Research assistant who alleged that supervisor pressured into relationship with known abuser advances §1983 claim
Monday, August 17, 2020

Research assistant who alleged that supervisor pressured into relationship with known abuser advances §1983 claim

By Thomas K. Lauletta, J.D.

But claims alleging violations of Title IX, as well as claims against the university for negligence and negligent supervision, were dismissed.

A federal district court in Illinois granted the motion of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) to dismiss a research specialist’s claim under Title IX, negligence, and negligent supervision claims against the university. Citing Seventh Circuit precedent, the court held that the Title IX claim was preempted by Title VII. The claims for negligence and negligent supervision were dismissed because the Illinois Court of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims against the university’s Board of Trustees. The court refused to dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for violations of her equal protection rights under § 1983 against her supervisor in her individual capacity. This claim raised credible allegations that the supervisor knew of and facilitated the § 1983 violations. The plaintiff’s claims against the university for sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not subject to the defendants’ motions to dismiss, so these claims may move forward (Doe 5 v. Southern Illinois University, August 13, 2020, Rosenstengel, N.).

Jane Doe 5 ("Doe") was a research and education specialist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in the Plant Biology Department from May 2016 to May 2018. According to Doe’s complaint, a professor of plant biology pressured Doe to enter a romantic relationship with a graduate student with whom the professor was close, co-authored scholarly articles, and at times shared an office.

Doe alleged that in December 2016 the graduate student he raped her while she was unconscious. She did not immediately report this sexual assault to the professor or to police. She alleges that after the rape he kept pursuing her and continued to hurt her physically, emotionally, and sexually. The professor continued to encourage a romantic relationship between the two, even though in December 2017 she acknowledged to Doe that the graduate student previously had been violent with women. At this time Doe did not reveal the graduate student’s violent tendencies because she feared retribution and retaliation from the professor and the employer. Following the professor’s dismissal of the graduate student, Doe on March 25, 2018 notified the professor of the rape. On April 24, 2018, Doe reported to the Carbondale Police Department that the graduate student had sexually and physically assaulted her multiple times from 2016 to 2018.

Following the police report, Doe alleged that the professor failed to keep the issue confidential, and that it was the subject of discussion among other employees. Doe told the professor and the department chair that she did not feel safe on campus, and that their prohibiting the graduate student’s presence on campus did not provide Doe with a safe workplace. Eventually Doe requested and took FMLA leave. On hearing this request, Doe alleges that the professor, who had not previously made negative comments about her job performance, criticized her in front of others and said she was overpaid. Doe began her leave in May 2018 and was terminated less than one month later.

Doe filed suit against the employer and the professor violations of Title IX; against the professor for violations of § 1983; against the employer for sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII; and against the employer for negligence and negligent supervision. The defendants moved to dismiss.

Title IX claim against the professor. In response to Supreme Court and Seventh court decisions holding that Title IX claims may only be brought against a grant recipient rather than an individual, Doe voluntarily dismissed her claim against the professor.

Title IX claim against the employer. The defendants argued that Doe’s Title IX claim against the employer is preempted by Title VII, in accordance with a decisions of a district court in Illinois and from a Seventh Circuit case holding that Title VII provides an exclusive remedy for employees alleging discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education institutions. Doe argued that as a research assistant, it was unclear whether she was an employee or a student.

In the Seventh Circuit, courts look to the economic realities and degree of control to determine whether an employment relationship exists. However, no specific facts regarding control had been provided. So, the court, relying on statements made in Doe’s complaint, concluded that she was an employee of SIUC for Title VII purposes. For example, Doe admitted that he earned a Ph.D before being hired by the employer, she reported to a professor, she was dependent on the employer for her livelihood, and she alleged that she was constructively discharged. Accordingly, Doe’s Title IX claim against SIUC was dismissed as preempted by Title VII.

§ 1983 claim against the professor. The court noted that to state a § 1983 claim against the professor, Doe would have to allege that she "caused or personally participated in" the alleged violation of Doe’s constitutional rights. Based on the record of the case the court held that Doe met this § 1983 standard. Doe alleged that the professor knew about the graduate student’s violent history with women and still pressured her into entering a romantic relationship with the graduate student and failed to take any corrective action when Doe reported the assaults. A reasonable inference could be drawn that Doe had established that the professor was aware of the alleged harassment and facilitated and approved of it.

The court further held that the professor was not entitled to the defense of qualified immunity that would shield a government official from liability where the official’s conduct did not violate clearly established constitutional rights. Here, sexual harassment has long been recognized as a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, and Doe’s complaint credibly alleges that the professor intentionally disregarded the violative conduct. Accordingly, the court dismissed the defendants’ motion to dismiss the § 1983 claim against Renzaglia.

Negligence and negligent supervision. The court dismissed this claim based on its conclusion that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the Illinois Court of Claims has exclusive jurisdiction over tort claims brought against the Board of Trustees.

Sexual harassment and retaliation claims. Because the defendants did not seek dismissal of Doe’s claims for sexual harassment and retaliation under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, those claims will move forward.

The case is No. 19-CV-00934-NJR.

Attorneys: Nicole E. Gorovsky (Gorovsky Law, LLC) for Jane Doe 5. Katherine L. Nash (Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan Jackstadt PC) for Southern Illinois University.

Companies: Southern Illinois University

Cases: SexualHarassment IndividualRights PublicEmployees TortClaims GCNNews IllinoisNews

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