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L.R. v. School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

November 21, 2014

L.R., parent and natural guardian of N.R., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, SCHOOL REFORM COMMISSION OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, and REGINALD M. LITTLEJOHN, Defendants

Decided November 20, 2014

Page 585

For L.R., PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF N.R., A MINOR, Plaintiff: CHARLES L. BECKER, THOMAS R. KLINE, LEAD ATTORNEYS, KLINE & SPECTER, PHILADELPHIA, PA; DAVID COLLIN WILLIAMS, KLINE & SPECTER, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA; DOMINIC C. GUERRINI, KLINE & SPECTER, PC, PHILA, PA; TRACIE L. PALMER, KLINE & SPECTER PC, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, SCHOOL REFORM COMMISSION OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA, REGINALD M. LITTLEJOHN, Defendants: JEFFREY M. SCOTT, LEAD ATTORNEY, ARCHER & GREINER, PHILADELPHIA, PA; KERRI E. CHEWNING, LEAD ATTORNEY, ARCHER & GREINER, HADDONFIELD, NJ.

Page 586

MEMORANDUM

JAN E. DuBOIS, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

This tragic case arises out of the sexual assault of N.R., a minor, after she was allegedly released to an unidentified adult from her elementary school on January 14, 2013. Plaintiff L.R., the parent and natural guardian of N.R., filed the suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of N.R.'s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment against defendants School District of Philadelphia (" the District" ), School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia (" the Commission" ), and Reginald M. Littlejohn (" Littlejohn" ). Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, defendants' Motion to Dismiss is denied.

II. BACKGROUND

In the Complaint, plaintiff alleges the following facts: On January 14, 2013, Christina Regusters entered W.C. Bryant Elementary School, where N.R. was enrolled as a kindergarten student. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 12, 17.) She proceeded directly to N.R.'s classroom, where she encountered defendant Littlejohn, a teacher at the school. (Id. ¶ 18.) Littlejohn asked Regusters to produce identification and verification that N.R. was permitted to be released to her, but Regusters failed to do so.[1] (Id. ¶ ¶ 19-22.) Despite this, Littlejohn, in direct violation of the District's policies, " recklessly and willfully released N.R. into Regusters'[s] custody." (Id. ¶ 23.) After N.R. was released to Regusters, Regusters sexually assaulted N.R..

Page 587

(Id. ¶ 27.) As a result, N.R. sustained significant physical injuries and other damages. (Id. ¶ 29.) At approximately 4:40 a.m. on January 15, 2013, a sanitation worker discovered N.R. in a playground in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 23.)

In the Complaint, plaintiff further avers the following facts with respect to the District and the Commission: Defendant School District of Philadelphia's policies provide that only the principal or his or her designee, the assistant principal, or the teacher-in-charge may grant a release of students during the school day and that the release must take place in the school office. (Id. ¶ ¶ 15, 16.) The policies state that " under no circumstances may a pre-kindergarten through Grade 8 pupil be released without a properly identified adult" or without " the adult's identification [being] checked against school records." (Id. ¶ 16, 25.) " Despite their awareness of the risk of pupil abduction by unidentified individuals," policymakers within the District and the Commission " deliberately chose not to train" or " supervise their employees...regarding policies for release of pupils during the school day or acquiesced in a longstanding practice or custom of inaction in this regard." (Id. ¶ ¶ 52, 53.) Finally, plaintiff contends that defendants' actions violated her due process rights, in contravention of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. ¶ 9.)

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that, in response to a pleading, a defense of " failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted" may be raised by motion to dismiss. To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that " 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). A complaint must contain " sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). To satisfy the plausibility standard, a plaintiff's allegations must show that defendant's liability is more than " a sheer possibility." Id. " Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

In Twombly, the Supreme Court used a " two-pronged approach," which it later formalized in Iqbal. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Under this approach, a district court first identifies those factual allegations that constitute nothing more than " legal conclusions" or " naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are " not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. The court then assesses " the 'nub' of the plaintiff['s] complaint -- the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s]" -- to determine whether it states a plausible claim for relief. Id.

IV. DISCUSSION

42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides, in part, that

[e]very person, who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of a State or Territory. . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States. . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution

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and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law. . . .

This statute does not create substantive rights; rather, it provides a remedy for violations of rights established elsewhere. City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 816, 105 S.Ct. 2427, 85 L.Ed.2d 791 (1985); Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law caused a deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981); Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995).

Municipalities are " persons" who may be liable under § 1983. Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). Under § 1983, the District and the Commission are municipal entities. To state a § 1983 claim against a municipality, a plaintiff must allege (1) a constitutional injury (2) that was caused when the municipality took action pursuant to a custom or policy. Id. at 694; see also Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503 U.S. 115, 120, 112 S.Ct. 1061, 117 L.Ed.2d 261 (1992).

Plaintiff asserts violations of N.R's. due process rights by defendants. The Court concludes that plaintiff's allegations state a claim for relief under § 1983.

A. State-Created Danger Theory

Plaintiff alleges a deprivation of N.R.'s right to bodily integrity under the Due Process Clause. (Compl. ¶ 36.) The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that " [n]o State ... shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV § 2. This clause " is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. It forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without 'due process of law,' but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means." DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 195, 109 S.Ct. 998, 103 L.Ed.2d 249 (1989).

There are two exceptions to DeShaney that allow the imposition of § 1983 liability for a state actor's failure to protect. First, liability may attach when the state takes control of an individual and enters into a so-called " special relationship." See, e.g., Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 102 S.Ct. 2452, 73 L.Ed.2d 28 (1982) (state has duty to ensure safety of involuntarily-committed mental patients); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976) (state has duty to provide medical care to inmates).[2] Second, liability may attach when the state " acts in a way that makes a person substantially more vulnerable to injury from another source than he or she would have been in the absence of state intervention." Schieber v. City of Philadelphia, 320 F.3d 409, 416 (3d Cir. 2003). Plaintiff asserts a claim only under the second theory of liability, the state-created danger exception.

A successful state-created danger claim must establish four elements:

(1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability

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that shocks the conscience; (3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state's actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and (4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.

Bright v. Westmoreland County, 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 2006). In their Motion to Dismiss, defendants contend that plaintiff has not stated a cognizable claim under the state-created danger theory because she has not plead sufficient facts to satisfy any of the four elements of the test. Defendants further argue that plaintiff has not adequately plead municipal liability under § 1983.

The Court will first analyze whether Littlejohn's alleged conduct satisfies the elements of the ...


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