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M.U. v. Downingtown High Sch. E.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 27, 2015

M.U., a minor, by her parents, THERESA AND THOMAS URBAN, and THERESA AND THOMAS URBAN, individually, Plaintiffs
v.
DOWNINGTOWN HIGH SCHOOL EAST, DOWNINGTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, LAWRENCE MUSSOLINE, Ph.D., CRAIG REED, and TOTAL SOCCER, LLC, Defendants

For M.U., A MINOR, BY HER PARENTS THERESA URBAN AND THOMAS URBAN, THERESA URBAN, THOMAS URBAN, Plaintiffs: AARON J. FREIWALD, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAYSER & FREIWALD PC, PHILADELPHIA, PA; LAURA E. NOWICKI, LAYSER AND FREIWALD, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For DOWNINGTOWN HIGH SCHOOL EAST, DOWNINGTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, LAWRENCE MUSSOLINE, PH.D., SUPERINTENDENT DONWINGTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants: JOSEPH P. CONNOR, CONNOR WEBER & OBERLIES, PC, PAOLI, PA.

For CRAIG REED, Defendant: JOSEPH P. CONNOR, CONNOR WEBER & OBERLIES, PC, PAOLI, PA; THEODORE M. SCHAER, ZARWIN BAUM DEVITO KAPLAN SCHAER & TODDY, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For TOTAL SOCCER, LLC, Defendant: THEODORE M. SCHAER, ZARWIN BAUM DEVITO KAPLAN SCHAER & TODDY, P.C., PHILADELPHIA, PA.

MEMORANDUM

GERALD J. PAPPERT, JUDGE.

This case concerns the extent to which public high school coaches, administrators and school districts can be subject to liability for injuries sustained by student athletes during interscholastic competition. Plaintiff M.U. was a promising student and soccer player whose life was indelibly changed after a blow to the head on a high school soccer field. She asserts that her coach's failure to remove her from the game after the injury and the school district's failure to implement proper policies regarding concussion evaluations amount to a violation of her constitutional rights. She also alleges that this conduct violated Pennsylvania tort law. Finally, she contends that a private company with which the coach was affiliated was negligent in creating a " soccer culture" that placed undue pressure on student athletes to play even while injured.

The Court dismisses M.U.'s claims. Under the facts currently alleged neither the coach's nor the school district defendants' conduct rises to the level of a constitutional violation. Additionally, those parties are immune from state tort liability under Pennsylvania's Tort Claims Act. Finally, M.U. has failed to allege facts sufficient to state a plausible claim that the private soccer company was negligent under state law.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In the late summer of 2012, M.U. was an incoming freshman at Downingtown High School East (" DHSE" ) and a member of the school's varsity soccer team. (Am. Compl. ¶ 14, Doc. No. 15.) Her coach was Craig Reed (" Reed" ). ( Id. ¶ 15.) Reed was demanding, scheduling early-morning and two-a-day workouts throughout the summer. ( Id. ¶ 17.) He also urged his players to buy packets of lessons from Total Soccer, LLC (" Total Soccer" ), a soccer training facility he operated as a side business. ( Id. ¶ 19.) Although participation in Total Soccer was optional, the players and their parents knew that participation was required to make the DHSE varsity team. ( Id.)

M.U. also played on a travel soccer team coached by Reed. ( Id. ¶ 20.) Reed told M.U. that success on the soccer field could lead to an athletic scholarship at a college with a top soccer program. ( Id. ¶ 16.) He often compared M.U. to another player who had gone on to play soccer for a Division I college. ( Id. ¶ 22.) As a result, M.U. felt significant pressure to perform well for Reed. ( Id. ¶ 16.) She would often come home in tears after the summer practices before her freshman year. ( Id. ¶ 23.)

On August 20, 2012, M.U. was playing in a DHSE preseason scrimmage. ( Id. ¶ 24.) At some point during the game, she jumped to head the ball and collided with another player who was also attempting to head the ball. ( Id. ¶ 25.) The other player struck M.U. on the head. ( Id.) M.U. felt her neck snap back from the impact, and she fell to the ground. ( Id. ¶ 26.) She began crying, knowing that she had hit her head. ( Id. ¶ 29.)

M.U. heard the opposing coach, who was within earshot of Reed, saying that M.U. should be taken out of the game. ( Id. ¶ 27.) One of M.U.'s teammates told Reed that M.U. had been hit in the head and needed to come out of the game to be evaluated. ( Id. ¶ 28.) Reed did not remove M.U. from the game. ( Id. ¶ 30.) Rather, M.U. stayed in for the rest of the game, during which time she had collisions with other players and headed the ball several times. ( Id. ¶ 31.)

M.U. began to experience headaches on the bus ride home from the scrimmage. ( Id. ¶ 32.) The next day, she was dizzy and had black spots in her field of vision. ( Id.) The day after that, she felt physically unable to play soccer and went to see the athletic trainer. ( Id. ¶ 33.) M.U.'s mother picked her up from the trainer's office and took her to the hospital where doctors confirmed that M.U. had a traumatic brain injury. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 33, 34.)

M.U.'s injury resulted in headaches, profound fatigue, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, and difficulty finding words. ( Id. ¶ 37.) Unable to tolerate a full day of school, she missed more than 80 days during her freshman year. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 35, 36.) Her grades slipped dramatically. ( Id. ¶ 38.) Although her grades improved slightly in her sophomore year, they did not improve to pre-injury levels. ( Id. ¶ 39.) This drop in academic performance will have long-term effects on M.U.'s academic and economic future. ( Id. ¶ 40.)

M.U., through her parents, filed suit and asserted claims against Downingtown Area School District (" DASD" ), DASD Superintendent Dr. Lawrence Mussoline (" Mussoline" ), DHSE, Reed, and Total Soccer. (Doc. No. 1.) Before any defendant had filed an answer, the parties stipulated that M.U. could file an amended complaint.[1] (Doc. No. 14.) M.U.'s amended complaint was filed shortly thereafter.

The amended complaint contains four counts. Count One, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserts a violation of M.U.'s due process right to bodily integrity against DASD, DHSE, Mussoline, and Reed. This cause of action is premised on the state-created danger theory of § 1983 liability. Count Two alleges negligence against DASD, DHSE, Reed, and Total Soccer. Count Three asserts recklessness against Reed and Total Soccer. Count Four, brought by M.U.'s parents individually, seeks recovery of medical costs incurred on their daughter's behalf against all defendants.

All defendants filed motions to dismiss the amended complaint, at least in part. Mussoline moves to dismiss M.U.'s § 1983 claim against him. (Sch. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. No. 19.) DASD, DHSE, and Reed in his capacity as a school employee move to dismiss M.U.'s tort claims against them, arguing that they are immune from liability under state law. ( Id.) Total Soccer and Reed in his capacity as an agent or employee of Total Soccer move to dismiss M.U.'s tort claims against them for failure to allege facts sufficient to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Total Soccer Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. No. 18.)

After these motions were fully briefed, the Court sua sponte ordered M.U. and the school district defendants to submit briefing on whether the amended complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted under the state-created danger theory of § 1983 liability. (Doc. No. 27.) The parties submitted the requested briefing. (Doc. Nos. 28, 29.) The Court then heard oral argument on the state-created danger issue and the claims against DHSE, DASD, Mussoline, and Reed in his capacity as a DASD employee.

LEGAL STANDARD

Both of the pending motions to dismiss are brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the factual allegations in the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). When confronted with a 12(b)(6) motion, a district court must conduct a two-step analysis. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). First, the district court " must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. at 210-11. Then, it " must determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a 'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)). When making this determination, the court can consider " the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record." Pension Benefit. Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The district court must " construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff . . . ." Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008).

DISCUSSION

M.U.'s Federal Law Claims

M.U.'s Section 1983 Claim against Mussoline

M.U. asserts a single claim against Mussoline under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The amended complaint, however, contains no factual allegations regarding any conduct by Mussoline. M.U. has therefore failed to state a claim under § 1983 against Mussoline individually. Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) (" A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior." ). To the extent that M.U. has named Mussoline as a mechanism to assert liability against DHSE or DASD, the claim is duplicative of the claims brought against those entities directly. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n.14, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985) (" There is no longer a need to bring official-capacity actions against local government officials, for under Monell, local government units can be sued directly for damages and injunctive or declaratory relief." ) (citation omitted); see also Cuvo v. De Biasi, 169 Fed.Appx. 688, 693 (3d Cir. 2006) (" We will affirm the District Court's dismissal of the claims 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." ). M.U.'s § 1983 claim against Mussoline is dismissed.

M.U.'s Section 1983 Claim under the State-Created Danger Theory

M.U. also asserts a claim against DASD, DHSE, and Reed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 reads, in relevant part, " Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . ." Section 1983 does not create substantive rights. Rather, " it provides only remedies for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws." Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). Consequently, under § 1983, a plaintiff " must plead a deprivation of a constitutional right and that the constitutional deprivation was caused by a person acting under the color of state law." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 235.

Here, M.U. alleges a deprivation of her right to bodily integrity as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. ( See Am. Compl. ¶ 51.) Defendants do not dispute that such a right exists. See Phillips, 515 F.3d at 235 (" Individuals have a constitutional liberty interest in personal bodily integrity that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." ); see also Gremo v. Karlin, 363 F.Supp.2d 771, 781 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (same) (citing D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical Sch., 972 F.2d 1364, 1368 (3d Cir. 1992)).

M.U. does not contend that any state actor directly violated her right to bodily integrity. She alleges instead that collisions with other unnamed soccer players were the direct cause of her injuries. ( See Am. Comp. ¶ 31.) She also alleges, however, that Reed significantly increased the risk that M.U. would be injured by keeping her in the game after the initial collision in which she hit her head. (Am. Compl. ¶ 56.) ...


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