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Doe v. Liberty University

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

June 18, 2019

Jane Doe, Plaintiff,
v.
Liberty University, ET AL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Judge Norman K. Moon Plaintiff filed this action in February 2019. Plainitff's 109-page complaint contains 29 counts against Defendants Liberty University, Nicole M. Dilella, May Deacon, Denise Daniel, Elias Moitinho, and Eric Camden (collectively “Defendants”). (Dkt. 4, “Compl.” ¶¶ 271-589). Plaintiff's claims stem from events surrounding her suspension from Defendant Liberty University (“Liberty”). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants' actions violate state law as well as Title IX of the Educations Amendment Act of 1972 (“Title IX”). The Court is now in receipt of multiple motions from both parties. As a preliminary matter, the Court addresses Defendants' motion for a hearing, (dkt. 31), Plaintiff's motion for permission to proceed under pseudonym, (dkt. 1), and Defendants' motion to strike Plaintiff's response in support of her motion to proceed under a pseudonym, (dkt. 30). For the reasons that follow, all three motions will be denied.

         I. Background

         On February 21, 2019, Plaintiff filed a complaint and a motion for permission to proceed under pseudonym. (Dkts. 4, 1). On March 28, 2019, Defendants filed a response in opposition to Plaintiff's motion to proceed under pseudonym. (Dkt. 11). On May 3, 2019, Plaintiff replied to Defendants' response in opposition, (dkt. 27), and on May 5, 2019, Defendants moved to strike Plaintiff's reply as untimely. (Dkt. 30). The parties filed multiple additional motions, but at this juncture, the Court will focus on the ones named above and provide a brief overview of the facts relevant to Plaintiff's motion to proceed under a pseudonym.

         Plaintiff requests to proceed anonymously “in order to maintain and protect her privacy and reputational interests as she seeks redress against” Defendants “for the grievous mishandling of false accusations of professional misconduct brought against” her while she was a student in Liberty's Counselor Education & Supervision program. (Dkt. 3). The conduct underlying this dispute began in November 2017, when a Liberty faculty member emailed Plaintiff “with concerns about Plaintiff's responses” in a conversation on Facebook. (Compl. ¶ 13). “Unbeknownst” to Plaintiff, “two other professors also purportedly filed incident reports complaining of [Plaintiff's] alleged misconduct in prior classes.” (Id. ¶ 15). The incident reports are based on faculty members' concerns about Plaintiff's interpersonal skills and professional competence. (Id. ¶ 39-40). In June 2018, Defendant Dilella filed a second incident report, but “withheld videotaped/recorded evidence that would exonerate” Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 20). After a “closed-door” discussion by Liberty's Remediation Committee, (id. ¶ 28), Liberty “immediately placed [Plaintiff] on emergency suspension, ” halted Plaintiff's practicum, administratively dropped Plaintiff's scheduled Fall course, and barred Plaintiff from registering for any academic course in the Spring 2019 semester.

         Plaintiff's claims are based on the nature and consequences of these disciplinary proceedings. First, she states that she did not learn about the concerns documented in the incident reports until after Liberty's Remediation Committee had “rendered judgment against” her. (Id. ¶ 17). Because she was not aware of the existence or content of the complaints, she “never had the opportunity to confront her accusers, read their full statements, ” or review evidence relating to her alleged infractions. (Id. ¶ 33). Second, Plaintiff claims that the information contained in the June 2018 incident report contained “egregious misrepresentations and selective facts to effect [sic] [Plaintiff's] suspension.” (Id. ¶ 42). Plaintiff argues that this behavior, along with email correspondence, the prejudicial make-up of the remediation committee members, and the allegedly excessively severe punishment she received, supports her claim that Defendants had an “agenda to oust” her. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 42-44, 48). Plaintiff further alleges that the flawed implementation of Liberty's disciplinary process “favored [Plaintiff's] male classmate [Defendant] Camden's unsupported version of events.” (Id. 56) (emphasis in original). Finally, Plaintiff claims that Defendants made oral or written statements regarding her situation, as evidenced by a public Facebook post by a student who “was not involved in [Plaintiff's] matter at all and would only know about it from” Defendants. (Id. ¶ 59).

         II. Analysis

         A. Defendants' Motion for a Hearing

         At the outset, the Court will address Defendants' motion for a hearing on the pending motions. (Dkt. 31). Pursuant to W.D. Va. R. 11(b) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b), the Court has discretion to determine a motion without an oral hearing even when a party has requested oral argument. See also CVLR Performance Horses, Inc. v. Wynne, 792 F.3d 469, 744 (4th Cir. 2015) (“[I]t is within the sound discretion of the district court to dispose of a motion without a hearing.”) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b)). In this case, Defendants have requested a hearing on the pending motions to “aid the Court's decisional process.” (Dkt. 31 at 2). Plaintiff has objected to this motion. (Dkts. 28, 34). After reviewing the briefing in these matters, the Court finds that oral argument will not aid the decisional process. Defendants' motion will be denied, and the Court will decide these matters on the papers.

         B. Defendants' Motion to Strike.

         Defendants have moved to strike Plaintiffs' reply in support of her motion to proceed under a pseudonym, arguing the reply is untimely. Local Rule 11(c) provides that “the moving party may file a rebuttal brief within 7 days after the service of the opposing party's reply brief.” Plaintiff concedes that the reply was untimely, but notes a faulty attempt to file within the deadline and her decision to re-file based on a letter from the Clerk of the Court. (Dkt. 33 at 2). “[T]he application of the local rules is within the discretion of the Court, ” Michael v. Sentara Health System, 939 F.Supp. 1220, 1225, n.3 (E.D. Va. 1996), and Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, is “entitled to some deference from courts.” Ballard v. Carlson, 882 F.2d 93, 96 (4th Cir. 1989). Based on the circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's untimely filing, the Court will deny the motion to strike.

         C. Plaintiff's Motion to Proceed Under Pseudonym

         Having dispensed with the preliminary matters relating to Plaintiff's motion to proceed under pseudonym, the Court turns to the substance of that motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a) provides that “[t]he title of the complaint must name all parties.” “The purpose of this rule is to appraise the parties of their opponents and to protect the public's legitimate interest in knowing all the facts and events surrounding court proceedings.” Doe v. Va. Polytechnic Inst. & State Univ., No. 7:18-cv-320, 2018 WL 5929645 at *2 (W.D. Va., Nov. 13, 2018). “[I]n some limited circumstances, anonymity may be appropriate, ” Doe v. Pittsylvania Cty., 844 F.Supp.2d 724, 728 (W.D. Va. 2012), but proceeding anonymously is a “rare dispensation.” James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir. 1993). “Party anonymity is a discretionary determination made by the trial court.” Id. (citing James, 6 F.3d at238 (4th Cir. 1993). The Fourth Circuit has provided the following five factors to guide this decision:

[1] whether the justification asserted by the requesting party is merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend any litigation or is to preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature; [2] whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the requesting party or even more critically, to innocent non-parties; [3] the ages of the persons whose privacy interest are sought to be protected; [4] whether the action is against a governmental or private ...

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