A federal judge dismissed Kent State University from a Title IX lawsuit involving a former softball player’s allegation that she was raped by her coach’s son.

U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi, in granting the university’s request for summary judgment Monday, said that while the former softball player, Lauren Kesterson, “would have preferred a slightly different tack, there is absolutely no evidence in the record that would support a finding that Kent State chose to ignore Title IX's mandate for equal education opportunities.”

Kesterson's attorney plans to appeal Lioi's ruling. While the Beacon Journal generally does not name alleged sexual assault victims, Kesterson has consented to her name being made public.

“My client is determined to hold Kent State University accountable for their actions," attorney Ashlie Case Sletvold with the Chandra Law Firm of Cleveland said Monday.

The judge issued mixed rulings concerning Kesterson's claims involving the now former softball coach, Karen Linder. However, Lioi 

granted Linder “qualified immunity," shielding her from liability concerning Kesterson's claims.

Kent State issued this statement Monday evening: "This judgment reinforces what we have said from the beginning: Kent State University followed all rules and procedures under Title IX in support of our students. The judgment speaks for itself."

Suit allegations

Kesterson filed the civil lawsuit in February 2016 in U.S. District Court, alleging that Kent State and Linder violated Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, as well as the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. She also claimed the infliction of intentional emotional distress.

Lioi, in her ruling, declined to grant a motion dismissing Kesterson’s claim that Linder had acted with “deliberate indifference” after Kesterson reported the alleged 2012 rape in the spring of 2014.

A jury, the judge said, “could view Linder’s remark that she thought it was best if Kesterson not discuss the attack with anyone who did not already know as a subtle form of suppression and coercion.”

The judge also declined to dismiss Kesterson’s “class-of-one equal protection” claim against Linder. This involves Kesterson’s claim that she was treated differently from another softball player who reported to Linder that she had been raped. The other player alleged she had been raped by another student, not the coach’s son.

Lioi did grant Linder summary judgment on Kesterson's claim that her right to free speech had been violated by Linder when she asked her not to speak to anyone about the alleged assault. Lioi said Kesterson's claim did not meet “key requirements for a prior restraint" of speech.


Suit allegations

According to Kesterson’s lawsuit, Linder recruited Kesterson to play softball at Kent State and Kesterson received a scholarship. The suit says Kesterson was raped in the fall of 2012 in her dorm room by the coach’s son.

The suit says Kesterson reported the rape in mid-May 2014 to Linder and Linder asked her not to tell anyone else about the alleged rape.

Linder, the coach, didn't follow the university's policy that requires the reporting of an alleged sexual assault, the suit says.

The lawsuit accuses the university of failing to follow its own policy and federal law by not filing Kesterson's official complaint.

Kesterson filed a complaint in August 2015 with Erin Barton, the deputy coordinator for Title IX in the university's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Department. University officials told Kesterson they would do a "surprise interview" with Linder. Two days after this interview, Linder resigned, according to the lawsuit. Kesterson never filed criminal charges.

Kent State's role

Lioi, in her ruling said that Kesterson “cannot maintain that Kent State had actual notice in 2014 of the alleged rape." Lioi said while Linder was a “mandatory reporter" under the university's sexual harassment policy, she does not qualify as an “appropriate person" to take action on behalf of Kent State for purposes of Title IX.

“The record is clear that Kent State acted quickly and decisively once Barton was made aware of the 2012 assault and Linder's failure to report it," Lioi said, noting that within four days of Kesterson's meeting with Barton, Linder was told to either resign or be terminated. Linder resigned. Also shortly after that meeting, Barton confirmed that Linder's son was no longer registered for classes, Lioi said.

Lioi also granted current softball coach Eric Oakley a summary judgment, dismissing him from the case.

Kesterson felt that she was blamed for Linder's resignation and experienced animosity because of it, according to her lawsuit. She quit the softball team.

Kesterson's grades suffered, and she received counseling and experienced panic attacks, including once losing consciousness and being hospitalized, according to the lawsuit.

 

Beacon Journal staff writer Brandon Bounds contributed to this report. Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.