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WARREN EX REL. ORLANDO v. READING SCHOOL DIST.

January 28, 2000

ROBERT WARREN, A MINOR BY AND THROUGH LORI ORLANDO, HIS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN, PLAINTIFF,
V.
READING SCHOOL DISTRICT, GERALDINA SEPULVEDA, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PRINCIPAL OF THE 10TH AND GREEN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, AND JAMES A. GOODHART, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SUPERINTENDENT OF THE READING SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joyner, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

This action was brought on behalf of plaintiff Robert Warren, alleging claims under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., and other federal and state claims. Plaintiff's claims are based on allegations of sexual abuse by Plaintiff's school teacher, Harold Brown. A jury trial was held, and the jury returned a verdict against Reading School District on Plaintiff's Title IX claim, awarding $400,000 in damages. Defendant Reading School District filed a post trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) or, in the alternative, for a new trial on the Title IX claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 59, which is presently before the Court. For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion is denied.

Background

For the purposes of this Motion the facts will be viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff. In April, 1995, Robert Warren ("Robbie") transferred into the Tenth and Green Elementary School, where he was assigned to Harold Brown's fourth grade classroom. At some point after Robbie's transfer, Mr. Brown asked Robbie to stay after school, locked the classroom door, then asked him to participate in an activity that Mr. Brown called "shoulders." This activity involved Robbie doing squats with his head between Mr. Brown's legs and his shoulders on Mr. Brown's thighs. This took place two or three times per week during the school year. Mr. Brown also drove by Robbie's house over the following summer, picked Robbie up, and took him to a "secret place" near the woods where they again engaged in "shoulders."

In early November, 1995, Robbie's mother discovered Robbie's journal and read an entry in which Robbie described engaging in "shoulders" with Mr. Brown at a secret spot. She spoke to Robbie, then reported the incident to the Berks County Children and Youth Services. Mr. Brown was suspended with pay, and he ultimately resigned his position.

An action was brought against Defendants on behalf of Plaintiff, alleging claims under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., and other federal and state claims. The jury returned a verdict against Defendant Reading School District, awarding $400,000 in damages. Reading School District subsequently filed this Motion for judgment as a matter of law, or in the alternative a new trial.

Discussion

I. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

A renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) should only be granted if, "viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury could reasonably find liability." Coleman v. Kaye, 87 F.3d 1491, 1497 (3d Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). A mere scintilla of evidence is not enough. See Walter v. Holiday Inns, Inc., 985 F.2d 1232, 1238 (3d Cir. 1993). Instead, there must be sufficient "evidence upon which the jury could properly find a verdict for that party." Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993) (citations omitted). In making the determination, the Court "may not weigh the evidence, determine credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version." Id.

Defendant's Motion argues that

plaintiff introduced no evidence from which the jury could determine that an official of the Reading School District who, at a minimum, had authority to address alleged discrimination and to institute corrective measures on the School District's behalf had actual knowledge of, and was deliberately indifferent to Harold Brown's conduct. Defendant's Motion at ¶¶ 1-3. Defendant's argument is based on Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274, 118 S.Ct. 1989, 141 L.Ed.2d 277 (1998), in which the Supreme Court limited a plaintiff's ability to recover against a school district under Title IX to situations in which "an official of the school district who at a minimum has authority to institute corrective measures on the district's behalf has actual notice of, and is deliberately indifferent to, the teacher's misconduct." Gebser, 524 U.S. at 284, 118 S.Ct. 1989.

The Court finds that the jury was presented with sufficient evidence to find that Dr. Sepulveda, the principal at the Tenth and Green Elementary School, had actual notice of, and was deliberately indifferent to Mr. Brown's misconduct. Carlos Mercado, the parent of a boy who had previously been a student in Mr. Brown's classroom, testified that he told Dr. Sepulveda that he "wanted to talk to her about Mr. Brown taking my kid to his house, that there's no reason for him to take him to his house and give money to him to lift him up and down." Dr. Sepulveda apparently walked out, saying that she was in a hurry, but directed Mr. Mercado to speak to the school's guidance counselor, Frank Vecchio. Mr. Mercado did so, repeating his complaint to Mr. Vecchio.

The jury also received evidence from two "supervisory conference" memoranda, in which Mr. Brown was evaluated. The first such memorandum, dated March 12, 1969, stated that "[w]e also discussed his preparation for graduate school — children in his class — and his involvement with children after school hours." The second memorandum, dated October 24, 1995, stated "it has been brought to my attention that the games that you play with the students in the classroom involve physical contact. For the best interest of all concerned, this situation must `stop'." Dr. Sepulveda testified that this memorandum refers not to inappropriate sexual contact, but rather to a parent's complaint that inappropriate "horseplay" was occurring in Mr. Brown's classroom during recess.

Considering this evidence together, the jury could reasonably have found that Dr. Sepulveda had notice of accusations that Mr. Brown was engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct with students. Taking the evidence chronologically, the 1969 supervisory conference memorandum was surely ambiguous, but may have at least raised the jury's suspicion. Mr. Mercado's conversation with Dr. Sepulveda, then Mr. Vecchio, when combined with this memorandum, may have strengthened that suspicion. Then, in considering the 1995 memorandum, the jury may not have believed Dr. Sepulveda's argument that she was referring to "horseplay" in the classroom during recess when she wrote, "the games you play with the students in the classroom involve physical contact. For the best interest of all concerned, this situation must `stop'." Although this last memorandum comes a few months after Mr. Brown's contacts with Robbie, the jury may have found it probative, especially when combined with the other evidence in this case, of Dr. Sepulveda's credibility generally, and more specifically what Dr. Sepulveda and the Reading School District knew ...


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