Jury Awards $1.7 Million to Ex-Porn Actress Who Sued Oregon Community College

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Money and hammer,Wooden gavel and dollar banknotes - Credit: Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images
Money and hammer,Wooden gavel and dollar banknotes - Credit: Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images

A jury in Oregon awarded roughly $1.7 million in damages to a woman who claimed a local community college used her past work in pornographic films as a means to discriminate against her and ultimately force her out of the school’s competitive nursing program.

Nicole Gililland had attempted to sue Southwestern Oregon Community College (SWOCC), located in the coastal town of Coos Bay, for both breach of contract and for violating Title IX, which prohibits schools that receive federal funding from sex-based discrimination — likely making it the first case in which a student invoked Title IX based upon their involvement in sex work. Gililland claimed the repeated harassment and her eventual dismissal from SWOCC constituted a “hostile education environment” that caused her severe emotional distress and led her to attempt suicide.

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Court documents show that the judge overseeing the case affirmed that the comments made by Gililland’s professors constituted sex-based discrimination because they “advanced a stereotype about the kind of woman appropriate for the nursing profession.” Although the jury ultimately rejected Gililland’s Title IX claim, they deemed SWOCC had indeed breached a contract with a tuition-paying student by violating its non-discrimination policy, education records policy, and its policy on unlawful harassment.

“Plaintiff and SWOCC were in a contract with one another for the provision of a nursing education in exchange for tuition,” court documents read, claiming the school officials named in the lawsuit interfered with said contract by “changing grades, requiring extra assignments, imposing unduly harsh discipline inconsistent with SWOCC policy, and harassing Plaintiff.”

According to the lawsuit, an unidentified individual notified Melissa Sperry, a nursing instructor and academic advisor at SWOCC, of Gililland’s previous work in porn during the Spring of 2018. (Lawyers for SWOCC claimed school officials had no knowledge of Gililland’s past, claiming the only suggestion of her involvement in porn came via an email Gililland sent to Sperry in which she expressed “concerns that a peer with whom she had confided personal information was aware of ‘things about my past that I’m not proud of back when I was a teenager’ that could ’embarrass me.'”)

Around this same time, Gililland took a brief leave of absence from school to recover from what court documents state was a kidney infection and sepsis. Upon her return to classes, the lawsuit alleged Sperry began making snide comments to Gililland that presumably alluded to her prior status as a sex worker, at one point stating, “Unclassy women shouldn’t be nurses, Nicole.”

In 2020, a report in Vice unearthed several other students in SWOCC’s nursing program who felt they’d also been discriminated against. An older student said she was repeatedly insulted and told she “looked stupid” by a professor. Another claimed she was targeted due to her Eastern European accent.

Sperry also bombarded Gililland with assignments “that were not within the syllabus or provided to any other student,” court documents state. Despite Gililland completing the assignments as requested, Sperry later refused to grade the work and claimed she never assigned the work to begin with, according to email evidence submitted in court. Sperry also docked Gililland’s exam scores due to lateness, even though Gililland claimed Sperry permitted the extension due to her illness.

Soon after, Gililland, who previously made honor roll, was surprised to discover she was failing all of her courses. Susan Walker, Director of Nursing & Allied Health at SWOCC, allegedly told Gililland the failing grades were the result of an impending investigation by SWOCC for allegations of plagiarism. School officials “informed Plaintiff that she improperly cited a resource and was being placed on academic probation and would receive a zero on her assignment in lieu of expulsion,” court documents stated. During an academic hearing, Walker called Gililland “an angry person” and threatened to alert hospital employees at Gililland’s clinical placement that she was “unsafe with patients” — a threat Walker ultimately followed up on. (The hospital immediately dismissed Walker’s claims, as Gililland had proven herself to be a competent employee.)

Despite Gililland’s repeated attempts to rectify the situation and receive clear answers as to why her grades were unfairly doctored — one professor allegedly stated “the Nursing instructors had academic freedom to lower grades,” per the lawsuit — SWOCC ultimately dismissed Gililland from the program in June 2018, citing her academic performance.

“They thought I was such a weak, pathetic, disgusting target,” Gililland told Vice in 2020. “Stigma tells sex workers that they’re not worth anything, and I want my lawsuit to be a wake-up call. This is what I want it to illuminate as if on a neon billboard: be careful who you treat like shit.”

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