A federal judge on Wednesday denied Michigan State's request to dismiss a Title IX lawsuit filed by a former female student that claims in part that MSU handled complaints involving athletes in a different way than it did complaints against non-athletes.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney wrote that it's "plausible" MSU's handling of sexual assault cases involving athletes left the woman and other female students "vulnerable to sexual assault by male athletes," and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.
Based on the allegations in her complaint, he noted, "MSU allowed reports of sexual assault to be handled 'off-line' by the Athletic Department and outside the normal channels of Title IX investigations."
The woman, Bailey Kowalski, filed the Title IX lawsuit in April 2018 in the U.S. District Court Western District of Michigan.
Kowalski was an 18-year-old freshman journalism major when, on the night of April 11, 2015, she was drugged and gang-raped by three Michigan State basketball players after meeting them at a bar in East Lansing, according to her lawsuit. She said she did not report the incident to police at the time.
She said she did seek help from university counselors, but said she was "intimidated and told I was swimming with some pretty big fish," according to a statement she made at a news conference earlier this year when she came forward to publicly reveal her identity.
Her lawsuit cites other prior cases involving Michigan State athletes along with statements from former MSU sexual assault counselors as evidence that the university had a pattern of handling complaints against athletes outside normal procedures. In prior motions, MSU attorneys have rebutted those claims.
Maloney wrote that "the attempts to cover-up or otherwise obfuscate" MSU's handling of reports against athletes, along with attempts to "conceal the names of prominent male athletes when mentioned in police reports, and the attempts to discourage female victims from reporting their own assaults all tend to show that sexual assaults by male athletes were handled in ways that would minimize scrutiny and potential punishment for such acts."
He continued by stating that "if such a policy or custom existed, it is plausible that the policy itself was a cause of [Kowalski's] assault."
In response to Wednesday's ruling, Kowalski said in a text message to ESPN, "The judge's ruling in itself is vindicating. I now have a powerful voice and an even greater opportunity."
It's unclear yet whether Kowalski's case will lead to any university officials being interviewed as part of depositions. In a statement, an MSU spokeswoman wrote that the ruling "represents the next step in the legal process for this lawsuit."
"Since 2015, MSU has been working to make campus a place of awareness, respect and safety -- a place where any form of sexual assault and harassment is not tolerated," the statement read. "We have also been working to improve our prevention and response efforts, especially for survivors who have to navigate complex systems and try to make informed decisions under difficult circumstances."
In its motion to dismiss filed in January, MSU denied being responsible for Kowalski's alleged assault and disputed that its prior handling of reports of assaults involving male athletes could have somehow put her at greater risk. The university's response stated that it was "implausible" that the three basketball players were aware of assaults reported years earlier and "because of them believed that they could commit sexual assault with impunity."
In June, MSU's Title IX office concluded its own investigation into Kowalski's reported assault and found the three basketball players not responsible for having violated the university's sexual misconduct policies. The investigation questioned Kowalski's credibility because she possibly misidentified one of the players, who said he was not at the apartment; two others she named in her report admitted having what they said was consensual sex with her that night.