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MSU seeks broad Title IX lawsuit dismissal based on December ruling

April 27, 2020
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019.
A Michigan State University sign on Beal Street on Aug. 23, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

After one Title IX lawsuit was dismissed against Michigan State in December, university lawyers seek to dismiss an additional federal Title IX lawsuit on similar grounds, according to a motion filed April 17.

Sage Wood, who enrolled at MSU in 2015, filed a lawsuit in November 2019 alleging MSU faculty dissuaded her from reporting two instances of sexual assault.

In December 2019, a separate case was dismissed, filed by four MSU alumni, alleging lack of adequate response from university officials including the MSU Board of Trustees and Vice President of Student Affairs Denise Maybank.

That case was dismissed because the court determined action cannot be taken against MSU without proof of extended harassment from the perpetrator.

Wood's complaint against MSU

Wood seeks compensation for psychological and emotional distress in the aftermath of sexual assault.

The complaint details two instances of sexual violence.

One in which Wood began a relationship with another student under the pseudonym "John Roe 1," according to the complaint.

According to court records, Roe allegedly emotionally, mentally, sexually and physically abused Wood.

The second incident in the complaint references an instance when Wood visited another MSU student and member of the Sigma Kappa chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon at their fraternity house during the fall semester of 2016.

Wood said she does not remember the time period between arriving at the fraternity house and waking up upstairs, according to court records. Wood said she felt dizzy after she awoke. She asked a fraternity member to call 911, who refused, then she called 911 herself.

Wood said she realized after being treated by emergency services and Sparrow Hospital staff that she was sexually assaulted, according to the complaint.

In December of 2016, Wood contacted MSU's Office of Institutional Equity, or OIE, to speak with a Title IX investigator, according to the complaint. OIE is responsible for attending to student cases of discrimination and harassment.

"You're lucky. It could've been a lot worse," the investigator told her, according to the complaint.

The OIE investigator also allegedly told Wood she would not want to ruin John Roe 1's chances of getting into a graduate program.

Why the previous case was dismissed

The lawsuit dismissed late last year similarly accused MSU for lacking an adequate response to sexual assault reports from the four former students.

Originally, the case involved Emily Kollaritsch, Shayna Gross and two anonymous plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit alleging violations of Title IX, due process and equal protection.

“The court basically said that in a Title IX lawsuit a victim needs to allege that they experienced some sort of sexual misconduct, that they reported that misconduct to the school, the school acted with deliberate indifference and then after all of that, that the deliberate indifference caused actual subsequent sexual harassment as well,” the plaintiffs' attorney, Alexander Zalkin, said when the lawsuit was dismissed.

Wood's attorney, Karen Truszkowski, said the prior Title IX was dismissed on the basis that if a survivor reports sexual violence, and the school responds, whether that be inadequately or adequately, if the survivor is not attacked a second time after reporting, action cannot be taken against the school.

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"What that basically does, first of all, it gets the colleges (and) universities off the hook if it doesn't happen again, even if they respond inappropriately," Truszkowski said.

Truszkowski said, under the dismissal of the prior Title IX suit filed by Kollaritsch and Gross, the aftermath of a survivor's report and the possible post-traumatic stress, fear or worry is not considered unless the perpetrator attacks them again.

"There's something called the second wound, also to be called moral injury, and what that says is that how you're treated after it happens, can be worse than the actual assault itself," Truszkowski said.

The decision could be applied further

Truszkowski said the dismissal of the prior Title IX case is also being used to dismiss an additional lawsuit filed by Bailey Kowalski.

Kowalski filed her lawsuit against MSU in 2018, which cites Title IX violations by the university.

In April 2019, Kowalski withdrew anonymity at a press conference and said three members of the MSU men's basketball team raped her in 2015.

This case being investigated by the state attorney general's office as of February, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Similar to Woods' lawsuit, Kowalski reported that MSU staff dissuaded her from reporting these incidents.

"All of this is based on gender discrimination," Truszkowski said. "They're treating gender discrimination differently than other kinds of discrimination and other crimes."

The university's defense attorney, Uriel Abt, was not available for comment.


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