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Hay v. Somerset Area School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 29, 2017

HEATHER HAY, Plaintiff,
v.
SOMERSET AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant,
v.
STEPHEN SHAFFER Third-Party Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KIM R. GIBSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         This action arises from allegations that Defendant Somerset Area School District was deliberately indifferent to the inappropriate sexual conduct of a former teacher, Stephen Shaffer, which resulted in the teacher repeatedly sexually abusing the Plaintiff while she was a student. Presently before the Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Compel More Specific Responses to Interrogatories and Document Requests. (ECF No. 36). Plaintiff asks that this Court compel production of School District records relating to instances of inappropriate sexual misconduct by teachers, going back as far as 1988, the year Shaffer began working at the school. (ECF No. 42 at 1.) The School District objects on relevance grounds, and argues that it need only produce documents relating to incidents which occurred while the student attended the school.

         The Motion has been fully briefed (ECF Nos. 37, 39, 42) and the parties had the opportunity to present their arguments during a telephonic status conference (ECF No. 41). Accordingly, the Motion is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below, the Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion to Compel. The Court will also DENY the School District's Motion to Strike.

         II. Motion to Compel Standard

         Generally, materials that are relevant to an issue in a case are discoverable unless they are privileged. Rule 26 explains the scope of discovery:

Unless otherwise limited by court order, the scope of discovery is as follows: Parties may obtain discovery regarding any nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). While the scope of discovery under the Federal Rules is broad, "this right is not unlimited and may be circumscribed." Bayer AG v. Betachem, Inc., 173 F.3d 188, 191 (3d Cir. 1999). Indeed, Rule 26(b)(1) imposes "two content-based limitations upon the scope of discovery: privilege and relevance." Trask v. Olin Corp., 298 F.R.D. 244, 257 (W.D. Pa. 2014). Even relevant discovery may also be limited by a court if the burden of producing it outweighs the benefit based on the specifics of the case. FED. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff requests records relating to instances of inappropriate sexual misconduct by teachers from 1988-2005; the years Shaffer taught at the school. The School District limited its responses to 1999-2005, which represents the years Plaintiff attended the school plus two additional years prior. Plaintiff avers that instances of inappropriate sexual misconduct by teachers from 1988-1998 are relevant to establish a custom, policy, and practice of deliberate indifference by the School District. (ECF No. 42 at 5.) Plaintiff points to police records relating to Shaffer's arrest which mention three incidents of misconduct by Shaffer prior to 1998. (Id. at 3.) This, Plaintiff argues, supports her ultimate claim that the School District knew of Shaffer's penchant for inappropriate behavior and chose to do nothing about it. And as such, more detailed information on these three incidents as well as information on any other incidents that may have occurred during that time period is relevant and discoverable.

         In response, the School District argues that anything before 1999 is irrelevant because under the case law, "sporadic incidents" are insufficient to establish a sexual harassment claim and three incidents over ten years is surely sporadic. (ECF No. 39 at 4.) The School District further argues that Plaintiff has already received a significant number of records including the police report which references these three incidents, and that asking for records from 1988-1998 amounts to a fishing expedition. (Id. at 4-7.)

         After review, the Court finds the School District's irrelevancy argument unavailing. The premise of Plaintiff's Complaint is that the School District was aware of inappropriate behavior by Shaffer for years but took no action, eventually resulting in Shaffer sexually abusing her. Discovery into complaints against teachers, including Shaffer, while he taught at the school is plainly relevant to Plaintiff's claims.

         The School District's argument that "sporadic incidents" are insufficient to J establish a sexual harassment claim is unpersuasive for several reasons. First, the case law cited by the School District involves the sufficiency of sexual harassment claims on \ summary judgment motions. At the discovery stage, a party may obtain information as long as it is relevant to a claim or defense. FED. R. CIV. P. 26(b)(1). Discovery is not limited to admissible evidence let alone evidence that is singlehandedly sufficient to prove a claim at the summary judgment or trial stage. Second, the School District's argument assumes that the three incidents mentioned in the police report are the only incidents that occurred between 1988 and 1998. Without discovery, neither Plaintiff nor the Court can conclude that that is true. Plaintiff is entitled to explore whether there were more incidents besides the three mentioned, as well as for more details on the three incidents mentioned in the police report.

         Third, while Plaintiff's Title IX claim will ultimately require her to prove that the harassment was severe and pervasive; to rule now that the three incidents prior to 1998 were insufficient to constitute sexual harassment oversimplifies the issue. (ECF No. 1.) Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint that she was repeatedly raped by Shaffer; allegations which would easily rise to the level of harassment. Whether or not and at what point the School District was on notice is an issue better resolved at summary judgment. Additionally, ...


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