Civil Rights Expert Witness' Opinions about Defendant’s Conduct Limited

Civil Rights Expert Witness’ Opinions About Defendant’s Conduct Limited

Plaintiff, Erika Pogorzelska filed this action in August 2019. She alleged in her remaining claims that VanderCook, a school she attended, violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) and the Illinois Civil Rights Remedies Restoration Act by its deliberate indifference to her allegations that she was sexually assaulted and battered by a classmate, former Defendant Eric Ballenger, and subsequently harassed.

Defendant retained Saundra Schuster to testify as an expert on industry standards for Title IX compliance, investigations, and responses.

Plaintiff sought an order barring Schuster from offering the following five opinions that are contained in her Amended Confidential Expert Report: (a) Schuster “cannot see any basis in the record to conclude that [Defendant’s] actions were clearly unreasonable or exposed [Plaintiff] to an ongoing hostile environment on the basis of sex.” (b) “Rather than being discriminated against, it appears from the record that [Plaintiff] was exceptionally well-accommodated and cared for by [Defendant] in ways that met or exceeded industry standards for supportive measures.” (c) Defendant “responded promptly and equitably to allegations of sexual assault made by” Plaintiff. (d) Defendant “responded promptly and diligently to [Plaintiff’s] complaints of violations of the No Contact Directive.” (e) Defendant’s “decision on the evidence was reasonable.”

Plaintiff maintained that Schuster’s opinions about Defendant’s conduct should be barred because they consisted of legal conclusions equivalent to testimony that Defendant acted in compliance with Title IX and they impermissibly tell the jury how to decide the issues.

Civil Rights Expert Witness

Saunie Schuster is a recognized expert in preventive and civil rights law for education, notably in the fields of harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct and violence, ADA and disability issues and the First Amendment, Schuster has extensive experience and expertise in, and routinely advises clients on, the First Amendment and campus access issues; risk management and liability; behavior intervention and threat assessment; student discipline and campus conduct; intellectual property and employment issues. 

Get the full story on challenges to Saundra Schuster’s expert opinions and testimony with an in-depth Challenge Study. 

Discussion by the Court

It should be noted that Plaintiff previously moved to exclude Schuster’s opinions in their entirety under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert
v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc
., 509 U.S. 579 (1993)

Although Plaintiff previously objected to most of the opinions she now seeks to exclude, she challenged Schuster’s testimony only generally as consisting of improper legal conclusions and did not raise that ground in relation to the specific statements now at issue.

The Court excluded Schuster’s testimony with respect to a certain section of her amended report but declined to preclude her from testifying entirely.

The parties remained free to raise appropriate objections to specific aspects of expert testimony and proceeded to address in turn the five statements identified by Plaintiff.

The Court held that Schuster’s opinions that there is no basis to conclude that Defendant acted unreasonably or exposed Plaintiff to a hostile environment are obvious conclusions of law inappropriate for expert testimony. It also permitted Schuster to testify that Plaintiff was “exceptionally well-accommodated and cared for,” as long as that opinion is tied to industry standards. But the first portion of the statement (“rather than being discriminated against”) is a legal conclusion that Plaintiff was not discriminated against and is therefore inadmissible.

The Court held that Plaintiff’s motions in limine are denied as to testimony that Defendant responded “promptly” and “diligently.” It, however, added that Schuster, may not testify that Defendant responded “equitably.”

When Schuster expressed two points: one, that Defendant’s decision was “reasonable,” and two, that it comported with industry standards, the Court permitted Schuster to testify as to the latter point, but not the former.


The Court granted in part and denied in part the Plaintiff’s motion in limine to bar the testimony of Defendant’s expert, Saundra Schuster.

Key Takeaway:

The Court allowed Schuster to provide testimony as to whether Defendant’s responses and investigation comported with industry standards and practice on Title IX responses and investigations but not as to whether Defendant violated Title IX or whether Plaintiff has proven the elements of a Title IX claim, including whether Defendant acted unreasonably.

Case Details:

Case Caption:Pogorzelska V. Vandercook College Of Music
Docket Number:1:19cv5683
Court:United States District Court, Illinois Northern
Order Date:June 26, 2024


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