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HUNTER v. CARBONDALE AREA SCH. DIST.

January 7, 1993

DOROTHEA HUNTER, Administratrix of the Estate of DAVID B. HADDEN, deceased and in her own right, Plaintiffs
v.
CARBONDALE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT and NORTHEASTERN EDUCATION INTERMEDIATE UNIT#19, Defendants


Conaboy


The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHARD P. CONABOY

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Dorothea Hunter, Administratrix of the Estate of David B. Hadden, deceased, and in her own right, filed this civil rights action on November 16, 1991 against the Defendants, Carbondale Area School District and Northeastern Education Intermediate Unit#3. An amended complaint was later filed by the Plaintiffs on January 2, 1992. The Plaintiffs allege that the conduct of the Defendants violated the decedent's civil rights under Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Fourteenth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution, 28 U.S.C. 1331 and 1343, as well as Article I, Section I of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Federal Handicap Statute 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 and the various provisions of the Pennsylvania Education Act. Plaintiffs also assert pendant state law claims for reckless infliction of emotional distress upon Dorothea Hunter, and gross negligence and reckless conduct pursuant to supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. 1367. The Plaintiff have listed ten (10) counts against the Defendants, seeking fifty thousand ($ 50,000.00) dollars in damages and attorney's fees. (Doc. No. 5).

 This Court issued an Order to all parties dated March 20, 1992, noting that a similar case was pending before an en banc panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals entitled D.R., et al v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, et al., No. 91-1136 and 91-1137, slip op. (3d Cir. 1991), rehearing en banc granted, opinion vacated (January 24,1992). Accordingly, by order dated March 20, 1992 we held that once a decision was rendered in the D.R. case, the Defendants could submit additional information in light of the opinion. On August 11, 1992 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Courts dismissal of a complaint that was similar to the one brought by the Plaintiffs in the present action. See D.R. by L.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, et al., 972 F.2d 1364 (3d Cir. 1992). The Defendants have filed supplemental briefs to their Motions to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 30 & 31). Plaintiffs have also filed a supplemental brief in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's complaint. (Doc. No. 32). The Court will address the arguments raised in the supplemental briefs filed by both Plaintiffs and Defendants.

 BACKGROUND

 Plaintiffs, Dorothea Hunter, Administratrix of the Estate of David B. Hadden, the decedent, and Dorothea Hunter in her own right, filed suit against Defendants as a result of the drowning death of the Plaintiff's minor decedent on November 16, 1989. The Plaintiff, Dorothea Hunter, resides at 288 Park St. Carbondale, Pennsylvania. The Decedent who was age twelve (12) years of age at the time of his death resided with his mother, Dorothea Hunter and his grandmother. The Decedent was a seventh grade special education student at the Carbondale Area Junior-Senior High School, Carbondale, Pennsylvania and was considered an "exceptional student" as defined by both Federal and State law. As such, the Decedent was designated to receive an education under the "Individualized Education Program" that was mandated by both the Federal and State law which program was prescribed and implemented by the Defendants. *fn1" (hereinafter I.E.P.). The I.E.P. is designed to identify the student's educational level and set precise goals for the specific education service programs that are provided to the student. The I.E.P also designates the specific placement and the extent to which the student will be able to participate in regular educational programs. On April 6, 1989 an I.E.P. printout indicated that the Decedent was to be placed in a "Secondary/Part-time" Program for Learning Disabled Students and was not to participate in any regular "mainstream" education except for specific areas of music, gym and home economics. The Decedent attended seventh (7th) grade as a Special Education Student at Carbondale Area Junior High School located on Route 6 in Carbondale, Pennsylvania which building housed grades 7-12.

 On November 15, 1992, the Decedent allegedly became involved in an altercation with another student in the hallway of the Carbondale Area High School during school hours which resulted in the Decedent being sent to detention after school the following day. On November 16, 1989, the Decedent reported for detention after school classes ended for the day. During the detention period, the Decedent was involved in another altercation with other juvenile individuals, which led to a chase through the hallways after the boys were released from detention. The Decedent ultimately escaped the juveniles, however, they again spotted the Decedent outside the school building where they continued chasing him off school grounds, across Route 6 and eventually to an embankment along a nearby stream. While attempting to flee his pursuers, the Decedent either slipped, stumbled or was forced into the stream. The Plaintiffs allege that the juvenile youths saw the Decedent in the waters of the stream but did not do anything to help him. In fact, the Plaintiffs allege one of the youths picked up the Decedents school books that were lying on the side of the embankment and threw them in the water at the Decedent yelling "Catch these!". Tragically, the Decedent drowned in the stream. Although he was declared missing on November 17, 1989, his body was not found until March 19, 1990, downstream in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A subsequent autopsy by the County Corner determined the cause of death was hyperthermia and drowning.

 Plaintiffs allege that the conduct of the Defendants violated the Decedent's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, his Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, as well as various rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution and other federal and state enactments.

 It is under this factual background that the Court will review and analyze the above motion.

 MOTION TO DISMISS

 In deciding a Motion to Dismiss, all material allegations must be accepted as true and construed in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Truhe v. Rupell, 641 F. Supp. 57 (M.D. Pa. 1985). A complaint may be dismissed only if it appears that the Plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief. Id. The Court must view all allegations made in the complaint, as well as all inferences reasonably drawn therefrom, in favor of the Plaintiff. Sturm v. Clark, 835 F.2d 1009 (3d Cir. 1987). Because a Motion to Dismiss results in a determination on the merits at the earliest stage of the proceedings, the Court is obligated to construe the Plaintiff's complaint in favor of the Plaintiff. Pittsburgh National Bank v. Welton Becket Associates, 601 F. Supp. 887 (W.D. pa. 1985). A complaint should never be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless the court is convinced beyond doubt that the Plaintiff can prove no set of facts to support a claim which would permit a recovery. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 2 L. Ed. 2d 80, 78 S. Ct. 99 (1957); Hooten v. Pennsylvania College of Optometry, 601 F. Supp. 1151 (E.D. Pa. 1984).

 A. Violation of Civil Rights Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983

 The Plaintiffs' assert that under applicable state law a special relationship existed between the Defendants and the students entrusted to their care including Plaintiff's decedent, David Hadden, and the other juvenile individuals. The Plaintiffs further allege that the Defendants had a right to control and discipline the students. In essence, the Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants deprived the Decedent of his liberty without due process of law when a special relationship existed, in violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, by failing to protect against a risk of violence when the Decedent was placed in detention after school on the afternoon of November 16, 1989 with other non-exceptional students.

 The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that "no State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Plaintiffs assert that the State deprived the Decedent of his liberty interest by failing to provide him with adequate protection against the other student's violent behavior. It is a well-established principle that the Due Process Clause does not impose an affirmative duty upon the state to protect its citizens. Rather, there is nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that requires a state to protect the life, liberty and property of it's citizens against harm by private actors. The Due Process Clause is phrased to limit the State's power to act, not as an assurance of certain minimal levels of safety. Deshaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 195, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249, 109 S. Ct. 998 (1989); Fialkowski v. Greenwich Home for Children, Inc., 921 F.2d 459, 465 (3d Cir. 1990); D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational-Technical School, 972 F.2d 1364 (3d Cir. 1992). "The purpose of the Due Process Clause was to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other. The Framers were content to leave the extent of governmental obligation in the latter area to the democratic political processes." See Deshaney at 196. However, when the state enters into a "special relationship" with a citizen, it can be liable to that citizen for the private actions of third parties. See Cornelius v. Town of Highland Lake, Ala., 880 F.2d 348, 352 (11th Cir. 1990). Liability against a state actor attaches under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when the state fails, under certain blameworthy circumstances, to Protect the health and safety of the citizen to whom it owes an affirmative duty. See Cornelius at 353.

 In the present case, the Plaintiffs contend that under existing federal and state statutes a special relationship existed between the parties. This Court must decide whether the school Defendants had such a special relationship with the Plaintiffs by virtue of the fact that the Decedent was placed in special education courses at Carbondale Area Junior High School as required by federal and state law. Plaintiffs argue that the state entered into a special relationship when they restrained the Decedent's freedom to act by placing him in detention after school.

 The United States Supreme Court in Deshaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, supra, refused to impose a constitutional duty upon a state to protect the life, liberty or property of a citizen from the deprivations by private actors absent the existence of a special relationship between the parties. DeShaney involved the state's repeated receipt of reports of abuse of a minor by his father. The state agency received reports of repeated instances of child abuse by the father but failed to remove the baby from the home. The father eventually beat the child so severely that the child fell into a life-threatening coma. The child and his mother filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against state officials claiming that they deprived the minor of his liberty without due process of the law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to protect him against the risk of violence from the father and by failing to remove him from the violent environment.

 In DeShaney, the Court determined "a State' failure to protect an individual against private violence by a third party simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause," DeShaney, at 197. The Court noted, however, that in certain limited circumstances the Constitution does impose upon a State an affirmative duty to protect and care for certain private individuals. For example, in, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976) the Court found that a State did have an affirmative duty to provide adequate medical care for prisoners due to the fact that incarceration prevented the inmates for caring for themselves. The Court later broadened Estelle by imposing a ...


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