Federal judge recommends dropping most claims in hazing lawsuit as case moves step closer to trial
A federal judge recommended this week that all but one claim against the Lake Oswego School District be dropped in a lawsuit that alleges hazing on the Pacer Dance Team and retaliation by a former coach.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You's opinion, which was unsealed Thursday, said the case should proceed with a claim of negligence against all defendants. In addition, former coach Kayla Nordlum should face claims of false imprisonment and violation of First Amendment rights, You said.
Plaintiffs' other claims, which included alleged violations of federal Title IX regulations and due process, should be denied, You said.
You's opinion will now be taken under advisement by U.S. District Chief Judge Michael Mosman, who will either approve or edit her findings and recommendations. The parties in the lawsuit were to have submitted any objections by Tuesday for You to consider, although one defendant — dance team volunteer Suzanne Young — received an extension until March 17.
Unless the lawsuit is settled, it will be scheduled for a jury trial that could take place within about six months to a year, according to plaintiffs' attorney Leta Gorman.
Gorman told The Review that she is pleased with the opinion, saying she only needed the judge to grant one claim of the seven she filed to be able to take the case to a jury trial. The judge also upheld the plaintiffs' right to seek punitive damages, she said.
"I think it's a victory," Gorman said.
But the school district's attorney, Karen Vickers, said that from her perspective, You's ruling is a good outcome for the LOSD.
"The judge found that the district did not violate (a former Pacer dancer's) constitutional rights or that she was subject to harassment or discrimination under Title IX," Vickers said. "The only remaining claim is for common law negligence, and we believe it is a defensible claim."
The lawsuit was filed two years ago on behalf of a former member of the Lakeridge High School dance team. Now a Lakeridge junior, the dancer said she and other incoming freshmen were hazed at an August 2014 team initiation. She also claims that during a Sunriver trip later that month, then-coach Kayla Nordlum forced dancers to stay in their rooms by blocking doors with duct tape until parents learned of the incident and objected.
The dancer, whose name is not being published by The Review because she is a minor, also said the coach retaliated against her after she spoke up about the incidents and that the school district did not protect her.
You's opinion recommends that LOSD and Lakeridge administrators, former dance team coach Kayla Nordlum, former dance team assistant coach Ashley Nordlum and Young all face the fourth of seven claims, that of common law negligence, a state law violation. You also said in her opinion that Kayla Nordlum should face two other claims as well: one involving denying a person's First Amendment rights and one of false imprisonment.
In response, the district issued a statement to The Review saying that the findings in opinions of this nature are looked at in a light that is most favorable to the plaintiff, "as well as the overall presumption that the plaintiff's claims were based on facts that could be proven at trial."
"We continue to deny or dispute certain facts as alleged by the plaintiff, but the fact that this matter continues to be an active lawsuit prevents us from providing additional information at this time," the LOSD statement said. "These findings and recommendations will be referred to a district judge for review."
The attorney for the Nordlums could not be reached for comment.
Matt Levin, one of Young's attorneys, said he is pleased with the result for his client because all claims but one were dismissed against her.
"Their allegations against Suzanne have been proven to be wrong, and they've been dismissed," Matt said, "and as far as the negligence claim goes, we're confident that Suzanne, who was a volunteer and didn't participate or know about any of these activities, is going to be vindicated."
Lake Oswego parents Ray and Taissa Achcar-Winkels filed the lawsuit on March 6, 2015, and demanded a jury trial in federal court, saying their child had experienced "severe emotional distress."
"Now a jury gets to hear this story," Gorman said. "If only the district had done something about this a long time ago, this never would have happened."
The lawsuit describes the alleged hazing incident in detail.
At the Aug. 9, 2014, initiation, the lawsuit claims, the Achcar-Winkels' daughter and other incoming dancers reportedly were pelted with water pistols; covered with syrup and feathers and told to wrestle in front of intoxicated students, some of them male; coaxed to step deeper and deeper into the Willamette River late at night; and forced to ride unbuckled on the floor of cars.
Staff knew there were usually initiations and that this would be planned by students, You noted in her opinion.
The former dancer reported the incident that summer to dance team technical coach Lily Schauffler, who later quit. Schauffler took the issue to then-Lakeridge Athletic Director Ian Lamont, who resigned from his job at the end of the school year in 2015.
Lamont took the information to Lakeridge Principal Jennifer Schiele, and school administrators dealt with the issue by reading school policy on hazing to all athletes and coaches. Kayla Nordlum, who is no longer the head coach of the dance team, allegedly browbeat the Achcar-Winkels' daughter into silence and then used ridicule and exclusion to make her feel unwanted on the team, the lawsuit says.
The girl eventually quit the team.
The Achcar-Winkels spoke to LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck about the incident in November 2014, and Beck retained the Hungerford Law Firm to investigate. The Hungerford report, issued in December 2014, characterized the initiation as "hazing" and found that an "unhealthy culture" pervaded the school in which fear of reprisal kept dancers from coming forward after the initiation and other incidents.
The lawsuit includes quotes from emails sent by Kayla Nordlum to Taissa Achcar-Winkels that are being using by plaintiffs as evidence to support allegations of retaliation and suppression of freedom of speech. The lawsuit quotes one email from Nordlum to the girl's mother as saying, "I hope I don't hear anything more about this night from anyone else but you, but if I do it could result in some sort of suspension for [Doe Child]. It isn't fair to my team and I won't have it."
The lawsuit includes examples of email traffic between Nordlum, the victim and her family, and Young. Young is alleged to have ridiculed Taissa Achcar-Winkels for being of Brazilian descent, but that did not rise to the level of harassment and was more like name calling, according to You's opinion.
Since the incidents and the filing of the lawsuit, LOSD and Lakeridge administrators have created a plan to improve school and districtwide culture and revised sports coaching standards.
District staff has developed standards for in-season coaching evaluations and post-season player evaluations, and has reviewed the coaches and athletic programs. The district also brought in the program Coaching Peace, an organization that seeks to foster empathy and team-building for adults and students. The district also held presentations for students, parents, coaches and community members, describing how to create a safe environment in school and school activities where everyone feels welcome.
In addition, the community created Oswego Be Respectful And Value Everyone (BRAVE), a group formed to foster "safe and positive learning environments."
"Lake Oswego School District staff, students and parents continue to share high expectations for positive school culture and climate," the LOSD said in its statement to The Review this week. "Training for coaches and students includes laws, policies and expectations that strictly prohibit hazing, bullying and harassment; and effective ways to build team culture and traditions. We are committed to ensuring respect for the boundaries that provide a safe, positive, and successful learning environment for all students."