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KURILLA v. CALLAHAN

September 30, 1999

ROBERT KURILLA, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN ROBERT J. KURILLA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
KEVIN CALLAHAN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Vanaskie, Chief Judge.

MEMORANDUM

This is a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 set in the factual context of use of force by a school teacher, Kevin Callahan, against a student, Robert Kurilla. The procedural context in which this matter is now before the Court is provided by Kurilla's objections to the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt. Magistrate Judge Blewitt proposed that the Court grant the summary judgment motions of Callahan and Mid-Valley School District, his employer.

Kurilla contends that Magistrate Judge Blewitt erred in applying the substantive due process "shocks the conscience" test to Callahan's conduct, asserting that the applicable test is provided by the Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" standard. Kurilla argues that the fact that Callahan was convicted of the summary offense of harassment in connection with the incident giving rise to this lawsuit entitles Kurilla to summary judgment on liability. Alternatively, Kurilla contends that there is a triable issue as to whether Callahan's conduct "shocks the conscience."

Having carefully considered the issues de novo, I find that the momentary use of force by a school teacher is to be judged by the shocks the conscience standard. I also find that Callahan's conduct, which consisted of striking a blow to Kurilla's chest that resulted in bruising but otherwise did not require medical care, was not so "`brutal' and `offensive to human dignity'" as to shock the judicial conscience. Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033 n. 6 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033, 94 S.Ct. 462, 38 L.Ed.2d 324 (1973). Accordingly, I will adopt Magistrate Judge Blewitt's recommendation that Callahan's summary judgment motion be granted.

While Callahan's conduct did not violate substantive due standards, Mid-Valley School District may nonetheless be held accountable for having established a policy or custom that caused the injury allegedly sustained by Kurilla. Because I find that Kurilla has presented sufficient evidence to warrant a trial on the question of the existence of a policy or custom to tolerate use of excessive force by a teacher, the School District's summary judgment motion will be denied.

I. Background

On October 3, 1995, Kurilla was an eighth grade student at Mid Valley Secondary Center. (Kurilla's Aff., Dkt. Entry 39 at ¶ 2.) According to Kurilla, on that date, he was attending a study hall supervised by Defendant Kevin Callahan ("Callahan"), where Kurilla got into a fight with another student. Id. at ¶ 3. Callahan called both Kurilla and the other student to his desk, and asked the other student what happened. Id. at ¶ 4. Kurilla interrupted and began explaining his side of the story, to which Callahan responded by telling Kurilla to "Shut up or I will lay you out on the floor." Id. at ¶ 4. Kurilla attempted again to tell his side of the story when Callahan grabbed him by the shirt with clenched hands and proceeded to pull Kurilla very hard, causing Kurilla's chest to strike Callahan's closed fists. Id. at ¶ 5. Kurilla claims that Callahan's action, which allegedly had the identical effect as if Callahan punched him, resulted in bruising on Kurilla's chest. Id. at ¶ 5.

The bruise was on Kurilla's right side, above the nipple. (Kurilla Dep. at 60.) In addition to the bruise on his chest, Kurilla alleges that he had a red mark on the back of his neck and on the left side of his chest. Id. at 61. The only photographs taken were of the bruise on Kurilla's right side, above the nipple. Id. According to Kurilla's father, the photographs were taken two or three hours after the incident with Callahan. (Kurilla Sr. Dep. at 26, 28.)

Following the incident with Callahan, Kurilla saw the family doctor, Dr. Gazmen. (Id. at 29.) Dr. Gazmen performed a complete examination, but no x-rays were taken. (Id. at 37.) Dr. Gazmen concluded that there was no internal damage and that there was no need to prescribe any medication or to impose any restrictions on Kurilla. (Id. at 69-70.) Kurilla's father was told to call Dr. Gazmen if there were any problems, but Kurilla's father never called. Id.

Callahan was subsequently tried and convicted of the summary offense of harassment of Kurilla.*fn1 Callahan was also convicted of harassment of two other students in separate incidents, one occurring before the matter involving Kurilla and one occurring two days after the Kurilla incident. Callahan appealed his guilty verdict to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which dismissed his appeal. Kurilla filed this action on February 6, 1997, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law.

A motion for summary judgment was filed by Defendant Mid Valley School District ("School District") on February 2, 1998. (Def.'s Mot.Summ.J., Dkt. Entry 26 at 1.) The School District argued that Kurilla failed to adduce evidence demonstrating the School District had a policy or custom of tolerating its teachers' violent behavior towards students, or that the School District created a danger to students. Id. at 2. On January 15, 1999, a motion for partial summary judgment was filed by Callahan. (Def.'s Mot. Partial Summ.J., Dkt. Entry 42.) Callahan sought dismissal of Kurilla's § 1983 claim, asserting that Callahan's conduct was not sufficient to impose liability under § 1983. (Def.'s Supp.Br., Dkt. Entry 44 at 4.) On January 25, 1999, Kurilla filed a motion for partial summary judgment with respect to liability on his civil rights claim, alleging that Callahan's unreasonable conduct violated Kurilla's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (Pl.'s Mot. Partial Summ.J., Dkt Entry 45 at 1.)

Magistrate Judge Blewitt, to whom this matter had been assigned for pretrial management, concluded that the School District and Callahan were entitled to summary judgment. With respect to the School District, Magistrate Judge Blewitt reasoned that the plaintiffs failed to present competent evidence sufficient to warrant a trial on the questions of whether the School District had a policy or custom of tolerating violent behavior by its teachers towards students, or whether it acted in willful disregard for the safety of Kurilla. As to Callahan, Magistrate Judge Blewitt rejected Kurilla's assertion that Fourth Amendment principles were applicable. Instead, Magistrate Judge Blewitt found that Kurilla's claims were properly evaluated under the substantive due process component of the Fourteenth Amendment and its "shock the conscience" standard. Concluding that Kurilla's claim failed to "shock the conscience," Magistrate Judge Blewitt recommended that Callahan's motion for partial summary judgment be granted. Magistrate Judge Blewitt also recommended that Kurilla's motion for partial summary judgment be denied and that supplemental jurisdiction over the pendent state law claims be declined. The matter is now before the Court on Kurilla's objections.

II. Discussion

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R.Civ.P. 56(c); see Jones v. Witinski, 931 F. Supp. 364, 365. (M.D.Pa. 1996). In Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986), the Supreme Court opined:

  [T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry
  of summary judgment, after adequate time for
  discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails
  to make a showing sufficient to establish the
  existence of an element essential to that party's
  case, and on which the party will bear the burden of
  proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be `no
  genuine issue as to any material fact,' since
  complete failure of proof concerning an essential
  element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily
  renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party
  is `entitled to judgment as a matter of law' because
  the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient
  showing on an essential element of her case with
  respect to which she has the burden of proof.

An issue of fact is "`genuine' only if a reasonable jury, considering the evidence presented, could find for the non-moving party." Childers v. Joseph, 842 F.2d 689, 693-94 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). "Material facts are those which will affect the outcome of the trial under governing law." Jones v. Witinski, 931 F. Supp. at 365. To determine whether an issue of material fact exists, the court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. White v. Westinghouse Electric Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

B. The Excessive Force Claim Under § 1983

  1. The Constitutional Standard to be Applied in School
    Excessive Force Cases.

The threshold inquiry in addressing Kurilla's § 1983 excessive force claim involves "identifying the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. . . ." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). Identification of the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed is essential because the standard against which the defendant's conduct is to be assessed depends upon the right that is purportedly violated. See Metcalf v. Long, 615 F. Supp. 1108, 1118 (D.Del. 1985). For example, an excessive force claim in the context of an arrest is analyzed under the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard. Graham, 490 U.S. at 395-97, 109 S.Ct. 1865. But once a person has been convicted and sentenced, an excessive force claim is analyzed under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Metcalf, 615 F. Supp. at 1119. In Eighth Amendment excessive force cases, "the core judicial inquiry is . . . whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm." Hudson v. McMillan, 503 U.S. 1, 6, 112 S.Ct. 995, 999, 117 L.Ed.2d 156, 166 (1992). Claims of abusive treatment of pretrial detainees are analyzed under substantive due process principles. Graham, 490 U.S. at 395 n. 10, 109 S.Ct. 1865; Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 535-39, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979); Williams v. Mussomelli, 722 ...


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