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Wright v. Thomas

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 4, 2013

NANETTE THOMAS, et al., Defendants


MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Statement of facts and of the Case

This case, which comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss, arises out of a school field trip gone awry. According to the plaintiffs' complaint, in May 2012, the plaintiffs were students at the Huntingdon Area School District who participated in a school sponsored senior class trip to Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Doc. 1-3.) In preparation for this trip the school district adopted certain procedures and policies. ( Id., Ex. E.) These procedures called for faculty chaperones to oversee the trip; advised students that they needed advance permission from chaperones to leave to motel; and warned students that any infractions could result in the student being confined to the motel until the students' parents retrieved them at their own expense. (Id.) With this understanding of the class trip rules, the plaintiffs signed up to participate in this senior class trip.

When the plaintiffs arrived at the amusement park they were in the company of another student, CB, who was detained by park security on suspicion of shoplifting. The complaint alleges that the plaintiffs were not involved in any shoplifting, but were briefly detained along with their classmate, and were questioned regarding whether they had assisted in the shoplifting. (Id.) The plaintiffs, and CB, were then banned from the park by park officials for one year. ( Id., ¶¶16-17.) Thus, it is clear from the plaintiffs' complaint that the decision to ban the plaintiffs from Busch Gardens was made by private actors, the Busch Garden officials. (Id.)

Presented with this action by Busch Garden officials, private actors who had effectively barred the plaintiffs from engaging in a significant aspect of the senior class trip recreational activities, the complaint further alleges that defendant Thomas, a teacher at the school who was participating as a chaperone on the trip, "failed to conduct a reasonable investigation or to allow the plaintiffs to clear their names" thus denying the plaintiffs due process. ( Id., ¶¶30-37, 51-56.) The complaint also alleges that Thomas wrongfully confined the students to the motel, while their parents were called to pick them up, actions which allegedly caused the plaintiffs considerable anguish, embarrassment and humiliation. (Id.)

These actions by defendant Thomas appear to comprise the gist of the plaintiff's federal civil rights claim, as set forth in the complaint. ( Id., ¶¶30-37, 51-56.) Notably, the factual averments supporting these claims relate solely to the actions taken by defendant Thomas. Defendant Kline is not mentioned as an actor with respect to the decisions made by the trip chaperones during the senior class trip. Instead, the only factual assertions relating to defendant Kline involve conduct occurring several months after this trip; namely, a letter authored by Kline on August 3, 2012, and sent to plaintiffs' counsel which was allegedly defamatory. ( Id., ¶¶ 44-50.) According to the plaintiffs, defendant Thomas also defamed them to other students on the field trip by falsely stating that they had been arrested for shoplifting. Finally, the plaintiffs allege that these defamatory statements also violated the students' right to privacy of their school records.

On these facts, the defendants have now moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' federal civil rights action, arguing that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (Doc. 3) This motion to dismiss has been fully briefed by the parties, and is now ripe for resolution. (Docs.11 and 17) For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the plaintiffs' federal civil rights claims fail as a matter of law, and further submit that it would be inappropriate to address the plaintiffs' pendent state claim. Therefore, it is recommended that the motion to dismiss be granted.

III. Discussion

A. Motion to Dismiss-Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated, Hedges v. United States , 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005), and dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true, the plaintiff has failed to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The facts alleged must be sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555. This requirement "calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" of necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. at 556. Furthermore, in order to satisfy federal pleading requirements, the plaintiff must "provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, " which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (brackets and quotation marks omitted) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555).

In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: "First, the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Id." Santiago v. Warminster Tp. , 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).

As the court of appeals has observed: "The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the plausibility' standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.' Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.' Id . A complaint which pleads facts merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, [ ] stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement of relief."'" Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc. , 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861 , 182 L.Ed.2d 644 (U.S. 2012).

In considering a motion to dismiss, the court generally relies on the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record. Sands v. McCormick , 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2007). The court may also consider "undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant attached as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the [attached] documents." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus. , 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, "documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the pleading, may be considered." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n , 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002); see also, U.S. Express Lines, Ltd. v. Higgins , 281 F.3d382, 388 (3d Cir. 2002) (holding that "[a]lthough a district court may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings, a document integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint may be considered without converting the motion to dismiss in one for summary judgment."). However, the court may not rely on other parts of the record in determining a motion to dismiss. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel , 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

B. The Plaintiff's §1983 Claims Fail

1. The Actions of a Private Party, Busch Gardens, Cannot Give Rise to Liability Under §1983

Judged against these benchmarks, we find that on the facts alleged by the plaintiffs in their complaint, that the plaintiffs' §1983 federal civil rights claims fail as a matter of law. In considering these §1983 claims it is well-established that § 1983 does not by its own force create new and independent legal rights to damages in civil rights actions. Rather, § 1983 simply serves as a vehicle for private parties to bring civil actions to vindicate violations of separate, and pre-existing, legal rights otherwise guaranteed under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Albright v. Oliver , 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994); Graham v. Connor , 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989). Therefore, any analysis of ...

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