Labor & Employment Law Daily Coeds’ suit against ‘predatory’ professor moves forward despite dismissal of several claims
Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Coeds’ suit against ‘predatory’ professor moves forward despite dismissal of several claims

By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.

Subject-matter jurisdiction, sovereign immunity, and statute of limitations grounds doomed various claims against the former university professor by five former students, who nevertheless were permitted to amend their complaint to add more plaintiffs and better substantiate certain causes of action.

The scope of a sexual harassment lawsuit against the University of Alaska and a former professor by several female students has been narrowed by the federal court in that state, which nevertheless allowed two new plaintiffs to be added to the ongoing litigation. Dismissing the students’ state-law sexual discrimination and intentional tort claims against the university as barred by the Eleventh Amendment, the court also dismissed federal civil rights law claims because the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of future injury and most of their tort claims as time-barred by Alaska’s two-year statute of limitations (Doe v. Yesner, September 4, 2019, Holland, H.).

Five former students at the University of Alaska who allegedly had experienced sexual advances and inappropriate physical touching by a former professor filed suit against him and the university on behalf of themselves and other potential victims, alleging among other things causes of action for violations of Title IX, civil rights law violations, state-law based sexual discrimination claims, and various intentional torts. For relief, the former students sought damages and an injunction barring the university from unlawful discrimination based on sex, as well as a formal public statement in their support plus the removal of the former professor’s name from diplomas and other official university documents.

According to the plaintiffs, a March 2019 report released by outside counsel hired by the university detailed years and years of predatory behavior inflicted on female students by the professor, who was banned from the university campus and from affiliating with the university after the report’s publication.

The university and the former professor moved to dismiss some of the causes of action for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, while the professor sought to preclude the women from proceeding under pseudonyms. For their part, the former students moved to amend their complaint to add two additional plaintiffs.

Sovereign immunity. The university moved to dismiss the former students’ state-law and federal civil rights claims on Eleventh Amendment grounds. Conceding that the state has waived sovereign immunity in state court for claims alleging state-law sexual discrimination and state-law tort claims, the university asserted that no sovereign immunity had been waived as to those claims being brought in federal court. Arguing that there is no federal statute that abrogates the state’s immunity in federal court for such claims, the university contended that the plaintiffs’ state-law discrimination and tort claims should be dismissed. The court agreed with the university, rejecting the former students’ argument that the claims should not be dismissed because federal supplemental jurisdiction existed to consider them. Citing supporting case precedent, the court explained that Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to state-law claims over which a federal court could exercise supplemental jurisdiction.

Civil Rights Act claims. As for Section 1983 claims seeking to enjoin the university from unlawful discrimination based on sex, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of future injury given the fact that they were former students and their acknowledgment that the university had banned the former professor from the campus and from all affiliation with the institution. Because all they had done was make an amorphous request for injunctive relief, the former students inadequately pleaded a claim for injunctive relief against the university’s Board of Regents, the court determined.

Consequently, the plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims for damages and equitable relief against the university were dismissed with prejudice, as were their Section 1983 claims for damages against the Board of Regents. However, because it was possible that at least some of the former students could plead plausible claims for prospective injunctive relief against the Board of Regents, those claims were dismissed without prejudice and the plaintiffs were given leave to amend their Section 1983 claims for equitable relief against the Board.

Intentional tort claims. Noting Alaska’s two-year statute of limitations on tort claims, the court examined the professor’s alleged conduct with respect to each of the five former students and dismissed as time-barred causes of action against him for assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy by four of the five plaintiffs. A false light claim against the professor by the fifth student who had not learned of the sexually explicit nature of photographs taken of her by the professor until March 2019 was timely and could proceed, however. In dismissing most of the tort claims, the court rejected the former students’ continuing violations doctrine argument and the contention that his conduct toward one of the five constituted felony sexual assault, for which there is no statute of limitations.

Fictitious plaintiffs. In addition to the five “Jane Doe” former students, the complaint included 15 additional unnamed “Does” representing current or former University of Alaska students who were subjected to harassment, retaliation, and/or discrimination by the former professor but who had yet to come forward and be identified. The defendants argued that those plaintiffs should be dismissed because federal procedural rules require that an action be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest. Acknowledging that the complaint always could be amended to add new plaintiffs (as evidenced by the plaintiffs’ pending motion to add two additional women), the court dismissed the 15 placeholder plaintiffs without prejudice but granted the motion to amend the complaint to add the two additional former students to the extent that their claims were not subject to dismissal based on the grounds outlined above.

“Jane Doe” pseudonyms. The court granted the former professor’s motion to preclude the five plaintiffs’ use of “Jane Doe” pseudonyms. Rejecting their argument that anonymity was warranted because the case involved matters that are sensitive and highly personal, the court was unpersuaded the women had faced threats or retaliation greater than named plaintiffs suing over similar harassment claims. Their wish for anonymity did not outweigh the public interest in disclosure, the court held. However, one of the two newly added plaintiffs could use the pseudonym given the highly personal nature of her allegations, the court concluded.

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