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Lichtenstein v. Lower Merion School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

February 8, 2017



          BAYLSON, J.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Matthew Lichtenstein (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against defendants Lower Merion School District (“Lower Merion”), Pat Guinnane, the Director of Operations for Lower Merion (“Guinnane”), Ryan Sankey, an employee at Lower Merion High School (“Sankey”), and Frank Agostini, also an employee at Lower Merion High School (“Agostini, ” and collectively, “Defendants”), alleging violations of his rights pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

         Plaintiff's Complaint (ECF 1, “Compl.”) alleges three Counts:

(1) a claim for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment under 42 U.S.C. §1983 based on the “special relationship” exception (Compl. ¶¶ 58-62);
(2) a claim for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the “state-created danger” exception (Id. ¶¶ 63-70);
(3) a Monell claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Lower Merion. (Id. ¶¶ 71-76).

         On November 22, 2016, Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), (ECF 8, “Defs.' Mot.”), to which Plaintiff filed an Opposition on December 6, 2016, (ECF 9, “Pl.'s Opp'n”). Defendants did not file a reply brief.

         For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion will be DENIED, except as to all claims against Guinnane, where it will be GRANTED, without prejudice, and with leave to amend.

         II. Factual Background

         Plaintiff is a twenty-two year old man who has been multiply handicapped since birth, and has required the use of a wheelchair since childhood. Plaintiff grew up in Lower Merion Township, and was attending Lower Merion High School when, on October 16, 2014, the accident at issue in this case occurred. (Compl. ¶ 14).

         Due to his multiple disabilities, while a student at Lower Merion, Plaintiff was eligible for special education services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et. seq. (“IDEA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (“Section 504”). (Id. ¶ 15). Plaintiff's special education was provided pursuant to Individualized Education Programs (“IEPs”). (Id. ¶ 18). During the 2014-2015 schoolyear, Plaintiff's governing IEP provided that he take swimming lessons, and that, while swimming, he would be assisted by two “1:1 assistants.” (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Sankey and Agostini were Plaintiff's 1:1 assistant and, pursuant to the IDEA and Section 504, were required to be instructed in caring for Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 20).

         Plaintiff alleges that he was “dependent on [Lower Merion] for his most basic human needs, i.e. medical care, safety, toileting, and the completion of the activities of daily living.” (Id. ¶ 16). Since beginning to swim in the Lower Merion pool during the 2013-2014 school year, Plaintiff was transported into and out of the pool using a chair (the “Chair”) that Defendants referred to as a “pool chair, ” but that was actually a “shower chair/commode chair, ” and that was not designed to transfer special needs students. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29). According to Plaintiff, despite knowing that the Chair was “decrepit, ” Sankey and Agostini frequently used the Chair to transport Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36)

         On October 16, 2014, Sankey and Agostini transported Plaintiff to and from the pool in the Chair. (Id. ¶¶ 41-42). While wheeling Plaintiff back to the locker room after his swimming lesson, the Chair broke. (Id. ¶ 44). Either Sankey or Agostini “grabbed [Plaintiff] in order to keep him from falling onto the” pool deck. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, Sankey and Agostini were not properly trained to support Plaintiff once the chair broke, and he “was handled roughly which caused serious and permanent physical injury” to, inter alia, his “back, neck, [and] upper extremities.” (Id. ¶¶ 46-47, 50, 53).

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants knew that the Chair “was not being used for its intended purpose.” (Id. ¶ 69b). Additionally, the Chair “was in deplorable condition” in that it (1) “had been used for numerous years, and was long past its useful/safe life”; (2) “had been previously broken and was held together in numerous places by tape”; and (3) “was unstable and was held together in numerous places with tape.” (Id. ¶ 30). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “willfully and consciously ignored the risks and dangers inherent in repeatedly placing [Plaintiff] into” the Chair. (Id. ¶ 32). Plaintiff asserts that his injuries were “easily avoidable” because Defendants could have “replaced the decrepit” Chair, “use[d] a proper lift” to transport Plaintiff, or properly trained Sankey and Agostini to deal with an emergency situation involving Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 67). Shortly after the incident, Defendants replaced the Chair. (Id. ¶ 31).

         III. Legal Standard

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations that “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A complaint will satisfy this threshold test for facial plausibility if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. While all factual allegations must be accepted as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), this requirement does not apply to legal conclusions, which may be disregarded, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         When presented with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a district court should conduct a two-part analysis. First, it should separate the factual and legal elements of a claim and accept all of the well-pleaded facts as true. Second, it should determine whether the factual allegations are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009).

         IV. Discussion

         “To establish a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate a violation of a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United Sates that was committed by a person acting under the color of state law.” Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000) (en banc) (citing Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996)). “The first step in evaluating a Section 1983 claim is to ‘identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated' and to determine ‘whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.” Id. (quoting Cty. Of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 841 n.5 (1998)).

         Generally, “the due process clause does not impose an affirmative duty upon the state to protect citizens from the acts of private individuals.” Sanford v. Siles, 456 F.3d 298, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006). However, the third circuit has recognized two narrow exceptions to that general rule: “[f]irst, the state has a duty to protect or care for individuals when a ‘special relationship' exists”; “[s]econd the state has a duty when a ‘state-created danger' is involved.” Id. (citing Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3d Cir. 1997)).

         Defendants' Motion to Dismiss characterizes Counts One and Two as bringing “a substantive due process/state created danger claim.” (Defs.' Mot. at 2 (emphasis added)). Defendants' Motion does not directly contest the adequacy of Plaintiff's allegations with respect to his “special relationship” claim, and instead argues that “[t]he entirety of Count I of the Complaint is designed to establish, factually, that Plaintiff and [D]efendants have a ‘special relationship' as required for a state-created danger claim, ” which is “not in dispute.” Accordingly, Defendants argue that “Count I is duplicative of Count II.” (Defs.' Mot. at 9). Plaintiff argues that he should be permitted to pursue his claims because he has adequately alleged each of the recognized exceptions.

         We discuss each claim in turn.

         A. Special Relationship Exception (Count One)

         a. Applicable Law

         The “special relationship” exception allows a plaintiff to recover when the state enters into a special relationship with a citizen and “fails to protect the health and safety of the citizen to whom it owes an affirmative duty.” D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical Sch., 972 F.2d 1364, 1369 (3d Cir. 1992).

         The “special relationship” exception was first recognized in Deshaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 200 (1989), where the Supreme Court explained that, “it is the State's affirmative act of restraining the individual's freedom to act on his own behalf-through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraints of personal liberty-which is the ‘deprivation of liberty' triggering the protections of the Due Process Clause, not its failure to act to protect his liberty interests against harms inflicted by other means.” Id. (emphasis added). Since Deshaney, the Supreme Court has extended this exception to incarcerated individuals, see Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), and involuntarily committed mental patients, see Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307 (1982), and the Third Circuit has extended it to foster children, see Morra, 212 F.3d at 801.

         The Third Circuit took up the issue of whether the special relationship exception should be extended in the public school district context in Middle Bucks, 972 F.2d at 1369. There, two female students alleged that they had been verbally and sexually molested by male students in an art class. They argued that, under Deshaney, the special relationship exception should apply because their relationship with the school was a type of “restraint[] of personal liberty” that was analogous to the custodial relationships where the exception had been conclusively recognized.

         The court held, however, that the “type of custody referred to by the Court in Deshaney . . . [wa]s to be sharply contrasted with [the plaintiff's] situation.” Id. Specifically, it explained,

“[t]he state's duty to prisoners and involuntarily committed patients exists because of the full time severe and continuous state restrictions of liberty in both environments. Institutionalized persons are wholly dependent upon the state for food, shelter, clothing and safety. It is not within their power to provide for themselves, nor are they given the opportunity to seek outside help to meet basic needs. Obviously, they are not free to leave.”

Id. at 1371. The Third Circuit rejected the plaintiff's argument that the school's authority over the plaintiffs during the school day, or the fact that state law compels their attendance, brings them within the exception because “students . . . do not depend upon the schools to provide for their basic human needs . . . even during the school day . . . parents or others remain a child's primary caretakers and decisionmakers.” Id. at 1372.

         Then, in Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160 (3d Cir. 2013), citing dictum in VernoniaSchool District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995), [1] the Third Circuit officially rejected the notion that “public schools as a general matter have such a degree of control over children as to give rise to a constitutional ‘duty to protect'” them from private actors. Id. (citing DeShaney, 489 U.S. at ...

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