The Story of Julia Pernsteiner and Her family’s Lawsuit Against Her Coach and University

Mar 10, 2023

By Dr. Robert J. Romano, JD, LLM, St. John’s University, Senior Writer

On November 8, 2021, Julia Pernsteiner, a twenty-three-year-old Division I student-athlete at Jacksonville University, committed suicide while alone in her dorm room – her death being another needless tragedy in what is becoming an all-too-common occurrence among our young college athletes.

By her own account, Julia wasn’t the best athlete or student. In fact, in an email she sent to Jacksonville’s athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert on October 18, 2021, she expressed her understanding as to why she was let go from the team: ‘because my GPA is to too low and I’m not fast enough to compete at this level.[1] But her low grades and slow running times were not the reasons why she took her own life. Her heartbreaking and premature death allegedly happened because of Jacksonville University’s lack of institutional support in providing her the reasonable academic accommodations necessary for her to succeed in the classroom, together with the ‘oppressive and relentless bullying’ by her cross-country coach. Julia’s parents believe that the institutional neglect and mistreatment by her coach caused their daughter to spiral into a depressive state that led to her suicide, and because of this, on February 3, 2023, they filed a lawsuit against the University and Coach Ronald E. Grigg, Jr. in the Circuit Court for Duval County, Florida.[2]

In Ray and Lynne Pernsteiner’s eight count complaint, they claim that even though Jacksonville University was fully apprised that their daughter suffered from ADHD, severe dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia that significantly affected her reading, writing and arithmetic skills, it nonetheless recruited her as a student-athlete to run for its Division I cross-country team. In fact, as part of the recruiting process the University identified Julia as qualifying for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and its own Director of Disability Support Services issued a memorandum acknowledging such wherein she was to receive extended time for exams and assignments, assistive technology, professors’ notes, a reader and a scribe.[3] However, according to the complaint, after Julia enrolled at the university, Jacksonville neglected and/or refused to comply with its own Disability Support Services Director’s memorandum by failing to provide her with the necessary and agreed upon accommodations.[4]

More egregious than the lack of institutional support for Julia’s academic success though, was what she had to endure as a student-athlete at the hands of her own coach. According to the lawsuit, Jacksonville’s cross-country coach, Ronald E. Grigg, Jr., was oppressive, threatening, bullying, condescending, and demeaning not only to Julia, but to many of the young women on the team.[5] As for Julia specifically, the lawsuit states that Coach Grigg was especially satisfied when he publicly humiliating her and frequently referred to her as ‘retarded’, ‘the slowest f…king runner on the team’, and commented that she was unable to ‘wipe her own a…”[6] It is also alleged that the Coach Grigg had a history of making inappropriate sexual comments and gestures towards certain female members of the cross-country team, while at the same time others were ‘fat shamed’ and subjected to weekly weigh-ins to check their body mass index (BMI). When these ‘instances’ were reported to the athletic department, instead of initiating an investigation, the ‘school closed ranks around Grigg and refused to take action’.[7]

The University’s refusal to provide the needed accommodations or to take action when its coach acted improperly and unprofessionally, Julia’s parents believe, caused their daughter’s depressive state that ultimately led to her untimely death: a death which is the basis for their wrongful death claim against both the school and coach individually. Julia’s parents have also asserted additional causes of action against the two defendants that include a breach of contract claim, two counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, a violation of the Florida Survival Action Statute, and that the University failed to abide by the requirements of Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The irony of this case is that Julia began running and participating in cross-country as a positive and constructive way to help her cope with her learning disabilities. To that end, however, it was the negative and destructive means by which her running coach at Jacksonville University treated her as both a student-athlete and an individual that may have led to the young women taking her own life. The coaches and universities we entrust with the care and protection of our athletes need to do a better job than this.

[1] Filing No 166080988 E-Filed 02/03/2023 p. 10-11.

[2] Filing No 166080988 E-Filed 02/03/2023. Ray and Lynne Pernsteiner sued in their individual capacity and as Personal Representatives of the Estate of Julia Pernsteiner.

[3] Id. at p. 6.

[4] Id. at p. 7.

[5] Id. at p. 8.

[6] Id. at p. 9.

[7] Id. Note, Coach Grigg was allowed to resign from his position in July 2022.

Articles in Current Issue