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Shyr v. Trustees of Boston University

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 13, 2017

ERIN SHYR and MARIA CURRIE, Plaintiffs,
v.
TRUSTEES OF BOSTON UNIVERSITY AND ERIC RUSKE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          DENISE J. CASPER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiffs Erin Shyr and Maria Currie have filed this lawsuit against Defendants Trustees of Boston University (the “University”) and Eric Ruske (“Ruske”) (collectively, “Defendants”) alleging a violation of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, and various Massachusetts state law claims. D. 1-2. Defendants have moved to dismiss five of the ten counts asserted by Plaintiffs. D. 6. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES the motion.

         II. Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court “must assume the truth of all well-plead[ed] facts and give plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences therefrom.” Ruiz v. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp., 496 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2007) (citing Rogan v. Menino, 175 F.3d 75, 77 (1st Cir. 1999)). Reading the complaint “as a whole, ” the Court must conduct a two-step, context-specific inquiry. García-Catalán v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 103 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the Court must perform a close reading of the claim to distinguish the factual allegations from the conclusory legal allegations contained therein. Id. The Court must accept factual allegations as true, while conclusory legal conclusions are not entitled credit. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the factual allegations present a “reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011). “[T]he plaintiff need not demonstrate she is likely to prevail” at this stage, only that the claims are facially plausible. García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 102-03.

         III. Factual Background

         The following allegations are from the complaint, D. 1-2, and the Court accepts them as true for the purposes of considering this motion. These allegations primarily concern Ruske, a professional horn soloist, who has been a professor at Boston University's College of Fine Arts since 1990. Id. ¶¶ 21, 25. Over the course of his career, Ruske has gathered a fair number of accolades. Id. at 21-24. In tandem with all of these achievements, however, Shyr and Currie allege that Ruske has also amassed a reputation for making sexually charged and offensive statements to his students, particularly toward women. Id. ¶ 35.

         A. Ruske's Relationship with Currie

         Maria Currie (“Currie”) enrolled at the University's College of Fine Arts in September 2012 to study trumpet performance. Id. ¶ 32. As a sophomore, nineteen-year-old Currie joined a chamber ensemble (the “quintet”) as part of her coursework. Id. ¶ 33. Ruske was the faculty member in the College of Fine Arts assigned to oversee and coach the quintet. Id. ¶¶ 34, 38. Currie alleges that her interactions with Ruske became increasingly hostile, with Ruske objectifying her and making unseemly sexual comments to her on numerous occasions. For example, on November 16, 2013, Currie arrived for rehearsal wearing a knee-length pencil skirt and high heels. Id. ¶ 41. Upon seeing her, Ruske allegedly raised his eyebrows, looked Currie up and down, and exclaimed “Ooh, heels!” Id. ¶¶ 41-42.

         On December 16, 2013, Currie was required to play for a panel of three brass faculty members as part of an evaluation for coursework that was separate from her chamber ensemble. Id. ¶ 44. Ruske was one of the faculty member assigned to be on this panel. Id. Currie did not pass the evaluation. Id. ¶ 45. In response, Currie sought out Ruske and requested a meeting to get advice and feedback on her failed performance. Id. ¶ 46. Ruske agreed to meet with Currie and provided Currie with his personal cell phone number to arrange the meeting. Id. ¶ 47. Later that same day, Ruske e-mailed Currie stating, “I will certainly miss hearing and working with you in the quintet next semester (and of course seeing the concert heels).” Id. ¶ 49. Currie did not reply to this e-mail. Id. ¶ 50. The following day, on December 17, 2013, Ruske and Currie met in Ruske's office to discuss Currie's evaluation. Id. ¶ 51. During this meeting, Ruske spoke of Currie's performance by comparing it to the two of them having sex. Id. ¶ 54. Specifically, Ruske told Currie that listening to her performance made him feel like he and Currie were in the midst of sexual intercourse, but that Currie, while beautiful, simply lay there and did nothing to enhance the sexual experience. Id. Currie ended the meeting and left Ruske's office. Id. ¶ 55. Several minutes after this meeting, Ruske texted Currie, “Fabulous chatting . . . and great blouse!” Id. ¶ 57. Currie had not yet received her grade in Ruske's ensemble course and allegedly felt obligated to respond to this text message stating, “[h]ave a great break!” Id. ¶¶ 56, 58, 59. Less than three hours later, Ruske again texted Currie stating, “[w]ithout being too grossly inappropriate. [sic] I hope Santa brings you nice big high heels.” Id. ¶ 60. Currie again responded thanking him. Id. ¶ 61. Ruske sent back a text saying, “It's such a shame that I won't ever get to see them/you, ” Id. ¶ 62, to which Currie replied, “I'll be having a recital sometime next semester!” Id. ¶ 64. In response, Ruske sent Currie a text that read, “And the last thing you need is some creepy old guy in the front row, ” id. ¶ 65, which was followed by another text stating, “You can always send pix . . .” id. ¶ 66. Currie alleges asking for “pix” is a generally accepted practice used by individuals soliciting nude pictures of women. Id. ¶ 68. Currie further alleges that because of the power dynamic that existed between Ruske and Currie, especially given Ruske's control over Currie's grade and Ruske's reputation as an excellent musician, Currie responded, “Ha, no promises[.]” Id. ¶¶ 69-70. Ruske wrote back, “Of course not . . . a girl can dream, though.” Id. ¶ 71. At this point, Currie stopped responding to Ruske. Id. ¶ 72.

         On December 24, 2013, Ruske sent Currie a text that read, “I probably owe you an apology . . . . I'm really sorry if I made you uncomfortable. Have a fabulous holiday and a happy New Year!!” Id. ¶ 74. Currie did not respond. Id. ¶ 75. In January 2014, Currie withdrew as a student at the University's College of Fine Arts and enrolled at a neighboring university. Id. ¶ 77. Nonetheless, Currie still practiced at the College of Fine Art's facilities. Id. ¶ 78. That month, Currie ran into Ruske while practicing at the College of Fine Arts. Id. ¶ 79. Currie felt uncomfortable, avoided eye contact with Ruske, and left the area. Id. ¶ 80. Subsequently, on January 30, 2014, Currie met with Sarah Bellott (“Bellott”), the College of Fine Art's student services coordinator, and showed her the numerous text messages she had received from Ruske. Id. ¶ 82. Bellott responded by telling Currie that she should have specifically asked Ruske to stop sending the text messages. Id. ¶ 83.

         B. Ruske's Relationship with Shyr

         In the spring of 2014, Erin Shyr (“Shyr”), a freshman in the University's College of Fine Arts, enrolled in a woodwind chamber group coached by Ruske. Id. ¶ 86. Shyr alleges that Ruske maintained inappropriate interactions with her and directed sexually suggestive comments to her. For example, on March 11, 2014, Ruske emailed Shyr stating that he hoped she was having a good spring break. Id. ¶ 96. Shyr responded that her break was going well and that she wished Ruske a happy spring break as well. Id. ¶ 97. Ruske replied to Shyr, “Hooooray!!! Maybe you'll share a cute pic with me . . . .” Id. ¶ 98. Like Currie, Shyr interpreted Ruske's request for a “pic” as one seeking nude photographs. Id. ¶ 99. Because Shyr was allegedly worried about how Ruske would respond if she failed to send back a picture, Shyr pretended she did not understand the sexually suggestive text. Id. ¶¶ 101-02. Instead, she wrote back, “I haven't taken many pictures in NYC, but here is a picture of my sister and I after her concert, and the other is a picture of a stray cat we fed leftovers to!” Id. Ruske responded, “Forgive me for being a bit prejudiced, but although your sister and the kitty . . . are cute, you are amazing and do have something truly unique. Please don't be offended by [sic] honesty . . . as I think you already know, I am rather blunt. Thanks for sharing . . . I like that.” Id. ¶ 103. Shyr's response to this email stated, “Thank you sir, that's very kind of you. I hope you have a good evening.” Id. ¶ 104. Shyr further alleges that around this time Ruske began to hug her and give her kisses on the cheek when he would run into her. Id. ¶¶ 108-09. When hugging her he often also grazed his hand across her lower back. Id. ¶ 110.

         On March 20, 2014, Ruske sent Shyr an e-mail after rehearsal stating, “You are so damn bright and also wicked adorable. Tough to be insistent when you're the lowest rung on the ladder (age-wise), but it's great training for you.” Id. ¶ 113. Shyr replied, “Thank you, sir. I will continue to work hard in chamber class.” Id. ¶ 114. Ruske immediately emailed Shyr back saying “I prefer, “[T]hanks [E]ric, for the inappropriate comments.” Id. ¶ 115.

         These types of email exchanges between Ruske and Shyr continued and, each time, they caused Shyr fear and anxiety. See id. ¶¶ 117-119. Shyr discussed the e-mails with her mentor, a professional musician living in Georgia, who informed her that Ruske had a national reputation for harassing young women. Id. ¶ 121. The mentor advised Shyr to stay away from Ruske. Id. ΒΆ 122. This, however, was quite ...


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