Attorney for former students who filed suit against Ringling College contends that U.S. District Court judge should send lawsuit back to state court because its claims not based on federal law

Sarasota judge had ordered case closed in 12th Judicial Circuit Court in response to Ringling motion

The St. Petersburg attorney representing former students of the Ringling College of Art + Design in a lawsuit that began in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Sarasota has filed a motion seeking its return to that court’s jurisdiction, following the Circuit judge’s agreement that it could be moved to federal court.

Starlett Massey, founder of the Massey Law Group, contends in her Aug. 16 motion that the case “must be remanded to state court” because the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa is not the proper venue to litigate the claims.

The original complaint, she pointed out, alleged that the college “breached its duty” to protect the plaintiffs, who were members of its student population, “by failing to provide a safe environment.” Their clams, she added, are “causes of action all governed by Florida case law.”

“Although Ringling’s conduct may be in violation of federal law as well as state law,” Massey wrote, “the well-pleaded counts in the Complaint do not raise issues that require a ruling on federal law.”

Massey pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1987 case Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, which said, “Only state-court actions that originally could have been filed in federal court may be removed to federal court by the defendant.”

She also cites the 2008 opinion of Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal in Najiy v. City of Miami in making that assertion.

In its opinion in that case, Massey also notes, the Third District Court of Appeal said that “plaintiffs are not required to seek remedy in federal court when there are valid state court claims as well.”

Additionally, Massey argues, later courts have affirmed the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1877 case Gold-Washing and Water Company v. Keyes, in which the Supreme Court said that the burden of proving federal jurisdiction rests with the party seeking the move.

Moreover, Massey contends, the plaintiffs have made no claims against Ringling College that arise “under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Their allegations, she adds, “do not supply any basis for removal to federal court.”

In a motion filed in the case when it was still in Circuit Court, the Miami attorney representing the college argued, with emphasis, that while the plaintiffs’ complaints “are ostensibly styled as negligence-type claims, Plaintiffs have explicitly and repeatedly predicated their claims on alleged violations of various federal anti-discrimination and related laws …”

The lawsuit, attorney Mendy Halberstam of the Jackson Lewis firm continued, deals with federal Title IX issues, including the plaintiffs’ “repeated allegations regarding Ringling’s alleged ‘deliberate indifference’ towards the supposed discrimination to which they were subjected.”

Circuit Judge Stephen Walker, who had been assigned the case, signed an order on Aug. 4, agreeing with Halberstam and closing the proceedings in Circuit Court.

Further, Halberstam called for dismissal of the complaint in federal court, plus a stay of the proceedings — putting them on hold — and the “severing” of the plaintiffs, as he contends that their claims do not arise from a common incident but from various unrelated situations while they were attending Ringling College. In other words, he was asking that a separate lawsuit be filed for each of them.

In an Aug. 8 order, U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell agreed to Halberstam’s request for the stay and the separate complaints, writing that she found “good cause” to support his motion.

Yet, Massey argues, the eight plaintiffs allege that “Ringling violated its own standards, policies, and procedures, which is the substance of these state law claims.”

If Honeywell rules that the case belongs in federal court, Massey writes, then the plaintiffs request the judge’s permission “to file an amended complaint that removes all references to federal laws to more clearly demonstrate that Plaintiffs’ counts are state law claims, as no federal inquiry is needed into any of their counts” against the college.

Moreover, Massey continues, if Honeywell finds that the case should go back to Circuit Court, then Ringling should pay all of the expenses, including attorney’s fees, that the plaintiffs incurred as a result of the removal of the lawsuit to federal court.

Massey further contends that, based on case law, Honeywell first must decide whether the complaint belongs in federal court before ruling on Ringling’s motion to dismiss it and to make the plaintiffs file individual complaints against the college.

As of the deadline for this issue of The Sarasota News Leader, the attorney for the college had not responded to motion, and the judge had not issued a ruling on it.

Cases all ‘arise from same basic factual inquiries’

In further explanation, Massey points out that the plaintiffs had asked for the consolidation of two earlier cases with the new one. Those prior complaints involved Ringling’s former associate dean of students, Christopher Charles Shaffer, and the lead plaintiff, Megan Rose Ruiz of Los Angles County, Calif. Massey pointed out that all of the complaints “arise from the same basic factual inquiries: “(1) whether Ringling breached its duty to protect its student population, including the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit, by failing to protect them from the mishandling of student-on-student reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment, threats of violence, and stalking, and bypermitting its employees to discriminate against them based upon gender, race,disabilities, and LGBTQ+ status, and by invading their privacy by revealing privatefacts; (2) whether the public statements made by Ruiz regarding Shaffer are true,specifically her statements related to the mishandling of student reports of student-on-student misconduct, Ringling’s discrimination against its students, and Ringling’s pattern and practice of silencing reporting students through manipulation tactics in order to [cover up] student and employee misconduct; (3) whether Ringling mishandled its investigation into Shaffer’s conduct in response to Ruiz’s public claims in an effort to continue its cover-up of its ongoing failures to protect its vulnerable student population; (4) whether Ringling made and breached a verbal contract with Shaffer when it terminated his employment purportedly because Shaffer filed a lawsuit against Ruiz; (5) whether Shaffer complied with Ringling’s standards, policies, and procedures, and (6) what Ringling knew or should have known about Shaffer’s misconduct and discrimination in violations of Ringling’s standards, policies, and procedures.”

Additionally, Massey points out, during a July 14 case status conference, Circuit Judge Walker advised her and the attorney for Shaffer that Shaffer would “ ‘have a steep uphill climb’ ” to convince Walker not to grant the plaintiffs’ motion to consolidate the earlier cases with the new one “because the cases all stemmed from the same facts.”

However, before Massey had an opportunity to get a hearing scheduled on the motion to consolidate the cases, she continues, Ringling filed its motion seeking the removal of the new complaint from Circuit Court to federal court.

Moreover, Massey writes that she expects the discovery process to “result in responses that establish Ringling’s pattern and practice of mishandling student complaints and neglecting its employees’ continuous failure to comply with its own policies and procedures implemented to protect students, specifically through its employees, Larry Thompson [president of the college], Tammy Walsh [vice president of student life], and Shaffer, and that this practice and pattern of misconduct by Ringling caused the dangerous on-campus environment and was the cause of all of the Plaintffs’ damages.”

Massey contends that Ringling’s effort to move the case to federal court was intended to, and had been successful in, “delaying the discovery process to prevent Plaintiffs from accessing the information needed to establish their claims.”

That action, she adds, ensures that the college “can prolong the time that it has sole access to key evidence pertinent to all of these lawsuits, while exacerbating the risk of Plaintiffs’ witnesses becoming unavailable, their memories fading, and increasing Plaintiffs’ costs in securing evidence.”