Court Sides with Plaintiff in Lawsuit Involving Scholarships

Aug 13, 2021

By Loren Galloway

A suit against Garden City Community College alleging Title IX and civil rights violations survived the defendants’ motion to dismiss in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. The case arises, ultimately, from a violation of the college’s athletics conference’s rules on scholarships.

GCCC is a member of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, whose rules do not permit member institutions to offer athletics scholarships that include room and board. However, the plaintiff in the suit, volleyball student-athlete Shaney Tiumalu, alleges that GCCC represented to her that, beginning in the fall of 2016, she would be on a “full ride” scholarship, including tuition, books, room, and board. During the first academic year of this arrangement, Tiumalu alleges that she was not billed for room and board but that by the following summer, GCCC’s student housing department had taken issue with this arrangement. At that point, Tiumalu says she was instructed to move in with her male athletic director, John Green, and told by her coaches not to discuss this living arrangement with anyone.

Tiumalu says she was assured by her coaches that she would still have a “full ride” scholarship for the 2017-18 academic year, and that based on these representations, she chose to stay at GCCC instead of transferring to play volleyball somewhere else. At the end of the summer, Tiumalu moved out of Green’s residence and back into campus housing, but by the end of the fall semester of 2017, she was once again being billed for room and board, including past fees, which prevented her from enrolling in classes for the spring semester of 2018. Tiumalu says she met with GCCC athletics staff to discuss this issue and was told that her bill would be taken care of.

In January 2018, Tiumalu sent a letter to GCCC summarizing the arrangement under which she had temporarily lived with Green. After GCCC’s HR department received a copy of the letter, a Title IX investigation was opened, along with a KJCCC investigation of the violation of the conference’s scholarship rules.

After that, Tiumalu alleges that, in retaliation for the letter, GCCC officials used the Title IX investigation to scare and harass her, falsely reported her to the local police for extortion, used an open records request to attempt to obtain Tiumalu’s personal emails, and attempted to damage her reputation by releasing a report that did not redact Tiumalu’s private information and making intimidating comments during public Board meetings.

Tiumalu’s complaint included claims for Title IX and First Amendment retaliation and conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, as well as violations of the Kansas Consumer Protection Act for having mislead her about the “full ride” scholarship. GCCC moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim or, in the alternative, to dismiss under qualified immunity.

It’s important to note that, when reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court does not decide whether allegations made by the plaintiff are true but instead considers whether the allegations, if true, would give rise to a legal claim. In the court’s analysis of the retaliation claims, this is fairly straightforward: Tiumalu claims that she engaged in an activity protected by the First Amendment and Title IX (sending the letter outlining concerns about the summer living arrangement) and that because she engaged in that protected activity, GCCC took actions that materially and adversely affected her. Similarly, the facts alleged by Tiumalu, if true, establish the elements for the claims of conspiracy and violation of state consumer protection law.

The more interesting part of this case is the court’s analysis of the defendants’ various theories of their own immunity. Tiumalu brought the suit against several GCCC officials individually and in their official capacities and against GCCC itself, and with regard to the First Amendment retaliation and conspiracy claims, the individual defendants argued that they were entitled to qualified immunity. To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that the official being sued violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the law was not sufficiently clear that the individual defendants would have been aware that the actions alleged by Tiumalu would have violated her right to engage in protected First Amendment activities without being subjected to retaliatory action. Specifically, the court noted that Tinker—the 1969 Supreme Court case involving a protest against the Vietnam war in a Des Moines public school—established that school officials may not punish students for engaging in protected speech more than fifty years earlier and that a “reasonably competent public official would necessarily know” that retaliatory action would violate Tiumalu’s First Amendment rights.

In contrast, on the conspiracy to interfere with civil rights claim, the defendants’ did not argue that Tiumalu’s rights were not clearly established but instead argued that no reasonable official would have believed that the actions taken by the officials were threatening or intimidating so as to deter Tiumalu from testifying about the Title IX allegations, offering publicly available videos of GCCC Board meetings as evidence. Extrinsic evidence, however, cannot be considered on a motion to dismiss, and the court held that Tiumalu had pleaded sufficient facts for the conspiracy claim to survive the motion to dismiss.

GCCC also argued that it could not be held liable for its employee’s violations of Tiumalu’s rights under Monell v. Department of Social Services and its progeny. The Monell framework requires that a plaintiff show that a local government employee committed a constitutional violation and that there is a direct causal link between a custom or policy of the organization and the alleged violation. The court rejected the defendants’ argument that Tiumalu had not identified a GCCC policy that violated her rights, instead holding that Tiumalu had met the elements for Monell liability with her allegations that GCCC had a policy or custom to not properly investigate Title IX claims and to “silence critics” of the college and that the retaliatory actions taken by GCCC’s employees were a result of this policy.

The one victory GCCC managed was to have the claims against the individual defendants’ in their official capacities dismissed as redundant, since the claims against them individually and against GCCC were allowed to move forward.

Even at this far-from-final stage of the case, there are a lot of things to take away—inspiration for a screenplay, perhaps? —but the court’s unwillingness to accept the defendants’ arguments around qualified immunity and Monell liability should be of note for public schools and their officials. It underlines the importance of maintaining clear, formal policies and procedures; conducting audits and implementing other processes to ensure that policies and procedures are consistently followed; and educating employees on their responsibilities. These strategies not only help ensure that schools are interacting effectively with the populations they serve but also work to reduce risk of legal liability.

Loren is Assistant Coordinator, Athletics Risk Management & Compliance Services at the University of Texas.

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