The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled that Ramapo College of New Jersey and several of its officers are entitled to sovereign immunity from a lawsuit filed by a former student who said she was sexually assaulted on campus.
The appeals court said Ramapo, a state-supported school, and its officers are entitled to sovereign immunity under a 2016 Third Circuit ruling concerning Montclair State University. Monday’s decision by the Third Circuit reverses a U.S. district court judge who said more information was needed before Ramapo could be granted immunity as an arm of the state.
The ruling was issued in a lawsuit by a plaintiff identified as Jane Jones, who seeks to recover for physical and emotional harm she suffered in two sexual assaults that took place on the same night. Jones claims that Ramapo failed to enforce its own alcohol policies and to deter excessive drinking, and failed to implement and enforce policies to comply with Title IX, and guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education concerning peer-on-peer sexual assault.
She brought federal civil rights violations against Ramapo for deliberate indifference and state-created danger. The lawsuit also named the college’s board of trustees, college president Peter Mercer, public safety director Vincent Markowski, substance abuse and prevention coordinator Cory Rosenkranz, and the acting dean of students, Melissa Van Der Wall.
On appeal, Ramapo and its officers claimed they are an arm of the state, and entitled to sovereign immunity in their official capacities, and that the officers are entitled qualified immunity in their individual capacities.
Third Circuit Judges Thomas Ambro, Cheryl Ann Krause and Julio Fuentes said Ramapo and its officers are entitled to sovereign immunity for the same reasons the court granted it in the Montclair State case. A governmental entity is entitled to sovereign immunity if it is deemed an arm of the state under a three-part test applied in the Montclair case, the appeals court said.
The test asks whether the state treasury is legally responsible for an adverse judgment against the entity, the entity is treated as an arm of the state under state case law and statutes, and whether, based largely on the structure of its internal governance, the entity retains significant autonomy from state control.
In the Montclair case, the appeals court found that the state was liable for judgments against Montclair only under conditions of the Tort Claims Act and Contractual Liability Act, and 18% to 21% of Montclair’s funding comes from the state. Those factors weighed against immunity, but the state expressly immunized itself from Montclair’s liabilities only in certain, limited cases. On the whole, the court said, those considerations tipped decisively in favor of finding Montclair was not an arm of the state, and the same conclusion applies to Ramapo, which relies on state funding for 28% of its budget, the appeals court said.
In the Montclair case, that institution’s authorization to own land in its own name weighed against treating it as an arm of the state, but other considerations tipped in the opposite direction, the panel said. Montclair is immune from paying taxes, and is authorized by state law to exercise eminent domain, and is required to comply with New Jersey’s administrative procedure and civil service laws. The same applies to Ramapo, compelling a conclusion that its status under state law weighs in favor of finding that it is an arm of the state.
Third, Ramapo’s limited autonomy from the state weighs in favor of concluding that it’s an arm of the state, the appeals court said, citing the Montclair decision. Montclair enjoys institutional autonomy, but its trustees are appointed by the governor, and the secretary of higher education is vested with authority to issue various rules governing Montclair, including regulations relating to licensure, tuition, personnel, tenure and retirement programs. The same requirements apply to Ramapo, compelling the conclusion that it is an arm of the state.
Because two of the three factors show Ramapo is an arm of the state, it is entitled to sovereign immunity, as are its officers in their official capacities, the appeals court said. Therefore, the appeals court reversed the District Court’s ruling denying a motion to dismiss with respect to counts for deliberate indifference and state-created danger against Ramapo and its officers in their official capacities.
The appeals court also found the Ramapo officers, in their individual capacities, are entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff failed to plead a claim for a state-created danger.
The appeals court rejected Jones’ claim that the Ramapo administrators affirmatively allowed the perpetration of her rape. And Jones was not placed in more danger by Ramapo’s administrators, it said. At most, Jones has alleged that Ramapo employees should have done more to protect her from a private actor, which is outside the scope of the doctrine of state-created danger, the panel said.
“In reaching that conclusion, we are not unsympathetic to the suffering that Jones endured, nor to the tragedy that the events as alleged could have been prevented. Our holding reflects merely that, while other means, including state tort claims and criminal proceedings, are available to punish wrongdoers, the state-created danger doctrine does not reach failures to intervene,” Fuentes wrote for the panel.
Jones’ lawsuit claims she was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party at a student apartment on the Ramapo campus in November 2014. She was allegedly raped by a fraternity pledge identified as C.L. When other fraternity pledges became aware of the assault, they expelled Jones, who was completely inebriated, and C.L. from the party. C.L. then drove Jones to a freshman dormitory, passing Ramapo security checkpoints. Inside, C.L. and another man allegedly raped Jones while three others kept watch and videotaped the assault. Jones was unable to continue her studies as a result of the rape, and left the institution.
Jones’ attorney, Trenton solo Patrick Whalen, did not respond to a request for comment.
Deputy Attorney General Christopher Riggs represented the Ramapo defendants. A spokesman for the attorney general declined to comment.