Snyder-Hill v. Ohio State University, Nos. 21-3981/3991, (6th Cir., September 14, 2022).
Dan Fotoples, J.D., M.A., Senior Content Developer, TNG Consulting
Between 1978 and 1998, an Ohio State University (“the University”) team doctor and faculty member sexually abused student-athletes under the guise of medical care. The instances of abuse number in the thousands. Plaintiffs learned of an institutional cover-up of the doctor’s abuse after the University released the results of an external investigation into the matter. Plaintiffs sued under Title IX.
The University filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits, and the federal district court granted the motion to dismiss because the statute of limitations barred the claims.
A statute of limitations typically bars claims if a plaintiff waits too long to sue. Title IX’s language does not have a statute of limitations, but courts typically borrow a statute of limitations from state discrimination or personal injury laws. In this case, the district borrowed from Ohio’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims.
The Plaintiffs appealed the district court’s decision.
SUMMARY OF FACTS
Strauss’s Actions and the University’s Inaction
Dr. Richard Strauss served on the University’s faculty starting in 1978, becoming a team physician soon thereafter. Strauss had regular contact with male student-athletes in at least seventeen different sports. Strauss continued in these roles until 1996, when the University placed him on administrative leave, investigated his conduct, and declined to renew his employment with Health Services and the Athletics Department. Strauss remained a tenured faculty member until he retired in 1998.
In his roles at the University, Strauss regularly abused male students during medical examinations, committing at least 1,429 sexual assaults and 47 rapes. An independent investigation commissioned by the University in 2018 substantiated the allegations of abuse.
Plaintiffs allege that the University knew about, facilitated, and covered up Strauss’s sexual abuse. Many students complained to the University about Strauss, beginning during Strauss’s first year at the University and including many complaints made to Student Health Center staff. More than 50 members of the Athletics and Health Center staffs knew about Strauss’s inappropriate sexual conduct. Plaintiffs allege that the University took no action in response to the complaints. Even after the University completed an investigation in 1996, at which time it suspended and terminated Strauss, the University hid the reason why and further concealed abuse by destroying medical records and shredding files related to Strauss’s sexual abuse. The 2018 independent investigation substantiated the Plaintiffs’ claims.
Plaintiffs’ Knowledge of the University’s Conduct
Most of Strauss’s victims allege that they did not know they were abused until 2018. At the time, most were teenagers or young adults and did not know whether Strauss engaged in medically appropriate behavior. Indeed, Strauss gave pretextual and false medical explanations for the abuse. Additionally, many students believed that, because the conduct was so widely known, it could not have been abuse or otherwise the University would not have made Strauss the team doctor. In fact, many of the University’s witnesses and physicians conceded that the students could not have known Strauss abused them because the students likely did not know which behaviors were normal or medically appropriate during an exam.
The larger point the court emphasized, however, is that regardless of when Plaintiffs understood Strauss had abused them, they could not have known about the University’s responsibility for the abuse. They did not have reason to know that others had previously complained to the University about Strauss’s conduct, let alone how the University had responded. Also, even if the Plaintiffs had investigated further, the University controlled their access to information. As a result, Plaintiffs allege that they did not know until 2018 that the University knew about Strauss or that it had enabled and perpetuated the abuse.
FINDINGS AND SIGNIFICANT ISSUES
The primary question before the appeals court asked whether the statute of limitations barred Plaintiffs’ claims. Title IX does not contain its own statute of limitations, so the court “borrowed” Ohio’s two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims. That said, although state law determines the length of the statute of limitations, federal standards govern when the statute of limitations begins to run. The general rule in federal courts holds that the statute of limitations clock begins to run when the reasonable person knows, or should have known, both their injury and the cause of their injury. This is known as the “discovery rule.”
Here, a student must know that their school exposed them to a heightened risk of harassment before they have a viable claim. Until they knew the University’s actions may have violated Title IX, the statute of limitations clock could not run. Since a Title IX lawsuit is against the school, not the individual person who abused the plaintiff(s), knowledge of Strauss’s abuse would not cause the statute of limitations clock to start running.
Therefore, a pre-assault heightened-risk claim may not accrue until well after a post-assault Title IX claim. Though a plaintiff may know that a recipient mishandled their own report of discrimination or harassment, that same plaintiff may have no reason to know of a school’s deliberate indifference that gave rise to their heightened-risk claim. Given that Plaintiffs alleged a decades-long cover-up, it’s not clear whether Plaintiffs could have reasonably discovered Ohio State’s conduct prior to the external investigation.
The court held the statute of limitations clock only begins to run when the plaintiffs knew or should have known that University administrators knew of Strauss’s conduct and failed to respond accordingly. For many of the plaintiffs, that may have been in 2018, meaning their claims filed in July 2018 were within the statute of limitations. For that reason, the court overturned the district court’s decision and permitted the lawsuit to move forward.
- This case potentially has significant implications for pre-assault heightened-risk claims. Often, pleading such claims requires knowledge of others’ experiences with their own Title IX allegations. Here, the court further opens the door to pre-assault heightened-risk claims by adopting a more lenient rule governing the statute of limitations. Hypothetically, a student or employee may not become aware of a pre-assault heightened-risk claim until well after they went through a formal grievance process or even graduated. That said, the facts of this particular case are likely somewhat unique, as are the length and comprehensive nature of the cover-up. Time will tell whether courts are willing to extend thisdecision or will find a way to limit its holding to the unique facts of the case.
- Regardless of whether future cases build upon Snyder-Hill’s holding, recipients must take steps to assess and address any institutional, cultural, or structural issues that could heighten the risk of discrimination and harassment based on sex. Sometimes that means revising policy and ensuring appropriate implementation. Sometimes that means providing additional sexual harassment training to certain departments or student groups. Sometimes that means more stringent oversight of student populations or campus locations known to be higher risk for assault. Sometimes that means clarifying to senior administrators that no one is above the law, so to speak. To determine the appropriate steps you may need to take to prevent heightened risk, you will need to assess your climate and talk to students and employees.
- Pre-assault heightened-risk claims often involve significant and ongoing issues. Solving those kinds of problems requires buy-in at the highest levels of the district or institution. Sometimes, the Title IX Coordinator may possess the kind of influence needed to drive change, but if not, the Title IX Coordinator will need advocacy and active support from senior members of administration. Cases like Snyder-Hill demonstrate the kind of liability that can occur if cultural issues persist and predominate over reporting obligations.
- Centralized recordkeeping is critical to recognizing and addressing patterns of misconduct. Title IX Coordinators are responsible for providing oversight of a district or institution and without proper recordkeeping, repeat offenders may escape responsibility and continue committing misconduct. Title IX Coordinators must assess their recordkeeping practices to ensure their system captures the correct information and is structured to identify when patterned behavior emerges.
- TNG Consulting offers a state-of-the-art twelve-phase comprehensive, proprietary predator detection and interdiction program to our institutional clients. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
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