Ringling College negligence case involving former students moved from Circuit Court to federal court

Attorneys for college point to facts demonstrating that litigation deals with Title IX and other federal issues

A lawsuit filed this summer against the Ringling College of Art + Design, alleging that college staff failed to protect the plaintiffs “from the mishandling of student-on-student reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment, threats of violence, and stalking,” has been moved to federal court, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Further, the college’s attorneys have filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa, seeking dismissal of the complaint.

On July 26, an attorney for Ringling College petitioned the 12th Judicial Circuit Court for the change of jurisdiction. That motion also pointed out that, in a letter dated April 19, the plaintiffs offered “to forego filing the [Circuit Court] lawsuit in exchange for a monetary settlement in the amount of [$20 million] from Ringling to all Plaintiffs.”

Referring to those eight plaintiffs, Ringling’s attorney, Mendy Halberstam of the Miami firm Jackson Lewis, wrote, with emphasis, that “while their claims 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 …”

Additionally, Halberstam noted, the remedies the plaintiffs are seeking — “such as attorneys’ fees and wage-related damages [are] available only under … federal statutes and not under the common law …”

The lawsuit, he 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.”

Halberstam added that it is “unquestionable that Plaintiffs’ claims are in fact federal claims masquerading as state law claims for negligence.”

“Indeed,” he continued, “only one claim in the sprawling 283-paragraph Complaint pertains to the primary Plaintiff, Megan Rose Ruiz … No other Plaintiff is a party to that count,” Halberstam wrote with emphasis.

On Aug. 4, Circuit Judge Stephen Walker signed an order directing the Sarasota County Clerk of Court to close the case and to cancel all hearings on pending motions and trial dates. “The [Circuit] Court no longer has jurisdiction to proceed,” he added.

Ringling College also has asked that the U.S. District Court in Tampa put the case on hold, “pending resolution of [the college’s] Motion to Dismiss [the complaint]” and its request that each plaintiff file a separate lawsuit.

In an Aug. 8 order, U.S. District Court Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell agreed to those motions, finding that “good cause” supports them.

Honeywell noted in her order that the plaintiffs did not oppose the college’s request.

In the Ringling Motion to Sever and Dismiss Complaint, attorney Halberstam alleged that the plaintiffs should not be joined as parties for the case. Among his reasons, he cited a section of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which says that for plaintiffs to be joined in an action, a “ ‘question of law or fact common to all [of them]’ must arise in the action.”

Pointing to a 2013 Florida case in federal court, Barber v. Am’s Wholesale Lender, Halberstam wrote, “Claims arise out of the same transaction or occurrence when they pass the ‘logical relationship test.’ ” Then, referencing a 2010 federal case in Tampa, he continued, “ ‘Under this test, a logical relationship exists if the claims rest on the same set of facts or the facts, on which one claim rests, activate additional legal rights supporting the other claim.’ ”

In the complaint against Ringling, Halberstam noted, the plaintiffs have the same counsel, and they all attended the college, but “[t]heir claims do not arise out of the same transactions or occurrences. They do not involve the same operative facts, individuals, or even the same timeline.”

Halberstam then listed specific details of those allegations, as well as the periods during which the events purportedly happened.

“As these summaries demonstrate,” he wrote, “Plaintiffs and their claims (a) are completely unrelated to one another; (b) involve wholly distinct facts and claims (i.e., completely different forms of discrimination, retaliation, disregard of rights, breaches of duty, etc.); (c) involve different students as victim and offender; (d) involve different Ringling employees; and (e) span over thirteen years, and, notably, involve incidents that Plaintiffs admit occurred in distinct time periods with no overlap [emphasis in the document].”

Moreover, Halberstam pointed out, again with emphasis, “While some claims share the same legal theories, they do so in title only.”

Details of the original complaint

In their Circuit Court complaint, the plaintiffs contended, “Ringling has engaged in a pattern and practice of silencing students and covering up reports of student-on-student misconduct and violations of Florida and federal anti-discrimination laws since 2008. Ringling engaged in this conduct to misrepresent its campus as an extraordinarily safe campus in its marketing and promotion of the college.”

The lawsuit added, “Ringling knowingly allowed its student population to suffer repeated traumatization and silenced its students and alumni to profit from tuition and the revenue from housing and expenses.”

The U.S. Department of Education explains that the 1972 Title IX law protects “people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.”

The Department of Education adds, “Some key issue areas in which recipients have Title IX obligations are: recruitment, admissions, and counseling; financial assistance; athletics; sex-based harassment, which encompasses sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence; treatment of pregnant and parenting students; treatment of LGBTQI+ students; discipline; single-sex education; and employment. Also, no recipient or other person may intimidate, threaten, coerce, or discriminate against any individual for the purpose of interfering with any right or privilege secured by Title IX or its implementing regulations, or because the individual has made a report or complaint, testified, assisted, or participated or refused to participate in a proceeding under Title IX. For a recipient to retaliate in any way is considered a violation of Title IX.”

On its website, Ringling College provides a statement under the heading, Title IX Reporting. The second paragraph says, “[E]very member of the College community should be aware that Ringling College is opposed to discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and that such behavior is prohibited by College policy. Such discrimination includes harassment on the basis of these traits, as well as sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking.”

Yet, the eight plaintiffs contend that the college’s Title IX Department, its Human Resources Department and the former associate dean of students for resident life, Christopher Shaffer, “worked in tandem with [President] Larry Thompson” and Tammy Walsh, vice president of student life and Shaffer’s immediate supervisor, “to ensure that student and alumni reporters of student-on-student misconduct and student and alumni reports of discrimination were silenced and that applicable reports were not reported to the [U.S.] Department of Education in compliance with Title IX.”

Ruiz’s allegations

The lead plaintiff in the original complaint — Ruiz of Los Angeles County, Calif. — alleged that while she was employed as a resident’s assistant (RA) at Ringling, she witnessed “misconduct, discrimination, and abusive mistreatment of students and student employees, which she had also personally experienced” while a student and an employee of the college. Those issues focused on Shaffer, then the college’s dean of students for residence life, the complaint pointed out.

Among his alleged wrongdoing, Ruiz contended that Shaffer was guilty of mishandling students’ private information, including health care issues and matters covered by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

On Dec. 4, 2018, she did report her concerns to Taylor Parker, Ringling’s deputy Title IX coordinator, and Christine DeGeorge, the Title IX coordinator, the complaint said, along with the fact that “she did not feel safe at work. “DeGeorge advised [Ruiz] that if she formally reported the complaint about [Shaffer], that DeGeorge could protect her from retaliation,” the complaint continued, but DeGeorge added that she could not prevent Ruiz from being fired from her position as an RA “if [Ruiz] was not doing a good job.”

Ultimately, the complaint added, Ruiz “decided not to file a formal report out of fear that she would be terminated from her job as an RA.”

After her graduation in May 2019, the complaint continued, Ruiz reported her concerns to the college’s Office of Student Life and the Human Resources Department.

The complaint alleged that the Ringling administration “failed to take any action whatsoever” in response to her statements about Shaffer.

On June 22, 2020, the complaint also explained, Ruiz created a Facebook book post stating, “There is a big conversation happening about dangerous men in art communities. I’m just going to say it. If you’re a [woman] and you go to Ringling, or plan on going to Ringling, stay the f*** away from Chris Shaffer.”

In response to that Facebook post, the complaint contended, Ruiz “received numerous messages from students, alumni, former students, parents of students and alumni, faculty, former administrators, and current employees of [the college] who had negative experiences with Shaffer.”

The federal judge and the lead attorneys

The plaintiffs are being represented by Starlett M. Massey, founder of the Massey Law Group of St. Petersburg.

Massey’s biography on the firm’s website says she “specializes in commercial litigation, corporate transactions, real estate, and construction law. She was recognized as a Rising Star in Business Litigation by peer review through the Florida Super Lawyers from 2013 through 2017.”

Ringling’s lead attorney, Halberstam, is the office litigation manager for Jackson Lewis in Miami, his biography says. He is a board-certified specialist in labor and employment law, the firm’s website notes.

“Working closely with his clients across a wide range of industries,” the biography continues, “Mendy has experience representing parties before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and related state and local agencies, and has handled cases involving claims of race, age, disability and sex discrimination, as well as sexual harassment, retaliatory discharge, wage and hour, and non-compete/restrictive covenant issues.”

The federal judge assigned to the Ringling case — Honeywell — was nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Barack Obama on June 25, 2009, the court’s website notes. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Nov. 9, 2009, it adds.

She was an assistant public defender in Tallahassee from 1982 to 1985 and then in Tampa from 1985 to 1987, the website continues.

Prior to her appointment to the federal bench, the website says, Honeywell served as a judge with the 13th Judicial Circuit Court in Florida from 2001 to 2009.