Court dismisses Title IX lawsuit against Huntington University, officials over doping, sexual assault allegations against ex-running coach

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Huntington University (IL file photo)

In a case that came down to “who knew what and when they knew it,” a federal judge has dismissed the Title IX lawsuit filed against Huntington University and various school officials by former student-athletes who say they were doped and sexually assaulted.

But Chief Judge Holly Brady of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana gave the plaintiffs until Dec. 6 to file a second amended complaint. Brady also dismissed 22 state-law claims, without prejudice to refiling in state court.

The lawsuit — Emma Wilson, et al. v. Nicholas Johnson, et al., 1:22-cv-336 — was first filed in September 2022, with an amended complaint filed in December.

The plaintiffs, Emma Wilson, Hannah Stoffel and Erin Manchess, are former members of the Huntington cross-country and track and field teams who alleged that Nicholas Johnson, their former head coach, instituted an illegal doping program. They also allege that Johnson sexually assaulted them during massage “treatments.”

Additionally, the runners claim that Johnson’s wife, Lauren, who was the assistant coach, and other university officials knew about the abuse but did nothing.

Court records allege that in 2019, both Nicholas and Lauren Johnson began the doping program, which “involved administering and injecting banned substances into cross-country and track athletes, including Plaintiffs, without their knowledge.”

The runners allege the couple had prior connections to organized doping via the Nike Oregon Project, which they say the university and Curtis Hines, the other assistant coach, knew or should have known about.

Then in August 2020, Nicholas Johnson took a minor high school student, identified in court documents as Victim 1, to Oregon on the premise of a recruiting trip that was actually a ruse to engage in sexual conduct. That trip resulted in a meeting between Nicholas, high school officials and Russ Degitz, the university’s chief operating officer.

According to the plaintiffs, “This discussion … focused on Johnson’s relationship with Victim 1 and included Johnson’s own revelation that he had been ‘accused’ by someone of being Victim 1’s boyfriend, the dating relationship of Victim 1 and her sexual interactions with boys, and the accusation that Johnson forced Victim 1 to perform oral sex. This meeting also addressed concerns of community members about the flow of minors in and out of the Johnsons’ home. The University took no actions against Johnson after this meeting.”

But the defendants provided a different narrative of the meeting, claiming instead that “the main concern addressed at the meeting was recruiting violations, not sexual conduct, by Johnson. Any discussion of sexual conduct with Victim 1, according to them, was tangential to the recruiting violations concerns.”

Citing details of the meeting from a police report, Brady wrote, “At best … Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint omits facts from the police report that provide helpful context to this meeting. At worst, they intend to mislead the Court about the purpose of this meeting. But regardless of which account of this meeting the Court credits, this meeting involved none of the Plaintiffs nor did it involve any sexual misconduct by Johnson towards the Plaintiffs or any other female student at the University.”

Nicholas was arrested in December 2020 and charged with sexually exploiting Victim 1. He pleaded guilty in February 2022 to Level 6 felony identity deception and was sentenced to 30 days executed in the Huntington County Jail followed by 150 days served under electronic monitoring through Community Corrections.

Meanwhile, from July to November 2020, Stoffel alleged that Nicholas raped her repeatedly and reduced her scholarship without explanation. A footnote adds that he also allegedly had a sexual relationship with another student who is not a plaintiff, and that Lauren knew about that relationship.

In September 2020, Victim 1 discovered sexual messages from Nicholas to Stoffel and threatened to tell Lauren. Instead, Nicholas told Lauren himself, “so Lauren had knowledge that two athletes coached by (Nicholas) Johnson … were in a sexual ‘relationship’ with her husband.”

“The Complaint broadly asserts that ‘Huntington University staff and employees were aware that certain female runners refused to be alone with (Nicholas) Johnson prior to the start of the 2020 cross-country season, that it was known among the athletes that Johnson touched females inappropriately while giving them treatments, and that certain female athletes refused to get treatments from Johnson or be alone with him,” Brady wrote. “The Complaint also asserts that the University Defendants, Lauren, and Hines ‘knowingly allowed’ Johnson to meet with young female athletes and massage female athletes despite knowing he had no medical credentials.”

Following Nicholas’ arrest, Lauren was made head coach. She and Hines were placed on leave after the federal suit was filed, and the school subsequently announced an external review.

“To sum it up, Plaintiffs allege that (Nicholas) Johnson subjected them to a hostile environment while they were athletes at the university,” Brady wrote. “Johnson subjected Plaintiffs to assault, unwanted touching and advances including graphic sexual conversations that male athletes did not endure. Johnson also provided infusions and injections of unknown substances to female team members but did not provide these treatments to male athletes.”

The case, according to Brady, turns on the “actual notice” requirement for a Title IX claim — in other words, “the crux of the Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim comes down to who knew what and when they knew it.”

“On this point, it is significant what is not alleged,” the chief judge wrote. “None of the Plaintiffs have alleged that they reported (Nicholas) Johnson’s conduct to any ‘appropriate person’ at the University.

“Plaintiffs make much out of the fact that Lauren and Hines knew various things including that Johnson provided treatment to female athletes, was alone with female athletes, and, in Lauren’s case, she was aware of two female athletes that Johnson was engaging in a sexual relationship,” Brady continued. “Thus, Plaintiffs seek to impute their knowledge to the University and assert that ‘any reasonable administrator’ should have known of Johnson’s misconduct.”

But there are two issues with that argument, Brady said: The Supreme Court has rejected a “knew or should have known” standard for Title IX claims, and the alleged misconduct must be reported to an employee with authority to implement corrective measures.

“Here, even if the assistant athletic coaches (Lauren and Hines) knew about the sexual abuse and doping allegations, there are no corresponding allegations that they had authority to take corrective measures to stop Johnson’s abuse of the Plaintiffs,” Brady wrote. “… That leaves the only other University employee named in the Amended Complaint, Dr. DeGitz.

“While Plaintiffs pled that Dr. DeGitz had supervisory authority, they have no functional allegations that Dr. DeGitz had actual knowledge of the Plaintiffs’ abuse by (Nicholas) Johnson. … At most, when the Amended Complaint is read favorably to Plaintiffs, DeGitz knew about what occurred in the August 2020 meeting (about Victim 1). But that meeting did not involve doping allegations and did not raise any question that Johnson sexually abused anyone at the University.

“… The Court is sympathetic that Plaintiffs are at a disadvantage without having the benefit of discovery,” Brady concluded, “but their factual allegations are insufficient to plausibly claim that the appropriate employees at the University should have known of the sexual misconduct, doping and harassment, let alone they actually knew of it.

“For this reason, the University Defendants’ motion to dismiss the Title IX claims is GRANTED, but with one final chance to amend.”

In state court, Nicholas Johnson was charged a second time in March with Level 6 felony sexual battery and Class B misdemeanor battery.

According to the Indianapolis Star, the complaint in Huntington Superior Court accuses him of touching a victim who was compelled to submit by force or imminent threat, and knowingly and intentionally touching the victim in a rude or angry manner.

The state case — State of Indiana v. Nicholas Edward Johnson, 35D01-2303-F6-000089 — is scheduled for a pretrial conference on Nov. 28.

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