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Richard P. v. School District of the City of Erie

September 30, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: District Judge McLaughlin




On November 24, 2003, Plaintiffs R.L. and K.P., by and through their parents Denise L. and Richard P., filed a Complaint in this Court alleging that the Defendant Erie School District had violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et. seq., ("Title IX")as a result of the Plaintiffs having been subjected to severe and pervasive harassment between December 19, 2001, and January 9, 2002 at Strong Vincent High School. In addition, Plaintiff R.P. alleged that Defendant Linda Cappabianca, an assistant principal at Strong Vincent High School, had made a defamatory statement about R.P. to a third party.

The events underlying this action commenced on December 19, 2001, at which time R.L. and K.P. were female students attending 7th grade at Strong Vincent High School. R.P. and K.L. were sexually assaulted by three fellow Strong Vincent students at a laundromat near school. Specifically, R.P. and K.L. were forced to perform oral sex on an 8th grade male Strong Vincent student, and R.P. was forced to perform oral sex on a 12th grade male Strong Vincent student. Afterwards, both Plaintiffs contended that they were subjected to harassment from other students based upon the events that occurred on December 19.

The jury trial of this action commenced on January 23, 2006. On January 30, 2006, the trial concluded with a special verdict. The jury answered "no" to three interrogatories asking whether Defendant Erie School District "had actual knowledge of the harassment of [R.P. or K.L.] after the December 19, 2001 rapes" and whether Defendant Linda Cappabianca, an assistant principal at Strong Vincent, "made a defamatory communication" to a third party concerning Plaintiff R.P. On January 31, 2006, judgment was entered for Defendants on the special verdict.

On February 13, 2006, Plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial. In their motion for a new trial, Plaintiffs contend that the verdict at trial was against the weight of the evidence, that the Court erred in refusing to instruct the jury in accordance with paragraphs 11, 17 and 20 of Plaintiffs' Points for Charge, that the Court committed plain error in the first and sixth interrogatories in the special verdict slip, and that defense counsel's closing argument contained improper remarks that were prejudicial to Plaintiffs. On July 17, 2006, Defendants filed a brief in opposition. This matter is ripe for review.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) governs a motion for a new trial. According to Rule 59(a), a court may grant a new trial "for any of the reasons for which new trials have heretofore been granted in actions at law in the courts of the United States." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1). "A new trial may be granted where 'the verdict is contrary to the great weight of the evidence.'" Wilson v. Phila. Det. Ctr., 986 F.Supp. 282, 287 (E.D.Pa.1997) (quoting Roebuck v. Drexel Univ., 852 F.2d 715, 735 (3rd Cir.1988)). New trials may also be directed when the "conduct of counsel or the court has tainted the verdict." Kiss v. K-mart Corp., 2001 WL 568974, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 22, 2001) (citation omitted).

Generally, the decision whether or not to grant a new trial "is committed to the sound discretion of the district court." Bonjorno v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Corp., 752 F.2d 802, 812 (3rd Cir.1984). The court's latitude varies, however, depending on the type of error alleged. Klein v. Hollings, 992 F.2d 1285, 1289-90 (3rd Cir.1993). Its latitude "is broad when the reason for interfering with the jury verdict is a ruling on a matter that initially rested within the discretion of the court," such as evidentiary rulings. Id. The court's discretion is more limited when granting a new trial on the basis that the jury's verdict is against the weight of the evidence; in such cases a new trial should be awarded "only when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice or when the verdict, on the record, cries out to be overturned or shocks our conscience." Williamson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3rd Cir.1991). Moussa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Welfare, 89 F.Supp.2d 639, 648 (W.D. Pa. 2003).

In determining that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, a different standard of review is applied from that which is applied in deciding a motion for judgment as a matter of law. A judge must "evaluate all significant evidence, deciding in the exercise of his own best judgment whether the jury has so disregarded the clear weight of the credible evidence that a new trial is necessary to prevent injustice." Berndt v. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Sales, Inc., 789 F.2d 253, 258 (3rd Cir.1986) (citing Zegan v. Central Railroad Company of New Jersey, 266 F.2d 101 (3rd Cir.1959)). However, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the jury. A new trial "cannot be granted ... merely because the court would have weighed the evidence differently and reached a different conclusion." Markovich v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 805 F.Supp. 1231, 1235 (E.D. Pa.), aff'd, 977 F.2d 568 (3rd Cir.1992).

In reviewing a challenge to a jury charge or interrogatories, the relevant inquiry is whether the charge taken as a whole accurately instructed the jury on the applicable law. Colegrove v. Cameron Machine Co., 172 F.Supp.2d 611, 634 (W.D. Pa. 2001). "A trial judge is not required to adopt the exact wording of a point for charge submitted by counsel." Posttape Associates v. Eastman Kodak Co., 537 F.2d 751, 757 (3rd Cir.1976); see also James v. Continental Insurance Co., 424 F.2d 1064 (3rd Cir.1970). Where the challenged portion of the charge was not objected to during trial, the challenging party must demonstrate "plain error in the [interrogatories] affecting [their] substantial rights." Fed. R. Civ. P. 51(d). The plain error doctrine is to be used sparingly and is applied only where (1) an error is committed in the jury instructions or interrogatories, (2) the error is plain or fundamental, and (3) the error was highly prejudicial or resulted in manifest injustice. See, e.g., Simmons v. City of Philadelphia, 947 F.2d 1042, 1078 (3rd Cir. 1991).

A new trial may also be ordered when counsel has used improper remarks in a closing argument. Where a party requests a new trial based on an allegation of improper remarks by counsel, the test is "whether the improper assertions have made it 'reasonably probable' that the verdict was influenced by prejudicial statements." Waldorf v. Shuta, 142 F.3d 601, 628 (3rd Cir.1998) (citations and internal quotations omitted). Although different standards may apply depending upon the reasons advanced for the new trial, "[t]he decision to grant or deny a motion for a new trial 'is confided almost entirely to the discretion of the district court.'" Wilson, 986 F. Supp. at 287 (quoting Blancha v. Raymark Indus., 972 F.2d 507, 512 (3rd Cir.1992)).


A. Weight of the Evidence

The standard for granting a new trial based on the weight of the evidence is extremely stringent so as "to ensure that a district court does not substitute its 'judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury,'" usurping the function of the jury as the finder of facts. Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1076 (3rd Cir. 1996). Thus, where there is a rational basis to support the verdict, a new trial should not be granted. Delli Santi v. CNA Insurance Companies, 88 F.3d 192, 202 (3rd Cir. 1996).

In order to prevail at trial, the Plaintiffs had the burden of proving each of the following elements of their Title IX case: (1) that the school district had "actual knowledge" of the sexual harassment; (2) that the school district acted with "deliberate indifference" to the known acts of harassment; and (3) that the school district's deliberate indifference to known acts of sexual harassment caused the Plaintiffs to suffer injury. Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1991). Contrary to the jury's verdict, the Plaintiffs contend that the great weight of the evidence supported the fact that the School District officials had actual knowledge of the harassment of R.P. and K.L. by other students following the December 19, 2001 rapes.

Plaintiffs' focus first on the events of December 20, 2001, the day following the sexual assaults at the laundromat. On that date, Linda Cappabianca testified that she overheard hall talk concerning sexual activity between K.L. and C.B. (Tr., Day Four, p. 127). When Cappabianca observed K.L. in a hallway later that day, she queried her as to the rumors:

I said I was hearing things about [K.L.] and [C.B.], I don't know if they're true. And she said yes, they are. I said these are things that you would do when you're older and care about each other. (Tr., Day 4, p. 130). Cappabianca then followed K.L. to detention and, in K.L.'s presence, asked C.B. whether anything of a sexual nature was going on between the two students. According to C.B., Cappabianca stated, "What's this I hear about oral sex?" (Deposition of C.B., Tr. p. 50-52). C.B. insisted that nothing was going on. (Tr., Day 4, p. 131). Cappabianca recommended that the two students "needed to stay away from each other." (Id.) Later, Cappabianca reported these events to Janet Woods, who instructed her to continue to monitor the situation. (Tr., Day 4, p. 133).

Plaintiffs assert that these interactions should have placed Cappabianca on actual notice of the sexual assaults which had occurred the day before. Plaintiffs categorize this hall talk as "startling, loud and explicit," and note that K.L. readily admitted to Cappabianca that something of a sexual nature taken place between K.L. and C.B. (Plaintiffs' Motion for New Trial, p. 8). Plaintiffs also present C.B.'s assertion that Cappabianca specifically asked him about oral sex as clear evidence that Cappabianca had been aware, at a minimum, that some type of sexual misconduct had occurred. Finally, Plaintiffs emphasize that Cappabianca was sufficiently alarmed about the rumors to bring them to the attention of Principal Woods.

Cappabianca, in contrast, denied that she acquired any knowledge of the sexual assaults during any of the aforementioned December 20, 2001 encounters. Rather, because of the young ages of the students involved, Cappabianca testified that she was concerned about the possibility of consensual sexual activity such as handholding or kissing, rather than anything more severe.

(Tr., Day 4, p. 130). Cappabianca denied that K.L. ever informed her that she had been forced to perform oral sex or any other sex act on the previous evening or that any other student had informed her of the assaults of the day before. (Tr., Day Four, p. 131). Cappabianca further testified that, throughout the encounter, K.L.'s demeanor was "very calm," and that nothing about K.L.'s conduct lead Cappabianca to suspect that anything was wrong. (Id.) When Cappabianca escorted K.L. to detention, she observed that K.L. sat down "right next to [C.B.]" and exhibited no nervousness or fear around him. Nothing about K.L.'s demeanor in any indicated that she had been involved in a forced sexual act, or that anything at all was wrong. (Tr., Day Four, p. 147). Finally, Cappabianca testified that her meeting with Woods, and the ensuing discussion about K.L. and C.B., was merely part of her daily habit of meeting with Woods at the end of each day to discuss various matters that had occurred throughout the day. (Tr., Day 4, p. 133).

Plaintiffs also rely on testimony indicating that, on separate occasions, Cappabianca spoke with Richard P, the father of R.P., and Denise L., the mother of K.L., about matters arguably related to the December 19 assaults and the ongoing harassment. Denise L testified that on January 4, 2002, K.L. injured herself intentionally as a result of her mother's discovery of the ...

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