Judge: Former Athletes May Proceed With Assault Claims

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Three former athletes who competed in track and field at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., can proceed with their sex discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the college, a federal judge has ruled.

As reported by The Buffalo News, most of athletes' claims against the team's coach and also the college's athletic director were dismissed, but the three women also are suing a student, formerly on the Canisius men's cross country and track team, who they claim sexually assaulting each of them between 2016 and 2018. Those claims against him remain.

“When the women reported the discrimination, harassment and sexual assault they were subjected to, Canisius College ignored those reports," said attorney Brian Melber, one of three lawyers representing the women. "This decision means our clients will get to prove in court that Canisius College discriminated against and harassed women athletes and that discrimination led to their sexual assault by a male member of the team. It's inexcusable."

In his June 27 ruling, U.S. District Judge Geoffrey Crawford allowed the claims of harassment, retaliation, hostile environment, and aiding and abetting sex discrimination, among other counts, to proceed against the college, while dismissing breach of contract, negligence, hostile work environment and New York State Child Victims Act counts.

"The culture on the team was so toxic that women were repeatedly subjected to sexual assault by a male team member, and still the college did not respond," said attorney Catherine McCulle, who also represents the women, according to The Buffalo News. “Instead, the women were subjected to retaliation."

Canisius College did not respond to requests for comment on Crawford's ruling by the News, but since last spring has denied that it did not respond "swiftly and effectively" to the claims of sexual assault and discrimination. The college said federal student privacy laws prevent it from responding publicly in detail to the allegations but said all appropriate steps were taken under its policies and the law.

"The key conduct concerns complained of in this lawsuit, when first brought to the college’s attention as part of internal complaints lodged back in 2018, were promptly and thoroughly investigated and adjudicated under applicable college policies," according to the college's April 2021 statement.

Cleared to continue their lawsuit, the women are expected to file an amended complaint that includes their detailed allegations about the college and the track and field coach, Nathan Huckle. Men and women on the team had one head coach, and they practiced and trained together, the women said in their federal lawsuit.

Among their allegations, as reported by the News:

  • Upperclassmen would give and buy drinks for freshmen female athletes to get them intoxicated in the hope of taking advantage of them sexually once the females were too intoxicated to consent. Some incidents were reported to Canisius anonymously through a sexual assault reporting app, but no action was taken.
  • Female athletes were regularly singled out, harassed, mocked and embarrassed in front of the team.
  • The female runners were forced to share beds at away meets. The coach intentionally placed two of the plaintiffs, who he knew were dating each other, with other athletes they were not comfortable sharing a bed with.
  • Female athletes on the cross country and track team repeatedly complained to the coach about the male athlete who is now also being sued, saying he displayed "despicable, predatory sexual misconduct toward other female team members, often at off-campus sanctioned team parties." The coach expected female athletes to attend the parties, and chastised two of the women now suing for refusing to attend the parties, even after both had been assaulted by the male athlete at such parties.
  • One of the women, who has since graduated from the college, said she was sexually assaulted by the male athlete in his dorm room after an off-campus party on Aug. 28, 2016, and reported it to an assistant coach more than a year later on Sept. 1, 2017.
  • Another of the women said she was sexually assaulted by the same athlete at an off-campus team party on Dec. 15, 2017. Her assault would never have happened if the college properly dealt with the alleged assault reported by her teammate, according to the lawsuit. And the third woman, who arrived on campus in August 2018 as a 17-year-old freshman member of the cross country and track team, said she was raped by the male athlete at an off-campus team party on Aug. 24, 2018.

In court papers, the male athlete being sued denied the allegations and inferences of unlawful conduct.

A key part of the civil case centers on how Canisius College handled the initial report of an alleged assault of one of the female athletes, because the other women said they would not have been assaulted by the male team member had the college responded properly to the first report.

Attorney Thomas S. D’Antonio, who represents the college, said in court papers that one of the female athletes reported to an assistant coach of her team on Sept. 1, 2017, that she had been sexually assaulted a year earlier on Aug. 28, 2016, after an off-campus team party. The lawsuit against the college does not claim that she identified her assailant at the time, nor that she notified the coach that her assailant was a men’s team member, D'Antonio said in court papers.

The coach promptly notified the college’s Title IX coordinator and its assistant athletic director of the report, according to D'Antonio's court papers.

In February 2018, the female athlete told Huckle who had sexually assaulted her in August 2016. She further claimed that the male athlete had sexually assaulted another female athlete on the team at an off-campus party on Dec. 15, 2017, and that he had engaged in other acts of “aggressive, hostile and abusive conduct ... toward women,” according to court papers.

Huckle promptly notified appropriate college officials of that report, D'Antonio said.

The college then conducted an investigation into the claims, and the college’s Title IX coordinator met with the entire women’s team and invited them to submit complaints concerning the male athlete. At the conclusion of the investigation, a Title IX hearing panel found the male athlete responsible for assaulting the female athlete and removed him from the men’s team, D'Antonio said in court papers.

The women who filed the lawsuit did not contest the hearing’s outcome or sanctions against him, D'Antonio said.

The "wholly speculative" allegation that the alleged December 2017 assault “would never have happened” if Canisius had taken some action in response to the September 2017 report is inadequate to make a pre-assault Title IX claim, D'Antonio said in court papers.

"A college may be held responsible for pre-assault deliberate indifference only where it has actual knowledge of sexual assaults committed in a particular context or program by a particular perpetrator or perpetrators," he said. "Here, there is no allegation that in September 2017 [the female athlete] had even identified her alleged assailant, much less provided any information concerning the particular context of the alleged assault."

The judge acknowledged the report to the assistant coach in September 2017 was only a report — not a formal complaint.

Still, "the college's alleged failure to follow up at all — at least until the Title IX investigation began in October 2018 — on a report of a sexual assault against a student-athlete is inexplicable," Crawford wrote in his ruling.

Crawford noted that the woman also alleged the college failed to act upon the anonymous reports on the app of sexual misconduct by male team members. The judge said he inferred the college was aware of some of those alleged reports before the alleged assault of the second female athlete in December 2017.

"In the court's view, these allegations are sufficient to nudge [the] claim across the line from conceivable to plausible," Crawford wrote, as reported by the News.

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