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Gillis v. Principia Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 2, 2015

GRACE GILLIS, Plaintiff,



This matter is before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. [Doc. No. 11]. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion. [Doc. No. 16]. Defendant filed a Reply. [Doc. No. 17]. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Dismiss will be granted without prejudice.

Facts and Background[1]

Plaintiff attended Principia College between August 2009 and May 2013, when she graduated. Principia College is owned and operated by the Principia Corporation, and is an accredited private, co-educational four-year liberal arts and science college for Christian Scientists, located in Elash, Illinois.[2] Plaintiff’s various accomplishments, leadership experience, community involvement, and commitment to Christian Science resulted in Principia College awarding her a scholarship at the “Trustee level”-an accomplishment shared by only a select few in her graduating class.

Plaintiff, as a Christian Scientist, chose to attend Principia College because it represented itself as a small, safe, supportive Christian Science environment, and because its policies-both express and implied-set forth the rules, responsibilities, and expectations for all those on campus, including students, faculty, staff and administration. Plaintiff was led to believe that Principia College was the “perfect place for her to attend college” by Principia’s representation of itself as a “healing environment,” which “mandated certain behaviour, prescribed certain beliefs, and promised to help her with various aspects of her life.” According to Plaintiff, Principia College “promised to help Plaintiff become a well rounded person, intellectually, spiritually, morally, socially, emotionally, and physically,” and offered “an enriching music education.”

Principia’s promise to students that they will be educated in an environment based on Christian Science teachings is “understood to be upheld by Principia College through regulation of the ‘Principia College Community’-students, faculty, staff, and administration-including requiring certain conduct, prohibiting certain conduct, and establishing a system for dispute resolution.” To this end, all students are required sign the Principia Pledge, which states:

I commit to serve God and humanity through the study and healing practice of Christian Science, expressed in principled though and action, unselfish love, and moral courage.
Further, all students, faculty, and administrators are required to sign the “Principia Community Commitment, which states:
Strive – to understand and express God in all you do
Conquer – “all that is unlike God”
Love – “God . . . and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27)
Give – unselfishly

Plaintiff provides additional quotations from various Principia College catalogues further reinforcing its professed commitment to the beliefs of Christian Science, and its expectation that students, faculty, and administrators will be equally committed. These include pledges to rely on Christian Science for healing; study the bible; pray; attend church services; forego the use of alcohol, tobacco, illegal substances, and medication; forego premarital and extramarital sexual activity; forego engagement in homosexual activity; and resolve disputes via the “Matthews Ethos.”[3] Further, Principia College, via the policies of its Restoration Justice Board and Community Board, promises an individual accused of wrongs the right to know the details behind alleged violations and the right to discuss with, and question, others about the case, and defend themselves. Further, Principia promises that “before excluding [a] student from class, the instructor will inform the student in writing of the reason for the exclusion and allow the student to respond. A copy of the letter will be sent to the Scholastic committee.”

Additionally, Principia College requires its community to “Get Help When There is Immediate Danger,” which means that when “a community member is aware of circumstances that threaten someone’s immediate well-being, he or she should act to prevent harm and, if necessary, get help. Confidentiality is outweighed by the need to get help.”

According to Plaintiff, she enjoyed her time and education at Principia College for approximately two years. However, Plaintiff’s experience was ultimately marred by the circumstances surrounding two events. First, the Dean of Students and other staff failed to take action regarding Plaintiff’s disclosure that she was “suffering from a possible terminal illness.” Second, one of Plaintiff’s instructors was openly hostile and unfairly excluded her from his music class for no legitimate reason, thus preventing her from completing a major in music.

With regard to her “possible terminal illness,” Plaintiff states that she repeatedly informed Principia College about her physical state and concerns, but that Principia did little, if anything, in response to her statements and pleas for help. Plaintiff suggests a myriad of possible actions Principia College could have, but ultimately did not, undertake. These include: calling 911; contacting on campus Christian Science nurses and asking them to daily check in on Plaintiff’s wellbeing; contacting Plaintiff’s parents; allowing Plaintiff to receive care from on campus Christian Science nurses while participating in class; communicating with Plaintiff’s instructors to ensure Plaintiff had a “more harmonious and supportive experience in the classroom and with assignments”; allowing Plaintiff to take a part-time credit load, a less challenging credit-load, and/or extending the length of her courses over their normal term lengths; communicating with Plaintiff’s on-campus employers to either have them accommodate her needs or discontinue her employment; working with the financial aid office to ensure Plaintiff’s ability to afford being enrolled at Principia while potentially being unable to be gainfully employed; assisting Plaintiff in finding charitable assistance that would address the costs and needs associated with being physically unfit; or working with Plaintiff to honorably withdraw from enrollment for a period of time while she recovered.

With regard to her exclusion from a music class, Plaintiff alleges that the instructor yelled at her repeatedly in an angry tone and with harsh language; threatened her grade in his class when she asked questions about the nature of exam questions or exam formats; refused to assist her with methods to better learn the course material; openly mocked her as a “slow learner” when she confessed how hard and long she studied for an exam for which she received a poor grade; consistently talked over her; and resisted giving her any chance to speak when meeting over academic issues with her and other students. Further, the instructor harassed and embarrassed Plaintiff by: excluding her name when listing or calling on students; slamming doors when leaving Plaintiff after yelling and becoming upset with her; telling Plaintiff she should withdraw from his class after Plaintiff asked for applied examples of theory referenced in his lectures; becoming agitated when Plaintiff asked for clarification about what was said that offended the instructor; and showing highly favorable behavior when speaking with other students immediately before or after speaking to Plaintiff to emphasize the instructor’s ill will toward Plaintiff. Following Plaintiff’s exclusion from the class, Plaintiff, in keeping with the rules imposed by Principia College, attempted to discuss the matter and its possible ...

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