Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges: A State College Is Not Liable Under Title IX or Tort Law for Abduction and Death of Female Undergraduate
by Richard Fossey & Robert C. Cloud — February 08, 2018
A Nebraska state college is found not liable by two courts after Tyler Thomas, a 19-year-old freshman, disappeared and was declared dead by a Nebraska court. A 29-year-old male student who resided in a dormitory room next to Thomas' room, was later charged with murder.
In the fall of 2010, Tyler Thomas, a 19-year-old freshman woman, lived in a dormitory at Peru State College (PSC). Joshua Keadle, a 29-year-old male student, resided in an adjacent room. Thomas disappeared on December 3, 2010 and was never seen again. Keadle was questioned by police. He admitted being alone with Thomas near the Missouri River on the morning of her disappearance but invoked his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination and refused to answer further questions. Subsequently, Thomas was declared dead by a Nebraska state court but her body was never recovered (Thomas v. Nebraska State Colleges, 2016).
LaTanya Thomas, Tyler Thomass mother, filed two lawsuits against the Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges, PSCs governing board, seeking to hold the Board liable for her daughters death. She filed one suit in federal court, claiming the Board was liable for damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. She filed a second suit in a Nebraska state court, where she brought negligence claims under Nebraska law (Thomas v. Nebraska State Colleges, 2017). Both cases were dismissed on the Boards motion for summary judgment, and both dismissals were upheld on appeal.
LaTANYA THOMAS' FEDERAL SUIT
In her federal lawsuit, LaTanya Thomas charged Nebraska State Colleges with violating Title IX by showing deliberate indifference to the harm Joshua Keadle posed to female students at Peru State College, resulting in Tyler Thomass abduction, sexual assault and murder by Keadle. Indeed, Tylers mother presented evidence showing PSC officials knew Keadle had been accused of sexual misconduct before Tyler was abducted and killed.
Keadle arrived at PSC in the fall of 2010 and volunteered to be a strength and conditioning assistant for the PSC womens basketball team. PSC conducted a criminal background check on Keadle, which only turned up minor traffic offenses. However, PSCs housing director received an email indicating Keadle had been convicted of robbery and been charged with forcible fondling of an 18-year-old female (Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges, 2017, p. 697). The housing director obtained a second background check, which revealed a misdemeanor theft conviction. PSCs athletic director contacted the athletic director at a college Keadle had previously attended; that director advised PSC not to hire Keadle. PSCs athletic director decided not to hire Keadle and instructed the schools basketball coach that Keadle was to have no contact with the womens basketball team.
During September 2010, two female students complained that Keadle had sexually harassed them. PSCs Crisis Assessment, Response, and Evaluation team instituted disciplinary proceedings, and Keadle pled responsible for one claim, alleging he had made inappropriate sexual remarks to a female student and had waited for her to finish her work shift and then asked her for a kiss (Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges, 2016, p. 561). Keadle was directed to obtain online training and to give 10 hours of community service.
Keadle denied responsibility for the second claim. At the hearing on this claim, the complaining student stated that Keadle had made her feel uncomfortable but not threatened and apologized to Keadle. Keadle was found not responsible (p. 561).
PSCs housing director recommended to the Vice President for Enrollment Management that Keadle be removed from his dormitory if he pled responsible to a sexual harassment complaint, but the vice president disagreed. Later in the semester, Keadle kicked down his dormitory-room door.
A federal district court dismissed LaTanyas Title IX claim on the Boards motion for summary judgment, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower courts opinion on appeal. In a brief unpublished decision, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial courts ruling that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Board had actual knowledge that Keadle posed a substantial risk of sufficiently severe harm to students based on his previous known conduct, or whether the Board acted with deliberate indifference, both of which are required for a Title IX claim based on a students action against the plaintiff (p. 562). The Eighth Circuit cited several federal court decisions in support of its ruling, including Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a single complaint against a teacher for making inappropriate sexual remarks to students was insufficient to establish actual knowledge of a sexual relationship between a student and the teacher (p. 291).
LaTANYA THOMAS' NEGLIGENCE SUIT
In a second lawsuit filed in a Nebraska state court, LaTanya Thomas sued the Nebraska board for negligence. She was joined in this suit by Tyler Thomass father, Kevin Semans. A Nebraska trial court dismissed the parents claim on the Boards motion for summary judgment, ruling that the Board owed no duty of care to Thomas for Keadles criminal acts. The court went on to hold a trial on damages, however, which concluded with a $2.6 billion judgment against Keadle (Hammel, 2017).
On appeal, the Nebraska Supreme Court reviewed the trial courts dismissal of LaTanya Thomas claims against the Board. The appellate court disagreed with the trial courts ruling that the board owed Tyler Thomas no duty of care. We have previously recognized that schools owe their students a duty of reasonable care, the court stated. Thus, the Board owed Thomas a duty of care (Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges (2016, p. 699).
Nevertheless, the Nebraska Supreme Court affirmed the trial courts ruling in favor of the Board, finding that Keadles actions were not foreseeable. We fully recognize that the record indicates that there were warning signs with respect to Keadles conduct, the court acknowledged. Nevertheless, nothing in the record amounts to a question of fact as to whether [Keadles] conduct forecast a risk that Keadle might abduct, rape, and murder Thomas (p. 700).
The facts indicate that Keadles behavior was seriously problematic for PSC and other students, but not reasonably indicative that he posed a risk of a violent assault on the person of another student, the court reasoned. And although the Board might have anticipated continuing problems with Keadle, no reasonable fact finder could find that the harm that occurred was a reasonably foreseeable risk based upon the circumstances present in this case. (pp. 700-701).
Colleges are sometimes held liable when a student dies or is criminally assaulted on a college campus. In the venerable case of Mullins v. Pine Manor College (1983), for example, a small private college in metropolitan Boston was held liable after a freshman student was abducted from her dormitory room and raped by an off-campus intruder who was never identified or apprehended. In Nero v. Kansas State University (1993), the Kansas Supreme Court upheld a judgment against Kansas State University after a female student was assaulted by a male student in the basement of a college dormitory. Criminal charges were pending against the male student at the time of the assault based on an accusation he had assaulted another female student in a different dormitory. The prior incident obligated KSU to take steps to protect its dormitory residents, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled.
On the other hand, colleges and universities are not legally responsible for every criminal act committed on their campuses. In Commonwealth v. Peterson (2013), the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Virginia Tech was not liable for the 2007 massacre of students that took place on its campus. Even if the university had a heightened duty of care due to a special relationship with its students, the court concluded, the massacre that took place in Virginia Techs Norris Hall was not reasonably foreseeable by campus administrators.
In the Thomas cases, LaTanya Thomas lost both her federal law suit and the negligence suit she brought in a state court. In the federal suit, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Peru State College officials had actual knowledge that Keadle posed a substantial risk of severely harming female students. Nor was there a basis for finding that the college was deliberately indifferent to the risk of harm caused by Tyler Thomas alleged assailant. In the state case, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled similarly, finding no substantial evidence to support a claim that Tyler Thomas abduction, rape, and murder were reasonably foreseeable.
These twin decisions are in harmony with established Title IX jurisprudence and negligence law. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask whether PSC erred by not removing Keadle from his room in a mixed-gender dormitory after he had been accused of sexual harassment by two PSC students. After all, most Nebraska parents would probably object if they knew their teenage daughter was housed in a dorm room adjacent to the room of a 29-year-old man with a criminal record who had recently been accused of sexual harassment of PSC students. Without a doubt, PSCs Vice President of Student Enrollment would have acted wisely had he taken the housing directors recommendation and removed Mr. Keadle from PSC campus housing based on the knowledge the college had about Keadle prior to Thomas disappearance and murder.
Sometime after Tyler Thomas disappearance and death, Joshua Keadle was convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl in Fremont, Nebraska. He was sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison for that crime (Ellis, 2012). In October 2017, almost seven years after Tyler Thomas vanished from the Peru State College campus, Keadle was charged with the murder of Tyler Thomas (Hammel, 2017).
Commonwealth v. Peterson, 749 S.E.2d 307 (Va. 2013).
Ellis, B. Keadle sentenced to 15-20 years in prison. Freemont Tribune, April 25, 2012.
Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998).
Hammel, P. (2017, October 19). Joshua Keadle charged with murder in disappearance of Tyler Thomas, a Peru State Student from Omaha. Omaha World-Herald.
Nero v. Kansas State University, 861 P.2d 768 (Kan. 1993).
Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 449 N.E.2d 331 (Mass. 1983).
Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges, 667 Fed. Appx. 560 (8th Cir. 2016) (unpublished decision).
Thomas v. Board of Trustees of Nebraska State Colleges, 895 N.W.2d 692 (Neb. 2017).