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Plaintiff Properly Stated Several Causes of Action against Defendant Students in UVA Swim Team Hazing Case
Anthony Marcantonio v. Kyle Dudzinski, et al.
Available at: http://www.vawd.uscourts.gov/OPINIONS/MOON/uvahazing.pdf
In a recent opinion, the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia held that the Plaintiff sufficiently alleged several causes of action against his former fellow students related to a hazing incident that he underwent as a new member of the University of Virginia swim team.
Plaintiff, a talented swimmer, decided to attend the University of Virginia (“UVA”) on a scholarship after being recruited by a number of colleges across the country. He was particularly attracted to the “supportive environment surrounding the team” at UVA, including the school’s anti-hazing policy.
After arriving at UVA, Plaintiff was informed by Defendants, who were seven upperclassmen student members of the swim team, that he was required to participate in a “welcome week.” Subsequently, Defendants, utilizing the pseudonym “Mr. Mean,” sent Plaintiff and other freshmen members of the swim team an extremely profane email instructing them to appear at a house occupied by Defendants at a certain time. Fearing that Defendants could have him removed from the swim team, Plaintiff complied. At the house, Plaintiff alleged that he and the other freshmen were subjected to five hours of hazing. In brief, after being blindfolded, Plaintiff was forced to touch the genitals of other members, was screamed at by Defendants repeatedly, was forced to answer a demeaning and personal questionnaire, was locked in a bathroom forced to consume exorbitant quantities of alcohol, was coerced into stating a racial slur in the presence of an African-American individual, was forced to consume a gallon of milk and prune juice until he vomited, and was forced to eat a live goldfish. Throughout the event, Plaintiff was in fear for his safety, and felt he could not leave.
After the hazing incident, Plaintiff was instructed to lie if asked about what occurred. Nonetheless, Plaintiff informed the swim team’s coach, who subsequently informed Defendants of the allegations. Defendants responded by “ostracizing and threatening” Plaintiff. As a result, for safety reasons, Plaintiff was forced to practice and train alone. As a result of the altered training regimen, Plaintiff ultimately left UVA.
Plaintiff sued Defendants, setting forth causes of action for assault, battery, false imprisonment, violation of Virginia’s anti-hazing statute, tortious interference with contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, punitive damages, common law conspiracy, statutory conspiracy, and negligence. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting numerous arguments in support of their motions.Judge Norman K. Moon, writing for the Court, first addressed Defendants’ contention that the complaint did not, at times, specifically identify which defendant (or if any defendant) took the alleged actions. The Court noted, however, that the complaint also contained more specific allegations of conduct for all but one of the Defendants, so the complaint was not deficient with respect to the specifically noted Defendants. With regard to the Defendant for whom there was no specific allegations, the Court stated that the lack of specific allegations was fatal to each of Plaintiff’s claims against that Defendant except for the civil conspiracy claim (which alleged that the Defendant participated in drafting the Mr. Mean email) and the punitive damages claim (which alleged that the Defendant acted willfully or wantonly in drafting the email).
As to the claims for assault, the Court held that the act of sending the Mr. Mean email did not constitute an assault because Plaintiff was not physically in the presence of Defendants when they sent the email. Nevertheless, because Plaintiff alleged that Defendants made threatening gestures, screamed, yelled, slammed doors, and threatened sodomy towards him while he was in their presence, he had stated a claim for assault.
Regarding Plaintiff’s claims for battery, which were based on allegations that Defendants placed a garbage can on his head, forcibly led him around, and forced him to ingest substances, Defendants argued that Plaintiff consented to the touching by voluntarily agreeing to come to the house. The Court rejected this argument. Construing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, it was not clear that merely attending the event constituted consent to all of the subsequent events. Consequently, the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss this count.
Defendants argued that Plaintiff failed to state a cause of action for false imprisonment because Plaintiff did not allege “any real reason why he could not leave.” The Court disagreed, noting that Plaintiff alleged he was at one point locked in a bathroom. Furthermore, the facts of the complaint sufficiently demonstrated a coercive atmosphere in which a reasonable person may not have felt free to leave the house. Consequently, Plaintiff had stated a claim in this regard.
As to Plaintiff’s claim for hazing, Defendants noted that the Virginia statute prohibiting hazing requires an individual to suffer “bodily injury” in order to maintain a civil cause of action, and argued that Plaintiff did not allege that he suffered bodily injury. The Court agreed with Defendants that Plaintiff did not suffer “bodily injury” to the extent that he felt fear or experienced psychological trauma. The Court noted, however, that one could infer that Plaintiff felt pain when he vomited; and thus, Plaintiff had stated a claim for hazing.
Regarding Plaintiff’s claim for tortious interference with contractual relations, the Court agreed with the Defendants that Plaintiff’s claim had numerous shortcomings. First, Plaintiff’s acceptance of a scholarship to swim at UVA did not constitute a contract to swim at the university. Second, Plaintiff’s complaint alleged only that Plaintiff elected to leave UVA, not that UVA breached any contract with Plaintiff as a result of Defendants’ actions. Finally, Plaintiff did not plead with particularity the damages that he suffered as a result of the alleged interference. For all of these reasons, Plaintiff had not stated a claim for tortious interference.
The Court also agreed with Defendants that Plaintiff had not stated a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under Virginia law, that tort requires the Plaintiff to show that he or she has suffered “severe distress.” Virginia Courts have held that allegations of “nightmares, difficulty sleeping, extreme loss of self-esteem and depression” do not qualify as “severe distress.” Because all of Plaintiff’s allegations were in the same vein as those symptoms, he failed to state a claim.
As to Plaintiff’s two (2) separate conspiracy claims, the Court reached different results. Regarding the claim for common law civil conspiracy, because Plaintiff alleged that Defendants acted in concert to plan and execute an elaborate hazing ritual which Plaintiff might demonstrate was unlawful, he had stated a claim. Regarding Plaintiff’s claim for statutory conspiracy, however, the Court noted that the conspiracy must have been for the purpose of interfering with Plaintiff’s business. Here, Plaintiff’s alleged businesses were his contract with UVA to swim on the swim team and Plaintiff’s hopes of becoming a professional swimmer. The Court, however, noted again that it rejected the notion that there was a contract for Plaintiff to swim at UVA, and that Plaintiff’s hopes for future business were insufficiently definite to constitute a present business interest with which Defendants conspired to interfere. Consequently, the Court dismissed Plaintiff’s statutory conspiracy claim.
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