Ten women who were sexually assaulted at Baylor University will get their day in court after a judge ruled Tuesday that they all can pursue claims that university officials created a heightened risk of sexual assault by the way they responded to the reports.
In a 27-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman threw out some claims alleged by the women and barred four of them from pursuing other claims because of statute of limitations violations.
However, Pitman said all 10 women, who allege sexual assaults at Baylor in cases from 2004 to 2016, have the right to sue Baylor on claims the university created a heightened risk of sexual harassment or assault by the way it handled the allegations.
Pitman previously put a stay on discovery in the lawsuit while his ruling on Baylor’s motion to dismiss the suits was pending. The claims now will proceed, which will include taking depositions from Baylor administrators and others who remain under fire for what many view as a lack of transparency.
Lisa Brown, an attorney for Baylor, did not return a phone call for comment on the ruling. A statement on Baylor’s website said the university is “encouraged” by the ruling.
“The court’s decision was based entirely on the plaintiffs’ pleadings and assumed that every claim they presented was accurate. The court summarily rejected every claim under state law as well as dismissed some of the Title IX allegations related to four of the plaintiffs,” according to the statement.
“Baylor intends to continue to defend itself against those allegations that have not yet been dismissed. We will now have the opportunity to conduct discovery and ultimately present evidence on those remaining counts.
“As we have stressed throughout, our hearts go out to all victims of sexual assault at Baylor. We deeply regret the pain they experienced and continue to pray for their healing.”
Waco attorney Jim Dunnam, who represents the plaintiffs, said he is pleased with the order.
“I think the ruling is a great leap forward for each of our 10 clients and all Baylor victims,” Dunnam said. “Young women impacted by the heightened risk Baylor caused now have until spring 2018 to bring their claims, and, as important, discovery now starts and full transparency can now come to Baylor about which individuals in the administration are responsible.”
The women allege that Baylor knew of and permitted a “campus condition rife with sexual assault,” that sexual assault was “rampant” on campus, that Baylor mishandled and discouraged reports of sexual assault and that Baylor’s responses to these circumstances “substantially increased” the risk that plaintiffs and others would be sexually assaulted.
Additionally, despite being informed of multiple sexual assaults between 2008 and 2011, the university reported to the U.S. Department of Education that no assaults took place on its campus during that period, the suits allege.
“These alleged facts, if construed as true, could allow a jury to infer that Baylor’s policy or custom of inadequately handling and even discouraging reports of peer sexual assault created a heightened risk of sexual assault, thereby inflicting the injury of which plaintiffs complain,” Pitman wrote in his order.
Pitman also agreed with the plaintiffs, who claim that while each individual plaintiff was aware of their injuries from the time the assaults occurred, they had no reason to know of Baylor’s alleged causal connection to their assaults until the spring of 2016, when widespread media reports brought light to the university’s alleged failings.
So, Pitman wrote, accepting that the allegations are true, the claims for heightened-risk liability did not accrue until spring 2016, and the two-year statute of limitations had not run by June 15, 2016, when the lawsuit was filed.
Claims knocked down
However, when considering the post-reporting claims, or how the students were treated after reporting the alleged assaults, the judge ruled that the two-year statute of limitations does apply, thereby knocking down the claims of Jane Does 2, 5, 6 and 7, whose assaults occurred years before.
“While we may disagree with some of the specific rulings, we are very pleased with the overall ruling,” Dunnam said. “I do believe the judge gave really serious thought on the issues we brought forward.”
In considering Baylor’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Pitman wrote that the court considers only whether plaintiffs’ complaints contain sufficient factual matter, if accepted as true, “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”
“Baylor attempts to disclaim liability by dismissing plaintiffs’ allegations as ‘an amalgam of incidents that involved completely different contexts, offenders and victims’ and arguing that ‘evidence of a general problem of sexual violence is not sufficient.’
“The court disagrees. Plaintiffs have not alleged that Baylor had knowledge of accusations against their specific assailants prior to their initial assaults, but what they have alleged — a widespread pattern of discriminatory responses to female students’ reports of sexual assault — is arguably more egregious,” the judge wrote.
In another part of the ruling, Pitman dismissed all 10 plaintiffs’ state law claims of negligence, breach of contract, failure in its duty to protect from foreseeable criminal acts and Baylor’s duty to adequately hire, train and supervise its employees.