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Gray v. Great Valley Sch. Dist.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 7, 2015

MARYKATE GRAY, Plaintiff,
v.
GREAT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, GREAT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL, ALAN LONOCONUS, ED.D., DR. DAN GOFFREDO, DR. JANE TRIMBLE, MARSHALL HOFFRITZ, BETTY BYRNE, MICHAEL FLICK, and MEREDITH BEBEE, Defendants

Decided April 6, 2015.

For MARYKATE GRAY, Plaintiff: ROBERT E. MYERS, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAWRENCE A. KATZ, COFFEY & KAYE, BALA CYNWYD, PA; BENJAMIN N. GIALLORETO, LAW OFFICES OF RICHARD A. STOLOFF, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For GREAT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT, GREAT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL, ALAN LONOCONUS, ED.D, DR. DAN GOFFREDO, MARSHALL HOFFRITZ, BETTY BYRNE, MICHAEL FLICK, MERIDITH BEBEE, Defendants: SHARON M. O'DONNELL, LEAD ATTORNEY, MARSHALL, DENNEHEY, WARNER, COLEMAN & GOGGIN, CAMP HILL, PA.

For DR. JANE TRIMBLE, Defendant: JOHN E. FREUND, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, BRIAN J. TAYLOR, KING, SPRY, HERMAN, FREUND & FAUL, LLC, BETHLEHEM, PA; SHARON M. O'DONNELL, LEAD ATTORNEY, MARSHALL, DENNEHEY, WARNER, COLEMAN & GOGGIN, CAMP HILL, PA.

MEMORANDUM

Hon. Jan E. DuBois, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

This is a civil rights case in which plaintiff Marykate Gray alleges that, while a minor student at Great Valley High School, she was subjected to a strip search by defendants in violation of her rights under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. Specifically, plaintiff has asserted claims against defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under Pennsylvania law for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and civil conspiracy. Presently before the Court are two Motions to Dismiss: (1) the Partial Motion to Dismiss filed by defendants Great Valley School District, Great Valley High School, Alan Lonoconus, Ed.D, Dr. Dan Goffredo, Dr. Marshall Hoffritz, Betty Byrne, Michael Flick, and Meridith Bebee; and (2) the Motion to Dismiss filed by defendant Dr. Jane Trimble. For the reasons set forth below, both Motions are granted in part and denied in part.

II. BACKGROUND[1]

A. Factual Background

In the Complaint, plaintiff Marykate Gray -- a sixteen-year old eleventh grade student at Great Valley High School at all relevant times -- avers the following facts: Prior to October 10, 2011, the date of the alleged strip search, she had been a victim of assault and subjected to harassment and bullying by unidentified students and staff members at Great Valley High School. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 15--16.) As a result, she suffered emotional, medical, and school-related problems. (Id. ¶ 17.) Some time thereafter, a meeting was held between defendants Meridith Bebee (a school counselor at Great Valley High School), Michael Flick (an assistant principal at Great Valley High School), and Dr. Jane Trimble (a student services coordinator and/or social worker at Great Valley High School), and plaintiff, and her mother, Regina Gray, in which all parties agreed that Trimble was not to have any contact or interaction with plaintiff without the express consent of plaintiff's parents (" no-contact agreement" ). (Id. ¶ ¶ 9, 18.) Following these events, plaintiff began to improve on both a personal and academic level. (Id. ¶ 20.)

On October 10, 2011, plaintiff felt ill during gym class and went to the girls' locker room in order to use the restroom. (Id. ¶ ¶ 20--21.) She entered a bathroom stall and broke an Ibuprofen pill in half, intending to swallow the pill using water from the sink. (Id. ¶ 21.) Plaintiff's gym teacher observed plaintiff through a crack in the stall and asked her if she was using drugs. (Id.) Plaintiff responded in the negative, and her gym teacher instructed her to go to her next class. (Id. ¶ 22.)

Plaintiff's gym teacher reported her observations to defendant Flick and another educator identified in the Complaint as Mr. Tornetta. (Id. ¶ ¶ 8, 23.) Subsequently, defendant Marshall Hoffritz, an assistant principal, " forcibly removed" plaintiff from class and brought her to his office where defendant Trimble was " waiting to confront [her]." (Id. ¶ 24.) Hoffritz searched plaintiff's back pack, while Trimble questioned plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 26.) Plaintiff denied possessing drugs, and Hoffritz did not find any contraband in her back pack. (Id. ¶ 27.) Trimble then " physically confronted [p]laintiff, walked around her and placed her hands deep into the pockets of [p]laintiff's tight jeggings and fondled [p]laintiff's buttocks and inner thighs while allegedly searching for contraband." (Id.) Trimble then walked in front of plaintiff and again " forcibly shoved her hands down to the bottom of the pockets and fondled [p]laintiff's abdomen, upper thigh area and the area between her legs . . . ." (Id.) Trimble did not find any contraband. (Id.)

Plaintiff explained to Hoffritz and Trimble that she was feeling ill and had taken an Ibuprofen pill, but they called her a " liar" and proceeded to " physically drag[]" her to the office of defendant Betty Byrne, the school nurse. (Id. ¶ 28.) Once there, Hoffritz left the room but remained in the immediate vicinity where he could see directly into Byrne's office through the two large glass panels on the door. (Id. ¶ 29.) While inside Byrne's office, Trimble ordered plaintiff to remove her bra. (Id.) Plaintiff, who was visibly upset, backed away from Trimble. (Id. ¶ 32.) Trimble followed, and again ordered plaintiff to remove her bra. (Id.) Plaintiff " crossed her arms over her chest," and Trimble responded by grabbing plaintiff's wrists and " forcibly pull[ing] apart" her arms. (Id.) Trimble then began to " forcibly pat down [p]laintiff's upper chest area and torso . . . then moved her hands under [p]laintiff's brassiere and moved her hands back and forth . . . in a circular motion while . . . fondling [p]laintiff's breasts while searching underneath her top and under her bra." (Id.) Byrne subjected plaintiff to an additional physical examination of her ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. (Id. ¶ 34.) Neither Trimble nor Byrne found any contraband on plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 36.)

Plaintiff's parents were not contacted until after the above events occurred. (Id. ¶ ¶ 25, 30, 35.) Shortly thereafter, plaintiff's mother picked plaintiff up from school and took her to undergo a drug test, the results of which were negative. (Id. ¶ 37.)

B. Procedural History

On October 3, 2014, plaintiff filed suit in this Court against defendants Flick; Hoffritz; Byrne; Trimble; Bebee; Alan Lonoconus, Ed.D (the Superintendent of the Great Valley School District); Dr. Dan Goffredo (the Principal of Great Valley High School); Great Valley High School; and Great Valley School District. Plaintiff asserts claims against these defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and under Pennsylvania law for assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress (" IIED" ), negligent infliction of emotional distress (" NIED" ), false imprisonment, and civil conspiracy.

On December 22, 2014, defendants Lonoconus, Goffredo, Hoffritz, Byrne, Flick, Bebee, Great Valley High School, and Great Valley School District filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss (" defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss" ) in which they request that the Court dismiss certain claims against them. On the same day, Trimble separately filed a Motion to Dismiss (" Trimble's Motion to Dismiss" ) in which she argues that plaintiff's claims against her should be dismissed in their entirety.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

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, 127 S.Ct. 1955).

In Twombly, the Supreme Court used a " two-pronged approach," which it later formalized in Iqbal. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937; 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, 127 S.Ct. 1955. Such allegations are " not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937. 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

A. PARTIAL MOTION TO DISMISS OF DEFENDANTS LONOCONUS, GOFFREDO, HOFFRITZ, BYRNE, FLICK, BEBEE, GREAT VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL, AND GREAT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT

The Court first considers defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss. The Motion is granted in part and denied in part as set forth below.

1. Redundancy of Plaintiff's Official Capacity Claims Against the Individual Defendants

Defendants argue that plaintiff's claims against them in their official capacities should be dismissed because those claims are duplicative of plaintiff's claims against their employer, the Great Valley School District. The Court agrees.

" [O]fficial-capacity suits generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25, 112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301 (1991) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). " Suits against state officials in their official capacity therefore should be treated as suits against the State." Id. For that reason, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of official-capacity claims against individual defendants where a plaintiff also sues their municipal employer. See Cuvo v. De Biasi, 169 Fed. App'x 688, 693 (3d Cir. 2006) (non-precedential); see also Dawson v. Harran, No. 08-7, 2008 WL 1959696, at *6 (E.D. Pa. May 5, 2008).

Because the official-capacity claims against defendants Lonoconus, Goffredo, Flick, Hoffritz, Byrne, Bebee, and Trimble are redundant of plaintiff's claims against the Great Valley School District, the Court grants defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss as to this issue and dismisses with prejudice all claims against the individual defendants in their official capacities.

2. Plaintiff's Claims Against Great Valley High School

Defendant Great Valley High School argues that all of plaintiff's claims against it should be dismissed because it is not a legal entity amenable to suit. The Court agrees.

A high school is a proper defendant where " the organic law grants it the legal capacity to function independently and not just as the agency or division of another governmental entity." B.E. v. Mount Hope High Sch., at *30 (S.D. W.Va. Aug. 17, 2012) (citing Muller v. St. Tammany Parish, No. 09-3362, 2010 WL 2464802, at *6 (E.D. La. Apr. 28, 2010)). However, that is not the case here. As alleged in the Complaint, Great Valley High School is " a school of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, operated by the Great Valley School District . . . ." (Compl. ¶ 4.); see also 24 Pa. Stat. § 3-301 (" The public school system of the Commonwealth shall be administered by a board of school directors . . . ." ). As such, Great Valley High School is not a legal entity amenable to suit.

Accordingly, defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss is granted as to this issue, and all claims against Great Valley High School are dismissed with prejudice. This dismissal is without prejudice to plaintiff's right ...


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