Two civil claims made by the 2015 Ooltewah High School rape and sexual assault victims are cleared for trial after a federal judge released a sweeping, 62-page ruling Monday that addressed several outstanding arguments in the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Harry "Sandy" Mattice said a jury can hear two legal arguments that victims "Roe" and "Doe" have raised since 2016, when they filed lawsuits against the Hamilton County Board of Education in connection with the out-of-town trip that left one student in need of emergency surgery on his colon. One is a civil rights violation claim that a "failure to train" resulted in their injuries and the other is a Title IX claim for sexual harassment.
"Roe" and "Doe" are two of the four students who said older classmates attacked them with pool cues during a December 2015 trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for a basketball tournament. Unless the case is settled, Mattice's ruling means at least a portion of their original argument can go before a jury, despite arguments from school board attorneys that Mattice should rule in the district's favor and essentially dismiss the case.
Though the case was set for trial on Aug. 20, Mattice canceled that date late last month, court records show.
"Obviously, we are thrilled with the court's thorough decision and now look forward to working hard at a settlement or trial," Doe's attorneys, Justin Gilbert, Eric Oliver and Monica Beck, said in a statement.
School board attorneys declined to comment.
In a civil case, attorneys often ask a judge to rule in their favor based on the facts and evidence to date. Those requests are called a "motion for summary judgment," and both sides filed them earlier this year. At the root of many of these legal arguments was the question of whether the school district showed "deliberate indifference" to the students before and after the attack, as Roe and Doe's attorneys alleged.
For proof, Roe and Doe attorneys pointed to student surveys that showed widespread bullying at Ooltewah, an independent investigator's report that concluded Ooltewah had a culture of hazing and deficient district policies, and emails in which then-school principal Jim Jarvis claimed there was only one victim even though four students said they were attacked in some fashion with a pool cue.
In their counter, board attorneys said victims didn't tell administrators about any hazing or bullying before the attack. After the rape, the district disciplined the attacking students, allowed the victims to transfer to other schools and hired an investigatorto look into the situation and evaluate the district's policies.
Showing "deliberate indifference" is one of the cornerstones of Title IX, the federal law that says no student shall be discriminated against on the basis of sex or gender. And in his ruling, Mattice said any "moral blunder" by the district or its employees didn't amount to deliberate indifference post-attack. But Mattice did leave the door open for Roe and Doe to argue that the board showed indifference pre-attack.
Mattice said that argument revolved around then-coach Andre Montgomery, who claimed he never received training on student-on-student sexual harassment or training on Title IX and its requirements. Although the district says it held bullying and Title IX training sessions at Ooltewah High School, Mattice said Roe and Doe's attorneys showed the trainings were "not only substantively inadequate, often being brief and not detailed, but also never involved staff beyond a small number of administrators."
"A reasonable fact finder could conclude this was a result of the Department's deliberate indifference to an obvious need for relevant Title IX and student-on-student harassment training. Further, it would not be unreasonable for a jury to conclude that this failure was causally related to Doe's and Roe's injuries," Mattice said.
Elsewhere in the ruling, Mattice dismissed a handful of negligence claims that Doe and Roe raised individually against Montgomery, coach Jesse Nayadley, Jarvis and the district's Title IX coordinator, Marsha Drake. If they want, Roe and Doe's attorneys can bring them again in state court.
While evaluating these claims, a judge must determine whether there are "genuine" factual disputes that only a jury should resolve. Here, Mattice applied that logic to the argument over whether Roe and Doe experienced gender-based discrimination because of some of the alleged comments their classmates made during the attack: "take it like a man" and "don't be a —— ."
Doe and Roe attorneys argued those comments were evidence of harassment because of their sex, and were therefore a valid Title IX claim. Conversely, board attorneys cited a case from 1996 in which a judge found similar statements fell short of sex-based harassment because the qualities those statements were promoting — loyalty and team toughness — "are not uniquely male."
In his ruling, Mattice said a reasonable jury could agree with Roe and Doe's claim. But ultimately, he said, it's up to the jury to decide since there's a "question of fact" among the attorneys.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.