Reed said via email. “The opinion provides substantial affirmation for the university’s confidence in its overall Title IX process. While we cannot comment on the specifics of any Title IX case, every case is difficult and investigated on the information made available. The University disagrees with the factual assertions in the remaining claims and will continue to actively defend the litigation.”
The remaining claims belong to Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2, both of which allege repeated harassment from abusers and failure upon the university to protect them, despite frequent contact with UNL officials and the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance.
Last June, the U.S. Department of Justice accused UNL of misapplying Title IX practices, saying the university cited incorrect standards and adopted a restrictive definition of sexual harassment in its arguments opposing the claims in Thomas v. Regents.
Rossiter initially expressed concern over the DOJ’s “statement of interest” in a September ruling where he also dismissed seven other accusations from the original lawsuit.
“The Court appreciates the government’s analysis,” Rossiter wrote, “but the Court is not convinced the plaintiffs’ factual allegations and legal theories align with those set forth in the government’s statement of interest.”
Gathering evidence to prepare for a potential trial is the next step in the case. Truszkowski and co-attorney Elizabeth Abdnour are in the same process with another suit, where one anonymous woman is suing the university for allegedly not protecting her after a professor harassed her.
In civil suits like these, the plaintiffs often seek damages – or large sums of money. Universities have paid millions of dollars in settlements to sexual misconduct survivors in recent years, and Title IX missteps can result in hefty fines from the U.S. Department of Education.