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Moeck v. Pleasant Valley School District

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 23, 2016

LORI MOECK, In her capacity as parent and natural guarding of C.M. and A.M.; C.M. a minor; A.M., a minor
v.
PLEASANT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT; DOUGLAS C. ARNOLD, Superintendent of Schools, Pleasant Valley School District; ANTHONY A. FADULE, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Pleasant Valley School District; JOHN J. GRESS, Principal, Pleasant Valley School District: MARK GETZ, Wrestling Coach, Pleasant Valley School District Pleasant Valley School District, Appellant

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. No. 3:13-cv-01305) District Judge: Hon. James L. Munley

         Submitted under Third Circuit L.A.R. 34.1(a) December 20, 2016

          Michael I. Levin, Esq. Paul J. Cianci, Esq. Levin Legal Group, P.C. Counsel for Appellant

          Michael C. Schwartz, Esq. Jonathan J. James, Esq. James, Schwartz & Associates, P.C. Counsel for Appellees

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge, McKEE and SHWARTZ, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION OF THE COURT

          SHWARTZ, Circuit Judge.

         Pleasant Valley School District (the "School District") appeals the District Court's order denying its motions for sanctions pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 against Plaintiffs and their counsel. Because the District Court appropriately exercised its wide discretion in concluding the motions lacked merit, and were counterproductive as they relied upon factual discrepancies that did not show the claims were patently frivolous, we will affirm.

         I

         This case arises out of incidents between two members of the Pleasant Valley High School (the "High School") wrestling team, C.M. and his sister A.M., and the team's coach, Mark Getz. Getz allegedly assaulted C.M. and discriminated against A.M. based on her gender. Plaintiffs alleged that during a team practice, C.M. was forced to wrestle a larger student, who threw him through the gymnasium doors into the hallway and punched him, and after Getz prodded C.M. to keep wrestling, a verbal and physical altercation ensued between Getz and C.M. in which Getz lifted C.M. up and "smash[ed] his head and back into the wall." App. 31, 54. Plaintiffs also asserted, among other things, that A.M. suffered gender discrimination through a culture of misogyny and intimidation, which allegedly included numerous sexually charged comments by Getz and the assistant coaches.

         C.M., A.M., and their mother Lori Moeck (collectively, "Plaintiffs") brought various federal and state law claims against the School District, its Superintendent, its Assistant Superintendent, the High School's Principal (the "School Defendants"), and Getz (collectively, "Defendants"), seeking compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees and costs. Following discovery, the School Defendants and Getz filed separate motions for summary judgment. Each motion was supported by a brief and statement of undisputed material facts ("Rule 56.1 statement").

         Defendants thereafter filed two motions for sanctions. In one motion, the School Defendants asserted that discovery showed that Plaintiffs made numerous false statements in the complaint and amended complaint, and their claims lacked merit. In the second motion, Defendants asserted that Plaintiffs' Rule 56.1 statement contained false statements. Many of the examples Defendants cited in both motions focused on small details that have little bearing on the essence of Plaintiffs' claims-that Getz allegedly acted in an aggressive and discriminatory manner. For instance, Plaintiffs alleged that Getz "grabb[ed] [C.M.] by the neck and chok[ed]" him, App. 39, 62, while C.M.'s testimony disclosed that Getz grabbed him by the shirt, under his neck. Similarly, Defendants complained that Plaintiffs alleged that Getz "lifted [C.M.] onto his toes, and ran with him . . . causing him to smash his head and back into the wall, " App. 31, 54, while testimony showed that Getz "speed walk[ed], " App. 113, and "put [C.M.] up on the wall, " App. 182, and that C.M.'s head "wasn't extremely pounded, " App. 200; see also App. 1103 (comparing the representation in the brief that C.M.'s "toes were off the ground" when Getz lifted him up with C.M.'s testimony that he "was on [his] tippy-toes up against the wall, " App. 198).[1] Plaintiffs filed motions to stay Defendants' Rule 11 motions until the District Court ruled on the pending summary judgment motions.

         Before ruling on the summary judgment motions, the District Court denied Defendants' Rule 11 motions. The court found "the motions meritless, " noting that these Rule 11 motions tax judicial resources and emphasizing that the truth of the allegations in a case of this sort is revealed through discovery and addressed at summary judgment or trial, not via motions for sanctions. App. 3. The School District appeals.[2]

         II[3]

         We review a district court's order on a Rule 11 motion for abuse of discretion. Simmerman v. Corino, 27 F.3d 58, 61 (3d Cir. 1994). Thus, "'we evaluate the court's factual determinations, legal conclusions, and choice of an 'appropriate sanction' with substantial deference, considering not whether we would make the same precise determinations, but only whether those determinations are contrary to reason or without a reasonable basis in law and fact.'" Ario v. Underwriting Members ...


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