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M.S. v. Susquehanna Twp. Sch. Dist.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 29, 2014

M.S., a minor, by and through her mother, PARIS HALL, and PARIS HALL, individually, Plaintiffs
v.
SUSQUEHANNA TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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August 29, 2014, Filed

For M.S., a minor, by and through her mother, Paris Hall, individually, Plaintiffs: Dennis E. Boyle, Kenneth E. Raleigh, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Tara B. Horvath, Boyle Litigation, Camp Hill, PA.

For Paris Hall, and, Plaintiff: Dennis E. Boyle, Kenneth E. Raleigh, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Boyle Litigation, Camp Hill, PA.

For Susquehanna Township School District, Kristi Kauffman, Dr. Susan M. Kegerise, Dr. Cathy L. Taschner, Ralph Lovelidge, Amanda Salter, Larry Nawa, Kenneth Potter, Defendants: Carl P. Beard, Jr., Elizabeth A. Benjamin, Andews & Beard Law Offices, Altoona, PA.

Yvette Kane, United States District Judge.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM

Before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint. (Doc. No. 10.) For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' motion to dismiss.

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I. BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff M.S., a female born in 1996, enrolled in the Susquehanna Township High School (STHS) within the Susquehanna Township School District (STSD), at the beginning of the 2012 calendar year. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ ¶ 26-29, 56.) Plaintiff, a minor during the time she attended STHS, had a history of emotional problems, depression, and learning difficulties. (Id. ¶ ¶ 37-59.) As a result, she used an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to assist her, both at her prior school and at STHS. (Id.)

On or about January 22, 2013, STSD hired Defendant Shawn A. Sharkey to serve as an assistant principal at STHS. (Id. ¶ 73.) Plaintiffs allege that Sharkey's criminal history information is freely accessible on the Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System website, and that they do not know whether STSD conducted this search. (Id. ¶ ¶ 68-71.) On May 7, 1990, Sharkey was arrested and charged with inducing a minor to purchase alcohol, in violation of 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 6310(a). (Id. ¶ 66.) He subsequently pled guilty to a disorderly persons offense. (Id. ¶ 67.)

On January 28, 2013, Sharkey removed Plaintiff M.S. from class to discuss an incident in which she had been bullied by other students. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ ¶ 76-79.) Along with Defendant Amanda Salter, M.S.'s IEP case manager, they discussed her anxieties and problems with bullying. (Id.) A few days later, on February 1, 2013, Sharkey encountered M.S. in the school nurse's office. (Id. ¶ ¶ 86-89.) He provided her with his phone number and, later that day, sent a text message to M.S. (Id. ¶ ¶ 91-95.) That night, Sharkey picked up M.S. at her home and drove her to his hotel room, where they had sexual intercourse. (Id. ¶ ¶ 101-105.)

Plaintiffs allege that during February and March 2013, Sharkey and M.S. engaged in sexual acts " approximately ten (10) times." [2] (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 116.) During that time, Sharkey " pulled M.S. out of class" at least four different times in order to talk to her in private in his office. (Id. ¶ ¶ 122-26.) When this occurred, Plaintiffs allege that students rolled their eyes and made noises. (Id. ¶ ¶ 131-32.) Plaintiffs also assert that students accused M.S. of having a sexual relationship with Sharkey, and called her names such as " whore" and " home-wrecker." (Id. ¶ ¶ 141-45.) Plaintiffs assert that teachers, STHS office staff, and the other assistant principals knew that M.S. was being called into his office an inordinate amount of times; implicit in these allegations is that suspicions should have been raised. (Id. ¶ ¶ 133-37.) Plaintiffs further allege that " teachers at STHS became aware that students were making vulgar statements and slurs about and to M.S." (Id. ¶ 148.)

In April 2013, a teacher reported to STSD Administrators that Sharkey and M.S. had a sexual relationship. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 149.) In response, Defendant Assistant Principal Kristi Kauffman, along with Sharkey, pulled M.S. and five other female students out of class to discuss the rumors and statements. (Id. ¶ 154.) M.S. denied that she was having a sexual relationship with Sharkey, and all five girls denied making any such statements. (Id. ¶ ¶ 160-61.) Following the meeting, M.S. deleted all text messages and phone calls from Sharkey, as well as his contact information, from her phone. (Id. ¶ 171.) Later that day, M.S. individually spoke to Defendants

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Superintendent Susan Kegerise and Assistant Superintendent Cathy Taschner about the rumors. (Id. ¶ 175.) Kegerise and Taschner also brought back the other five girls for questioning. (Id. ¶ 189.) Plaintiffs allege that Kegerise and Taschner failed to properly interrogate M.S., and also failed to check the deleted files folder during their search of her phone. (Id. ¶ ¶ 178-87.) Following this investigation, the STSD administration ultimately " concluded that Sharkey was not having an inappropriate relationship with M.S.," and continued to employ Sharkey as an assistant principal. (Id. ¶ 191.)

Plaintiffs allege that in the weeks that followed, other students continued to harass and call M.S. names. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 210.) Additionally, Plaintiffs aver that Defendant special education teacher Amanda Salter, Larry Nawa and Kenneth Potter " harassed M.S. and made illicit comments and called M.S. illicit names." (Id. ¶ ¶ 214-216.) Plaintiff further alleges that during this time " at least four teachers reported to STSD administrators that something inappropriate was happening" between M.S. and Sharkey. (Id. ¶ ¶ 223-24.) After summer break, at the beginning of the 2013 school year, a student reported the relationship to a STSD resource officer, who forwarded the information to the Susquehanna Township Police Department. (Id. ¶ ¶ 237-38.) Following a brief investigation, on September 20, 2013, the police department issued an arrest warrant for Sharkey. (Id. ¶ ¶ 242-43.) He was charged with violations of 18 Pa. C.S.A. 3124.2(a.2)(1) - Intercourse/Sexual Contact with Student; 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 6301(a)(1)(II) - Corruption of Minors - Defendant Age 18 or Above; and 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 6318 (a)(1) -Unlawful Contact With Minor - Sexual Offenses. (Id. ¶ 244.) Following the arrest, Plaintiffs assert that M.S. continued to be harassed by other students, and she eventually transferred to another school district. (Id. ¶ ¶ 251-53.)

On November 5, 2013, Plaintiffs filed a complaint against Defendants Susquehanna Township School District, and against Shawn A. Sharkey, Kristi Kauffman, Susan M. Kegerise, Cathy L. Taschner, Ralph Lovelidge, Amanda Salter, Larry Nawa, and Kenneth Potter in their individual and official capacities. (Doc. No. 1.) The nine-count complaint brings the following causes of action: (1) a Section 1983 claim against Sharkey for violation of personal security and bodily integrity in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; (2) a Section 1983 claim against STSD, Kegerise and Taschner for " deliberate indifference, custom and practices" in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) a Section 1983 claim against STSD, Kegerise, Taschner and Lovelidge for " negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention" in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; (4) a claim against STSD for a hostile educational environment in violation of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.; (5) a claim against all Defendants under Pennsylvania law for intentional infliction of emotional distress; (6) a claim against all Defendants under Pennsylvania law for negligence per se; (7) a claim against Sharkey under Pennsylvania law for battery; (8) a claim against STSD, Kegerise and Lovelidge under Pennsylvania law for negligent hiring, and (9) a claim against all Defendants for punitive damages. (Id.)

Counts One and Seven of the complaint are alleged solely against Defendant Sharkey. Sharkey is not a party to the motion to dismiss, and default was entered against him on February 19, 2014, for failure to defend this action. (Doc. No. 21.)

On January 6, 2014, Defendants STSD, Kauffman, Tegerise, Taschner, Lovelidge, Salter, Nawa, and Potter filed a motion to

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dismiss all claims raised against them. (Doc. No. 10.) The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide the defendant notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). Although Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires " only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," a complaint may nevertheless be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for its " failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The Court's inquiry is guided by recent developments in pleading standards, which commenced with the United States Supreme Court's announcement of the " plausibility" standard in Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). Under Twombly and Iqbal, pleading requirements have shifted from simple notice pleading under Conley's " no set of facts" standard to a " more heightened form of pleading." See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Now, to prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out " sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. Id. Accordingly, to determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified the following steps a district court must take when determining the sufficiency of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6): (1) identify the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint " not entitled" to the assumption of truth; and (3) determine whether any " well-pleaded factual allegations" contained in the complaint " plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief." See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiffs' causes of action arise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., and Pennsylvania common law. Defendants move to dismiss all counts against them pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted. (Doc. No. 10.) The Court will first address Plaintiffs' claims against the individually-named Defendants in their official capacity. The Court will next address Plaintiffs' Section 1983 claims. The Court will then address Plaintiffs' Title IX claims. Lastly, the Court will address Plaintiffs' claims arising under state law.

A. Official capacity claims

Plaintiffs' complaint brings causes of action against the individual Defendants in both their individual and official capacities. (Doc. No. 1.) Defendants first move the Court to dismiss the " official capacity" claims as duplicative of the claims asserted against STSD. (Doc. No. 14 at 20-21.) Plaintiffs assert that because the individuals are being sued in both their individual

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and official capacities, the Court should not dismiss the claims. (Doc. No. 19 at 12 n.2.)

Suits against government employees in their official capacities " generally represent another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)). See Gregory v. Chehi, 843 F.2d 111, 120 (3d Cir. 1988) (" [T]he claims here, insofar as they are against the defendant officials in their official capacities, are only a duplication of the counts asserted against the [entity] itself." ) Accordingly, " it is a well-established practice in [the Third Circuit] to dismiss redundant § 1983 claims asserted against public officers in their official capacities where a claim has also been made against the public entity that employs them." Jankowski v. Lellock, No. 13-194, 2013 WL 5945782, at *9 n.6 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2013). However, a court is not required to dismiss the official capacity claims; for example, some district courts in this Circuit have declined to dismiss the official capacity claims as redundant where there are also individual capacity claims against those defendants, reasoning that because the defendants must also answer the charges against them in their individual capacities, " dismissing the official capacity claims against them will serve no laudable purpose." See, e.g., Capresecco v. Jenkintown Borough, 261 F.Supp.2d 319, 322 (E.D. Pa. 2003). Meanwhile, other district courts have used their discretion to dismiss official capacity claims even where there are also individual capacity claims, because redundant official capacity claims may unnecessarily clutter the docket and may confuse a jury. See, e.g., Hordych v. Borough of N. E., No. 10-16, 2010 WL 1707735, at *8 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 27, 2010).

The Court finds that dismissing the official capacity claims is warranted. The Court is persuaded by the Third Circuit's approval of the practice of dismissing redundant official capacity claims, and finds no reason to preserve the claims here. See Cuvo v. De Biasi, 169 F.App'x 688, 693 (3d Cir. 2006) (affirming dismissal " against the officers in their official capacities because a lawsuit against public officers in their official capacities is functionally a suit against the public entity that employs them" ); Foglesong v. Somerset Cnty., No. 12-77, 2013 WL 795064, at *9-10 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 4, 2013) (finding that dismissal of redundant official capacity claims is appropriate even where there are also individual capacity claims). Moreover, considering the large number of Counts and Defendants named in the complaint, the Court is persuaded that retention of redundant official capacity claims would cause confusion and would unnecessarily clutter the docket. See Moore v. City of Philadelphia, No. 14-133, 2014 WL 859322, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 5, 2014) (" Since Plaintiff's redundant claims against the moving Defendants unnecessarily clutter the docket, this Court shall exercise its discretion to dismiss the official-capacity claims against [Defendants]." ) Accordingly, the Court will dismiss all Section 1983 claims against the individually-named Defendants in their official capacities.

B. Section 1983 Claims

Counts Two and Three bring Section 1983 claims against STSD, and individually-named Defendants Kegerise, Taschner and Lovelidge. The Court will first address the claims against STSD. The Court will then address the claims against the named Defendants.

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1. Municipal liability against STSD

Because municipalities cannot be liable under respondeat superior for the torts of their employees, and thus to impose municipal liability on an entity such as STSD under Section 1983, a plaintiff must show that the alleged constitutional violation resulted from a municipal custom, practice, or policy. Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. " Policy is made when a 'decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority to establish a municipal policy with respect to the action' issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict." McTernan v. City of York, __ Pa. __, 564 F.3d 636, 658 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. City of Phila., 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990)). " A course of conduct is considered to be a 'custom' when, though not authorized by law, 'such practices of state officials [are] so permanently and well-settled' as to virtually constitute law." Id. Monell liability also requires an underlying constitutional violation. See Marable v.West Pottsgrove Twp., 176 F.App'x 275, 283 (3d Cir. 2006) (" [A] municipality may not incur Monell liability as a result of the actions of its officers when its officers have inflicted no ...


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