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Thomas v. University of Pittsburgh

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 3, 2014

BRITTANEY M. THOMAS, an Individual, Plaintiff,
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH, AGNUS BERENATO, an individual, JANIA SIMS, an individual, PATTY COYLE, an individual, KHADIJA HEAD, an individual, MALLORIE WINN, and individual, and STEVE PEDERSON, an individual, Defendants.

OPINION RE: ECF Nos. 34 & 36

MAUREEN P. KELLY, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Brittany M. Thomas ("Plaintiff"), a former basketball player at the University of Pittsburgh, filed this civil rights and tort action against Defendant Jania Sims ("Sims"), and Defendants University of Pittsburgh ("the University"), Agnus Berenato ("Berenato"), Patty Coyle ("Coyle"), Khadija Head ("Head"), Mallorie Winn ("Winn"), and Steve Pederson ("Pederson") (collectively, "the University Defendants"). Plaintiff alleges claims for intentional discrimination on the basis of sex by the University and Pederson as well as claims for tortious conduct by the University, Berenato, Sims, Coyle, Head, and Winn, arising out of a locker room assault and Plaintiff's dismissal from the University's women's basketball team after the incident.

Before the Court are Motions to Dismiss certain claims set forth in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint filed on behalf of Defendant Sims, ECF No. 34, and the University Defendants, ECF No. 36. The Court has reviewed Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint, ECF No. 30, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss, ECF Nos. 34 & 36, and accompanying Briefs in Support, ECF Nos. 35 & 37, as well as Plaintiff's Briefs in Opposition, ECF Nos. 39 & 41. Additionally, the Court has reviewed the University Defendants' Reply Brief, ECF No. 42. For the following reasons, Sims' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's punitive damages claims included in Counts I and II is denied; and the University Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Counts VIII, IX, X and XI is denied.


When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept as true the factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Malleus v. George , 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011). Therefore, for the purposes of this decision, the essential facts are as follows.

Plaintiff alleges that in June 2008, she transferred from the University of Florida to the University of Pittsburgh, after signing a scholarship agreement. Pursuant to the agreement, the University granted her financial aid for tuition in exchange for her participation as a player on the women's basketball team. ECF No. 30 ¶ 9. As a transfer student, Plaintiff sat out the 2008-2009 basketball season, but played the following season, earning accolades for her scoring, overall play and character. Id . ¶¶ 10-13.

Plaintiff's claims arise from an incident that took place after a basketball game on December 1, 2010. Id . ¶ 14. In her Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that on December 1, 2010, the team played an away game against St. Francis University. The team lost, and immediately after the game, entered the locker room where Berenato, the head coach, began a team meeting. Id . ¶¶ 16-18. Berenato left to speak with the media, and Coyle continued the team meeting, which resulted in a conversation between Coyle and Plaintiff. Id . ¶¶ 20-22.

During the conversation, Plaintiff alleges that Sims "got up from her seat, crossed the locker room, and in front of and in close proximity to Coyle, Head, and Winn, approached Plaintiff in a threatening manner." Id . ¶¶ 23-24. Plaintiff alleges that Sims argued with Plaintiff, pushed her, and "sucker punched" Plaintiff with a closed fist on the left side of her face and lower jaw area, causing multiple lacerations and bleeding from Plaintiff's top and bottom lip. Plaintiff alleges that Coyle, Head, and Winn knew Sims had a violent propensity, but none of them made any effort to have her sit down or stay away from Plaintiff. Id . ¶ 25. Plaintiff claims she attempted to grab Sims to stop the assault, which caused both players to fall to the ground. Id . ¶ 26.

Berenato returned to the locker room, and Plaintiff told her what had transpired. Id . Berenato did not reprimand Sims. Id . ¶¶ 27-28. Plaintiff told Berenato that she was going to call her father regarding the incident. In response, Berenato grabbed Plaintiff's cellphone and told Plaintiff she was neither to call anyone nor go anywhere. Id . ¶ 29. Plaintiff attempted to leave the locker room to call her father, but in an effort to stop her, Berenato shoved her forearm into Plaintiff's throat, pushing Plaintiff into the lockers and causing Plaintiff to have difficulty breathing. Id . ¶¶ 30-32. Plaintiff alleges that Berenato kept Plaintiff isolated from the team while the rest of the team showered. Id . ¶¶ 34-36. Plaintiff noticed a text message from her mother on a second cell phone, but when she tried to respond, Head confiscated Plaintiff's second cellphone. Id . ¶ 37. After Plaintiff boarded the team bus, Berenato returned Plaintiff's cellphones. Id . ¶ 41

On December 2, 2010, Plaintiff was contacted by Berenato via text message to talk with the coaching staff. Id . ¶ 42. Plaintiff met with Berenato, Coyle, Head, and Winn, all of whom blamed Plaintiff for the incident between Plaintiff and Sims. The next day, Plaintiff had a second meeting with the coaching staff and Senior Associate Athletic Director Carol Sprague. During this meeting, Plaintiff was informed that she was indefinitely suspended from the team. Id . ¶¶ 42-44. Sims was also suspended from the team for her actions, but not indefinitely. Id . Plaintiff alleges her dismissal stands in stark contrast to the treatment of certain male athletes who, although criminally charged with assault or harassment, were permitted to remain at the University as student athletes with all associated benefits and privileges intact. Id . ¶¶ 45-50.


In assessing the sufficiency of the complaint pursuant to a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true all material allegations in the complaint and all reasonable factual inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Odd v. Malone , 538 F.3d 202, 205 (3d Cir. 2008). The court, however, need not accept bald assertions or inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See California Public Employees' Retirement System v. The Chubb Corp. , 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004), citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. , 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Nor must the court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id., citing Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that a complaint is properly dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) where it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " id. at 570, or where the factual content does not allow the court "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). See Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (finding that, under Twombly, "labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" do not suffice but, rather, the complaint "must allege facts suggestive of the proscribed conduct" and that are sufficient "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" each necessary element of his claim).

The inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage is "normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George , 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 677. "When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id . at 679.


A. Punitive Damage Claims

Sims moves to dismiss Plaintiff's claims for punitive damages as set forth in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint at (Count I) assault and (Count II) battery. Under Pennsylvania law,

punitive damages are an extreme remedy available in only the most exceptional matters. Punitive damages may be appropriately awarded only when the plaintiff has established that the defendant has acted in an outrageous fashion due to either the defendant's evil motive or his reckless indifference to the rights of others. A defendant acts recklessly when his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another and such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

Seneca Ins. Co. v. Beale, No. 13-1737, 2014 WL 868928 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2014) (citations and quotations omitted). Therefore, "a showing of mere negligence, or even gross negligence, will not suffice to establish that punitive damages should be imposed. Rather, the plaintiff must adduce evidence which goes beyond a showing of negligence, evidence sufficient to establish that the defendant's acts amounted to intentional, willful, wanton or reckless conduct...." Id . See also Chambers v. Montgomery , 192 A.2d 355, 358 (Pa. 1963) (punitive damages not appropriate where there is no evidence that appellant intended to inflict bodily injury on appellee or that he hoped for such a result. "This is not ...

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