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Leah Billingsley, A Minor, By and Through Her Parents and Natural Guardians v. Franklin Area School District

January 27, 2012

LEAH BILLINGSLEY, A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HER PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS,
ERIE KEVIN BILLINGSLEY AND JENNIFER BILLINGSLEY, PLAINTIFF
v.
FRANKLIN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Baxter

OPINION AND ORDER*fn1

I. INTRODUCTION

A. Relevant Procedural and Factual History

On August 8, 2011, this civil action was commenced pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ' 1983, by Plaintiff Leah Billingsley, a minor, by and through her parents and natural guardians Kevin Billingsley and Jennifer Billingsley. Named as Defendants are: Franklin Area School District (AFranklin@); Ronald A Paranick, Superintendent of Franklin (AParanick@); George Forster, Jr., Principal of the Franklin Area High School (AForster@); and Peter Wygant, a teacher at the Franklin Area High School (AWygant@). For convenience, Defendants Paranick, Forster and Wygant will hereafter be referred to collectively as Aindividual Defendants.@

The claims in this case arise from the sexual assault of Plaintiff by a fellow student at Franklin Area High School, which occurred on January 14, 2011. (ECF No. 1, Complaint, at & 16). At the time, Plaintiff was in the ninth grade and her primary special education teacher was Defendant Wygant. (Id. at & 9). On the date of the incident, Plaintiff was given a hall pass by Defendant Wygant, which allowed Plaintiff to leave her special education classroom without supervision. (Id. at & 10). Shortly after Plaintiff left the classroom, Defendant Wygant gave a hall pass to another student, a male identified as AJ.R.@ (Id. at & 11). After leaving the classroom, J.R. found Plaintiff and Aviciously assaulted and raped@ her. (Id. at & 16).

Plaintiff alleges that J.R. had sexually assaulted another female student at Franklin Area High School prior to January 14, 2011, and that the individual Defendants were all aware of the prior incident. (Id. at & 12). Plaintiff alleges further that the individual Defendants were also aware that J.R. Ahad aggressive tendencies and had repeatedly made sexual advances to female students,@ which behavior Awas flagrant, obvious, rampant and of a continuous duration.@ (Id. at & 13).

Plaintiff claims that Defendants violated her due process right to bodily integrity under the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. In particular, Plaintiff claims that the individual Defendants Acreated the danger that caused harm to [Plaintiff] and deprived her of her liberty interest in bodily integrity,@ and that the deprivation of her liberty interest was the result of the official policy, custom or practice of Defendant Franklin. As relief for her claims, Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss [ECF No. 7] arguing that Plaintiff=s claims against the individual Defendants are barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity and/or that Plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action upon which relief may be granted against any of the Defendants. Plaintiff has since filed a brief in opposition to Defendants= motion [ECF Nos. 10]. This matter is now ripe for consideration.

B. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be accepted as true. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). A complaint must be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) if it does not allege Aenough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.@ Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)(rejecting the traditional 12 (b)(6) standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957)). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (May 18, 2009) (specifically applying Twombly analysis beyond the context of the Sherman Act).

The Court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts as set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) citing Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Nor must the court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). AFactual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.@ Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Although the United States Supreme Court does Anot require heightened fact pleading of specifics, [the Court does require] enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.@ Id. at 570.

In other words, at the motion to dismiss stage, a plaintiff is Arequired to make a >showing= rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief.@ Smith v. Sullivan, 2008 WL 482469, at *1 (D.Del. February 19, 2008) quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008). AThis >does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,= but instead >simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of= the necessary element.@ Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234, quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

The Third Circuit subsequently expounded on the Twombly/Iqbal/Phillips line of cases, as follows:

To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must now set out Asufficient factual matter@ to show that the claim is facially plausible. This then Aallows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct.@

[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The district court must accept all of the complaint=s well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a district court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a Aplausible claim for relief.@ In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff=s entitlement to relief. A complaint has to Ashow@ such an entitlement with its facts. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, A[w]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not >show[n]= - >that the pleader is entitled to relief.=@ This Aplausibility@ requirement will be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009)(emphasis added)(citations omitted).

C. Discussion

1. Qualified Immunity

The individual Defendants assert that Plaintiff=s claims against them are barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity and should be dismissed.

The doctrine of qualified immunity insulates government officials from liability for damages*fn2 insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established rights. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In other words, Aqualified immunity shields government officials from suit even if their actions were unconstitutional as long as those officials= actions >did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.=@ Burns v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 642 F.3d 163, 176 (3d Cir. 2011) quoting Harlow, 457 U.S. at 818. AQualified immunity balances two important interests B the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.@ Burns, at 176 quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009).

The analytical framework that district courts have traditionally employed in determining whether the defense of qualified immunity applied was set forth by the Supreme Court in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001). ...


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