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Leonard v. Owen J. Roberts School District

March 4, 2009

JADE D. LEONARD, A MINOR BY AND THROUGH HER MOTHER AND NATURAL GUARDIAN, SHEILA DEVLUGT PLAINTIFF,
v.
OWEN J. ROBERTS SCHOOL DISTRICT, CORY BISSLAND, A MINOR BY AND THROUGH HIS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS, DONALD BISSLAND AND DEBBIE BISSLAND, AND IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, DAVID DEROFFLO AND ERIC WENTZLE DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Buckwalter, S. J.

MEMORANDUM

Currently before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Owen J. Roberts School District (the "School District"), David Derofflo, and Eric Wentzle (collectively, the "School District Defendants"), and the Response in Opposition of Plaintiff Jade D. Leonard. For the following reasons, it is ordered that the Motion to Dismiss is granted.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Jade D. Leonard, a minor, was a member of the Owen J. Roberts High School ("High School") track and field team. (Compl. ¶¶ 10-11). Defendant David Derofflo and Defendant Eric Wentzle were the head coach and assistant coach, respectively, for the High School track and field team. (Id. ¶ 13). On May 1, 2006, Plaintiff was participating in an after school training session at the High School when Defendant Corey Bissland threw a javelin that impaled her, causing serious injury. (Id. ¶¶ 14-16). Representatives from the High School left a voicemail message at Plaintiff's home for someone to pick her up. (Id. ¶ 16). Leonard's stepfather heard the message and proceeded to take her to an emergency room for treatment. (Id.) Plaintiff claims Defendants Derofflo and Wentzle, against High School policy, were not properly coaching, training, and protecting the students in athletics at the time of the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 19). Plaintiff's injuries and conditions include, but are not limited to, the impalement injury to her left thigh, persistent pain, loss of balance, headaches, and depression. (Id. ¶ 23).

On April 29, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Complaint containing five Counts. Plaintiff claims that Defendant Cory Bissland acted negligently, carelessly, and recklessly when he threw a javelin that hit Plaintiff, and that the School District, David Derofflo, and Eric Wentzle acted negligently and violated Plaintiff's substantive and procedural due process rights under both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff seeks, inter alia, punitive damages from Defendant Bissland and the School District Defendants as to all Counts.

On May 29, 2008, Defendants Derofflo, Wentzle, and the School District filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 (b)(6). Defendants request that the Court dismiss: (1) Counts IV and V because the School District Defendants are immune from Plaintiff's negligence claims under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act; (2) Counts II and III, because there is no cause of action for monetary damages under the Pennsylvania Constitution; (3) the Fourteenth Amendment, section 1983 claims as a matter of law; and (4) the claims to recover punitive damages against the School District. On June 12, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, and on June 20, 2008, Defendants filed a Supplemental Memorandum in Support of their Motion to Dismiss the Complaint.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW FOR MOTION TO DISMISS

The purpose of a Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motion is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When considering such a motion to dismiss, the court must "accept as true allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). Notably, though, the court will not accept unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences, or sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The question before the court is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73, 104 S.Ct. 2229, 2232 (1984). Rather, the court should only grant a 12(b)(6) motion if "it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Id. (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102 (1957)). "The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented." Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff brings this action against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating: (1) her substantive and procedural due process rights to bodily integrity; (2) her right to freedom from state-created dangers; (3) her right not to be harmed as protected by the United States Constitution; and (4) the Pennsylvania Constitution. Defendants' argue that Plaintiff's claims are not cognizable because: (1) Plaintiff has not alleged any facts to support a procedural due process claim against any Defendant; (2) there is no special relationship between Plaintiff and the School District; (3) Plaintiff fails to state a claim for state-created danger; and (4) Plaintiff has not alleged facts to support a section 1983 claim against the School District as a municipal entity.

In addition to addressing the section 1983 claims, Defendants Derroflo and Wentzle argue that Plaintiff's claims against them in their official capacities should be dismissed, as a suit against them is no different than a suit against the School District. The Court will address this matter before the remaining issues.

A. Official Capacity Claims Against Defendants Derroflo and Wentzle

Plaintiff states in her Complaint that she is "making out claims for compensatory and punitive damages against the School District Defendants and employees in both their personal and official capacity." (Pl.'s Mem. Opp. 1).

The United States Supreme Court has consistently distinguished between Section 1983 suits against defendants acting in their official capacities and those against defendants acting in their personal capacities. "[O]fficial capacity suits generally represent an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Monell v. New York Dept. of Social Servs, 436 U.S. 658, 690 n. 55 (1978). See also, Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464 (1985). The general rule regarding an official's liability under Section 1983 is "that a judgment against a public servant 'in his official capacity' imposes liability on the entity that he represents, provided, of course, the public entity received notice and an opportunity to respond." Brandon, 469 U.S. at 471-72.

In Pelkoffer v. Deer, 144 B.R. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1992), Plaintiff sought damages under Section 1983 from the defendant both individually and in his official capacity as the elected constable of the Borough of Bellevue. Id. at 283-84. Plaintiff also sought damages from the Borough itself, which received notice and an opportunity to respond. Id. The court held, under the principles set forth in Brandon and its progeny, that the Borough is ultimately liable for any judgment against the defendant in his official capacity. Id at 285.

Similarly, Plaintiff seeks damages from Defendants Derroflo and Wentzle in their official and individual capacities. The School District received notice and responded to Plaintiff's Complaint. Following Brandon, Defendants Derroflo and Wentzle are not ...


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