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Graham v. Ambridge Area School Dist.

May 26, 2010

SUE GRAHAM, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS THE PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF HAILEE ANNE KUVINKA, A MINOR, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
AMBRIDGE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, AND ALAN N. FRITZ, PRINCIPAL, AMBRIDGE AREA HIGH SCHOOL, AND STEVE WELLENDORF, ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL, AMBRIDGE AREA HIGH SCHOOL, AND BARRY KING, ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL, AMBRIGE AREA HIGH SCHOOL, DAVID COSTANZA, AN INDIVIDUAL, AND KENNETH VOSS, PH.D., SUPERINTENDENT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan

Re: Doc. No. 32

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Presently before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Ambridge Area School District ("School District"); Alan N. Fritz ("Fritz'), Principal; Steve Wellendorf ("Wellendorf"), Assistant Principal; Barry King ("King"), Assistant Principal; all of Ambridge Area High School; and Kenneth Voss, Ph.D., Superintendent of the School District (collectively "individual Defendants"). Defendant David Costanza ("Costanza") does not join in this motion, and consequently, the claims against him are not considered herein.

For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied as it relates to Defendant School District, and granted as it relates to individual Defendants Fritz, Wellendorf, King, and Voss.

RELEVANT FACTS

The following facts are taken from the parties' Concise Statement of Material Facts and Response thereto (Doc. Nos. 38 & 40), deposition transcripts and documentary evidence submitted by the parties. All facts are undisputed unless otherwise indicated.

Plaintiff Sue Graham ("mother-Plaintiff") commenced this action by filing a Complaint on December 3, 2007 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania on behalf of herself, and as the parent and natural guardian of minor Hailee Anne Kuvinka ("minor-Plaintiff") (collectively "Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs allege that the School District and the individual Defendants violated minor-Plaintiff's civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, specifically, the right to be free from intrusions upon the integrity of her body and person pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Defendant Costanza was employed as an english and social studies teacher by Defendant School District from August 2001 to April 2007. During the school year 2006-2007, minor-Plaintiff was a tenth grade student in Defendant Costanza's social studies class. Also during the 2006-2007 academic year, Defendant Fritz was the principal at Ambridge Area High School, part of Defendant School District, Defendants King and Wellendorf were assistant principals, and Defendant Voss was Superintendent of Defendant School District. Defendant Costanza's father, Charles Costanza, was the president of the Ambridge Area School Board during the 2007 academic year, and a long standing member of the School Board.

Defendant Costanza engaged in illegal sexual contact with minor-Plaintiff when she was 15 years old. In his capacity as junior varsity baseball coach, he selected minor-Plaintiff as a score keeper for the team.*fn1 Minor-Plaintiff made no reports to school administrators or her mother regarding inappropriate sexual conduct by Defendant Costanza. Principal Fritz testified that he first became aware of an on-going, inappropriate sexual relationship between minor-Plaintiff and Defendant Costanza on April 4, 2007, when minor-Plaintiff's brother and then girlfriend, Jessica McMurray, provided him with minor-Plaintiff's cell phone. The cell phone contained sexually explicit communications between minor-Plaintiff and Costanza. (Doc. No. 38-10 at 2-4.) On that same day, Principal Fritz contacted mother-Plaintiff and requested that she come to the school; he also contacted the Ambridge police who were involved from that point forward. Defendant Costanza pleaded nolo contendere to statutory sexual assault, was incarcerated, fined and released on probation.

The parties dispute the number of complaints received by Defendant School District regarding Defendant Costanza during the course of his employment. The parties do agree that in February 2006, Principal Fritz placed a disciplinary memo in Defendant Costanza's file (with a copy to Defendant Voss) regarding a sexually suggestive test question. Specifically, the test question contained language that "Mr. Costanza looks sexy in spandex bike pants." Fritz's February 2006 memo provides in relevant part as follows:

I realize the desire to enter levity into your teaching and recognize the positive influence that levity can have in a classroom situation. You, especially as a young, male teacher, must be sure that the levity you attempt to provide does not cross [sic] line of appropriateness.

Please ensure that any future test questions, class discussions, and other conversations held by you and your students do not contain any sexual reference, innuendo or suggestion of inappropriate relationships between the teacher and students.

In our profession, the perception of any inappropriate contact can easily be manipulated into a situation that negatively affects the teacher, the school and most importantly the students.

(Doc. 32-3 at 1.)

The parties dispute whether this test question was the only reason that the disciplinary memo was placed in Defendant Costanza's file. Defendant Fritz testified in deposition that his memorandum to Defendant Costanza addressed situations beyond test questions (including class discussions and conversations) and emphasized that any of these communications should be devoid of any sexual reference, innuendo or suggestion of inappropriate relationships between teacher and student, because Fritz "wanted to make sure that there was no room for this type of thing to happen." (Fritz Dep. at 48.) Although Fritz testified that he had received no complaints about Costanza by February 2006, he did indicate that he had heard rumors by this time. (Fritz Dep. at 50.) Fritz described the rumor as information from a student who approached him directly, and unsolicited, that a female student was "spending an exorbitant amount of time in Defendant Costanza's classroom." (Fritz Dep. at 51.) Fritz identified the source of this information as Jessica McMurray. (Fritz Dep. at 58.)

Jessica McMurray testified that as a student of Defendant Costanza for two academic years, she and other female students were the recipients of Costanza's frequent crude and sexually explicit comments and actions during classroom instruction that grew more egregious with time. (McMurray Dep. at 9.) This behavior was not limited to her class. (McMurray Dep. at 15.) Costanza's comments and actions included innuendo as to the size of female students' breasts, a sign-up board in his classroom to dance with him at the Sadie Hawkins dance, the use of sexually suggestive music relating to masturbation accompanying a slide presentation that had no relationship to the subject matter of the presentation: Chinese leader Ho Chi Minh. During a class discussion that referenced birth control, McMurray testified that Costanza used a slide that had no direct relationship to the discussion: a picture of a double XL condom. (McMurray Dep.at 11-13.) One day, when McMurray and other students were leaving class, she described the following incident regarding a sweater:

[Costanza] held up a sweater not like a coat but like a sweater that you would wear just over top of your skin, and he said does this belong to anyone in this class, and we're like no. He was like, okay. It must be ...


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