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Young v. Pleasant Valley School Dist.

February 13, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss the instant complaint. Having been fully briefed and argued, the matter is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

This case arises from plaintiffs' conflicts with the defendant school district over events in the United States history classroom of Defendant Bruce H. Smith at the Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania high school. According to plaintiffs' complaint, their daughter was a student in Defendant Smith's classroom. During her time in that classroom, Smith exposed their daughter and other sixteen and seventeen year olds to "sexually explicit and offensive material" in violation of school district rules. (Amended Complaint (hereinafter "Amended Complt.") (Doc. 17) at ¶ 9). Smith allegedly showed the students photographs of naked and dismembered women who had been murdered. (Id. at ¶ 10). He also asked female students about how they were dressed during a pillow fight, discussed with them push-up bras and averred that he had skipped classes in college to "'bang the cheerleader.'" (Id.). Students were also exposed by Smith to an unpublished, autobiographical tract entitled "Memoirs of a Class President." (Id. at ¶ 11). This document included a great deal of sexually explicit material, including graphic depictions of sexual encounters related in first-person by the author. (Id.). Plaintiffs complained about this material to Defendants Gress and Pullo, the principal and superintendent of the school district. (Id. at ¶ 11-12). They allege that raising concerns about the presence of this "graphic, disturbing" material in a classroom populated by minors addressed "a matter of social, educational and safety concerns" in the Pleasant Valley school community. (Id. at ¶ 12).

On May 9, 2005, plaintiffs filed a complaint in this court alleging violations of their First Amendment rights in the school district's reaction to their complaints. (See Doc. 1). Plaintiffs filed this complaint anonymously. Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss that complaint, because plaintiffs had not provided their real names and had not sought the court's permission to file the complaint anonymously. (See Doc. 5). Plaintiff then filed a motion for permission to proceed anonymously due to safety concerns for the plaintiffs (See Doc. 9). In addition to responding to that motion, defendants filed a motion to stay discovery pending the outcome of our decision on those motions. (See Docs. 11-12). On August 1, 2007, the court issued a memorandum and order denying plaintiff's motion to proceed anonymously and the defendants' motion to stay discovery. (See Doc. 16). We also ordered the plaintiff to file an amended complaint that provided the plaintiffs' real names.

The amended complaint, filed August 10, 2007, raises four causes of action. Count I alleges that all of the defendants except Defendant Smith retaliated against the plaintiffs for engaging in protected speech by publicly disclosing the plaintiffs' identities and directing Defendant Smith to contact plaintiffs at home, despite knowledge of plaintiffs' desire for privacy in the matter. (Complt. at ¶ 13). Count II raises a failure to train claim against all of the defendants except Defendant Smith. That count alleges that the school district failed to train employees not to retaliate against citizens who petition the government for redress. (Id. at ¶ 16). The count also contends that the defendants were "deliberately indifferent to plaintiffs' rights and intentionally failed to train its employees adequately." (Id. at ¶ 17). Count III alleges that Defendant Smith created a hostile environment in his classroom by presenting graphic sexual materials and the sexually-charged personal memoir. (Id. at ¶ 20). Defendant Smith allegedly taught his courses with the classroom lights turned off, had three of the four classroom walls painted black, and lit the room only with Christmas lights. (Id. at ¶ 21). He also "had a Swastika in his classroom" and showed students home videos of his high school "keg parties." (Id. at ¶¶ 22-23). Plaintiffs allege that defendants retaliated against their daughter when they reported this environment to administrators. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-26). The defendants "singl[ed] out" the minor plaintiff, leading other students to "ostracize" her. (Id. at ¶ 27). Some students threatened the minor plaintiff for her complaints, and Defendant Gress encouraged such activity. (Id. at ¶¶ 29-30). Count IV is a negligent supervision complaint against the Pleasant Valley defendants, alleging that the district failed to follow its own policy in supervising Defendant Smith. (Id. at ¶¶ 32-33).

On August 20, 2007 defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (See Doc. 18). Both sides briefed the issue. We then held oral argument on the matter, bringing the case to its present posture.

II. Jurisdiction

As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

III. Legal Standard

When analyzing a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, all well-pleaded allegations of the complainant must be viewed as true and in the light most favorable to the non-movant to determine whether "under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663, 665-666 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Estate of Bailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.3d 503, 506 (3d Cir. 1985), (quoting Helstoski v. Goldstein, 552 F.2d 564, 565 (3d Cir. 1977) (per curiam)). The court may also consider "matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994)(citations omitted). The court need not accept legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences. See Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Acad. of Wilmington, Del., Inc., 450 F.3d 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). The complaint is properly dismissed "if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-521 (1972)(quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)).

IV. Discussion

Defendants raise several grounds for granting their motion to dismiss. We will address each in turn.

a. Free Speech and Petition Rights

Defendants contend that plaintiffs cannot state a claim for violation of their free speech and petition rights. They argue that plaintiffs' claims that their privacy was violated are unavailing because the interest plaintiffs claim was invaded by defendants' behavior is not a protected one. Defendants contend that they neither compelled plaintiffs to reveal any protected personal matters nor coerced plaintiffs into making any decision affecting their personal lives. Accordingly, no claim could lie for invading plaintiffs' privacy right. Defendants also claim that plaintiffs have not stated a retaliation claim because they have not claimed they engaged in any constitutionally protected activity or that the district engaged in activity that could be considered retaliatory. Plaintiffs came forward voluntarily with their concerns about Defendant Smith's teaching methods and thus cannot complain that the school district did not protect their privacy as retaliation. Similarly, defendants argue, the school district's failure to protect the minor plaintiff from mistreatment by her classmates does not constitute a constitutional violation. Moreover, plaintiffs' true complaint is with the curriculum provided by the school district, and such complaints are not within the province of the federal courts.

We do not read plaintiffs' complaint to allege that defendants' actions somehow violated their First Amendment privacy rights by revealing their names.*fn1

Plaintiffs disclaim any such intention. Instead, they argue that this claim amounts to a retaliation claim against the district for taking inappropriate action in response to plaintiffs' complaints about a matter of public concern. We read this claim to be a First Amendment retaliation claim, ...

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