By Lauren Rosh
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana granted summary judgment in November 2023 for Nicholas Johnson, one of the named defendants in a Title IX case involving Huntington University, after the Court found that the plaintiffs did not plead facts that “could establish ‘actual notice’ by ‘an appropriate person.’” The plaintiffs had until December 6, 2023 to file a Second Amended Complaint. However, their failure to do so resulted in the dismissal of the case in its entirety. On December 19, 2023, Chief Judge Holly A. Brady filed the clerk’s entry of judgment dismissing the Title IX claim with prejudice and the pending state law claims “without prejudice to refiling in state court.”
The plaintiffs in this case are former student athletes from Huntington University – Emma Wilson, Hannah Stoffel and Erin Manchess – and they brought several allegations against Huntington’s former track coach, Nicholas Johnson, as well as his wife, Lauren Johnson, and others.
Johnson was the track coach at Huntington University from 2018 until December 2020, after he was charged with several counts including child seduction, kidnapping, and identity deception. According to opinion, these charges related to an incident that took place in August 2020 when he took a minor, who was a student at a local high school, to Oregon and engaged in sexual conduct with the minor “under the ruse of a recruiting trip to the University of Oregon.”
After Huntington learned of this, there was a meeting between administrators from the high school and Johnson, which the victim also attended. The plaintiffs and defendants in this case dispute one another in what exactly happened in that meeting. The plaintiffs expressed that it focused on the sexual relationship between the victim and Johnson, yet the University took no action. Rather, according to the opinion, the defendants challenge that and say that the Athletic Director (“AD”) was the only administrator present at the meeting and it focused on recruiting violations rather than sexual conduct. The defendants cited a police report which provided a closer look into the conversation.
The report stated, “AD Teusch (the Huntington North High School administrator) stated Mr. Johnson did bring up how he had been accused of being Victim 1’s boyfriend. AD Teusch also stated Mr. Johnson brought up two boys that Victim 1 had been dating and how the boys have been pushing themselves on Victim 1 sexually. AD Teusch stated Mr. Johnson brought this up and it was not asked of him as they were only concerned with recruiting and how things might look to the community. AD Teusch stated Mr. Johnson was talking about so many “bizarre” things he might have mentioned being accused of forcing Victim 1 to perform oral sex on him, but it was never the reason for the meeting. AD Teusch stated Mr. Johnson also brought up athletes on his HU team with past trauma, some sexual, and how he and his wife are helping the athletes get through these traumatic events.”
After Johnson left the program following the charges, his wife took over as head coach. As the opinion states, one of the athletes, Manchess, opposed this replacement and cooperated with police, leading Lauren to confront her in Spring of 2021 which subseqently resulted in Manchess no longer participating in the programs.
Ultimately, the plaintiffs alleged that Johnson created a hostile environment by subjecting female team members to “to assault, unwanted touching and advances including graphic sexual conversations that male athletes did not endure.” Further, the plaintiffs alleged that Johnson “provided infusions and injections of unknown substances to female team members but did not provide these treatments to male athletes.”
Johnson filed a motion to dismiss the Title IX and the pendent state law claims. Chief Judge Brady dismissed the state law claims without prejudice. However, Chief Judge Brady also granted leave to the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint with regard to the Title IX claim.
To establish the Title IX claim, the plaintiffs needed to “plead facts that raise a plausible inference that the University (1) had actual knowledge of, and (2) was deliberately indifferent to (3) harassment that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it (4) deprived the victim of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school. Murrell v. Sch. Dist. No. 1, Denver, 186 F.3d 1238, 1246 (10th Cir. 1999).”
With regard to the first element, there is a notion that an “appropriate person” receives actual notice of the incident, in this case, the sexual abuse and doping of the plaintiffs. Johnson argued that this claim should have failed because the plaintiffs did not satisfy the “actual knowledge” requirement needed to have a successful claim. Chief Judge Brady explained that the “crux of the Plaintiff’s Title IX claim comes down to who knew what and when they knew it.”
Ultimately, Chief Judge Brady dismissed the claim as there were two problems with the plaintiffs’ argument that “any reasonable administrator” should have known about Johnson’s behavior. The first problem is that the Supreme Court has rejected this “knew or should have known” standard as it relates to Title IX claims and the second is that to satisfy the knowledge requirement, the misconduct cannot just be reported to any employee, but to one who has the authority to “institute corrective measures on the district’s behalf.”
Therefore, even if the other coaches knew of the abuse, the Court found that the plaintiffs did not allege those coaches had the authority to institute those corrective measures.
Since 2019, Dr. Russ DeGitz has been Huntington University’s Chief Operating Officer. The plaintiffs alleged he was in the August 2020 meeting about the Huntington North High School student and further alleged that he knew Johnson was reported to the Indiana Department of Child Services. However, the Court established this was not enough detail to demonstrate “functional allegations” that Dr. DeGitz had the actual knowledge about Johnson’s abusive behavior toward the plaintiffs. Although he was present in the August 2020 meeting, the Court said that the meeting did not raise concerns about sexual abuse with any University students nor did it address the doping allegations.
While expressing sympathy toward the plaintiffs, the Court stated that the allegations were “insufficient to plausibly claim that the appropriate employees at the University should have known of the sexual misconduct, doping and harassment, let alone they actually knew of it” and dismissed the case. The plaintiffs had until December 6, 2023, to file a Second Amended Complaint, however, they did not do so and therefore, the clerk’s entry of judgment was entered on December 19, 2023.