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Doe v. Plum Borough School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 15, 2017

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
PLUM BOROUGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA BARRY FISCHER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Presently before the Court are the respective Motions to Dismiss (Docket Nos. 21 and 24) filed by the Borough of Plum (“Plum”) and Mark Kost (“Kost”) (collectively, “Defendants”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Defendants seek the dismissal of all claims asserted by Jane Doe (“Plaintiff”) in her Complaint (Docket No. 1) of January 6, 2017. At Count I of said Complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims for violation of her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. At Counts III and IV, Plaintiff also asserts claims of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress and Negligence against Kost. This Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question) and 1367(a) (supplemental), and has previously ordered that all claims against Kost be dismissed, with prejudice, to the extent asserted against him in his official capacity. (Docket No. 33). For the reasons that follow, the Court will GRANT Defendants' Motions, in part, and DENY, in part.

         II. FACTUAL[1] & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In late November or early December of 2014, Jason Cooper - a teacher at Plum Borough High School - offered Plaintiff guidance and support due to her withdrawn and depressed state of mind following the recent deaths of her mother and grandmother. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 31 - 32). Despite receiving a previous written reprimand in 2013 for contacting students outside of school, he offered Plaintiff his personal telephone number, and began to speak to her after-hours. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 33). The two would also communicate via Twitter, going so far as to create additional Twitter accounts after Plaintiff's phone was taken away by her father. (Id. ¶ 34).

         Sometime later in December of 2014, Plaintiff first visited Cooper at his home. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 35). Cooper provided Plaintiff with alcoholic beverages, and she consequently spent the entire night at his residence. (Id. ¶ 36). On December 28, 2014, Plaintiff first kissed Cooper. (Id. ¶ 36). She was 17 years of age. (Docket No. 22 at 2). Thereafter, they would sometimes kiss in the classroom when no other students were present. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 37). Cooper would also fondle Plaintiff and talk to her in an openly sexual manner. (Id. ¶ 40). On or about January 16, 2015, when Cooper moved to a new place of residence, he and Plaintiff first engaged in sexual intercourse. (Id. ¶¶ 38 - 39). Plaintiff was 18 years of age by that time, and she and Cooper had intercourse on five or six more occasions before February of 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 29 - 30, 41).

         Prior to - and throughout - this period of time, another Plum Borough High School teacher, Joseph Ruggieri, [2] was engaging in illicit relationships with at least two female students. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 68 - 183). Ruggieri was considered by many to be the most influential teacher at the school as Vice President of the Plum Borough Education Association and as a personal friend of Plum Borough High School principal, Ryan Kociela. (Id. ¶¶ 68, 70, 72). Ruggieri acted as a liaison between the teachers and the school administration, and often provided instruction to his co-workers on the topic of proper student-teacher interaction. (Id. ¶ 69).

         However, at least as early as 2011, rumors that Ruggieri was in a sexual relationship with a student were circulating in the high school. (Docket No.1 ¶¶ 77, 80 - 81). A Plum Borough High School guidance counselor by the name of Kerry Plesco reported the rumors to Kociela in the fall of 2011. (Id. ¶¶ 79, 81). Kociela responded that he needed “something factual” to pursue the matter. (Id. ¶ 81). Plesco reported similar rumors to Kociela on at least ten more occasions during the 2011 - 2012 school year. (Id. ¶ 82). In December of 2011, Plum Borough High School Air Force ROTC instructor, Scott Kolar, also reported such rumors to Kociela. (Id. ¶¶ 83 - 84). Kociela asked Kolar to simply “slip an anonymous note under the door” the next time. (Id. ¶ 85).

         Kociela did eventually bring the rumors to the attention of then-superintendent, Lillian Naccarati and solicitor, Lee Price, Esquire. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 86). Plum Borough High School's resource officer of 13 years, Kost, was also informed of same. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 86 - 87, 101). Naccarati assigned assistant superintendent, Timothy Glasspool, to investigate the rumors with Kociela. (Id. ¶ 87). Kociela and Glasspool met with Ruggieri in late December 2011, and Kociela and Plesco met with the first of Ruggieri's victims and her parents shortly thereafter. (Id. ¶¶ 87 - 96). Despite having doubts regarding all parties' denials of improper conduct, at a December 20, 2011 meeting attended by Naccarati, Glasspool, Price, Kociela, Plesco, and Kost, Kociela and Glasspool argued that the investigation was inconclusive. (Id. ¶¶ 98 - 100). As such, Kost concluded that no charges were warranted, and the matter was considered to be closed. (Id. ¶¶ 100 - 01).

         Another report of inappropriate conduct by Ruggieri was subsequently received by Kociela and Kost from former Plum Borough High School security guard, Tanya Oslowski. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 103 - 08). Oslowski was informed that the administration was aware of the allegations and an investigation was being conducted. (Id. ¶¶ 106 - 08). When Oslowski followed up a few days later with Kost, she was simply told, “no victim, no crime.” (Id. ¶¶ 109 - 10).

         When Plesco continued to raise concerns about rumors of Ruggieri's relationship with his first victim during the 2012 - 2013 school year, Kociela and Plum Borough High School assistant principal, Michael Loughren, convened a meeting with the victim and her stepfather. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 126 - 27). The student continued to deny any impropriety in her contact with Ruggieri; although, she did admit to exchanging emails with him. (Id. ¶ 143). While Loughren credited her account of her relationship with Ruggieri, he was left with an “uncomfortable feeling, ” which he later raised with both Kociela and Kost. (Id. ¶¶ 130 - 33). Kost informed Loughren that the issue was an “internal matter” that should be kept between him, Kociela, and Kost. (Id. ¶ 132). Kost instructed Loughren not to involve the police. (Id. ¶ 133).

         On or about January 16, 2015, former Plum Borough High School teacher, Dennis Swogger, reported to Kociela that he had personal knowledge of inappropriate communications between Cooper and Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 15). Kociela subsequently interviewed three teachers and five students, and then Cooper. (Id. ¶¶ 16, 18). He also secured copies of Twitter communications between Cooper and Plaintiff, and while Cooper acknowledged such contact with her, he denied any activity of a sexual nature. (Id. ¶¶ 20 - 21). Despite these denials, Kociela reported his findings to Kost by way of “formal complaint” on January 28 or 29, 2015. (Id. ¶ 17). In fact, Kociela told Kost that one of the interviewed students described the true nature of Cooper and Plaintiff's relationship. (Id. ¶ 22).

         Yet, Kost did not contact outside authorities and did not assume control of the investigation (Id. ¶¶ 17 - 22, 26), adhering to a policy to steer complaints to internal investigation and avoid involvement of ChildLine or the County Office of Children, Youth, and Families. (Id. ¶¶ 238 - 39). It was also Kost's practice to shield teachers by not documenting rumors regarding victims of inappropriate student-teacher relations. (Id. ¶¶ 185, 188 - 89, 242). Plum never educated or trained Kost regarding mandatory reporting obligations; documentation of meetings, warnings, and accusations of illicit student-teacher relationships; institutional sexual assault and corruption of minors; conducting fair and uncompromised investigations with school administration; when and how to take over school investigations; when to close an investigation; student-teacher boundaries; and investigating allegations of student-teacher sexual relations. (Id. ¶ 258).

         On February 2, 2015, Kociela met with Plum Borough Police detective, Mark Focareta. (Docket No. 1 ¶ 27). He provided Focareta with the Twitter correspondence he obtained. (Id. ¶ 28). Eight days later, Plaintiff spoke with Focareta and Kost, and explained that she was having an ongoing sexual relationship with Cooper. (Id. ¶¶ 29 - 30). Cooper was arrested the following day. (Id. ¶ 43). He ultimately pled guilty to felony institutional sexual assault, misdemeanor corruption of minors, furnishing alcohol to a minor, and witness intimidation, resulting in an 18 - 36 month prison sentence. (Id. ¶ 66).

         Plaintiff filed the present Complaint on January 6, 2017. (Docket No. 1). Motions to Dismiss (Docket Nos. 21 and 24) followed on March 10, 2017. Responses were made on March 31, 2017 (Docket Nos. 31 and 32), and a Reply thereto was docketed on April 21, 2017 (Docket No. 39). Given the dispositive nature of the Motions, the Court convened a hearing and held oral argument on May 10, 2017. (Docket No. 41). The matter is ripe for disposition.

         III. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of a claim, and show that the pleader is entitled to relief. Dismissal of a complaint or portion of a complaint is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) when a claimant fails to sufficiently state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Avoiding dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) requires a pleading party's complaint to provide “enough factual matter” to allow the case to move beyond the pleading stage of litigation; the pleader must “‘nudge his or her claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 - 35 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atlantic Co. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570 (2007)).

         In assessing the merits of a claim subject to a motion to dismiss, a court must engage in a two-part analysis. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 - 11 (3d Cir. 2009). First, factual and legal elements of a claim must be distinguished. Id. Second, it must be determined whether the facts as alleged support a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. In making the latter determination, the court must be mindful that the matter pleaded need not include “detailed factual allegations, ” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555), and the court must construe all alleged facts, and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. at 228 (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)). Moreover, a pleading party need only “put forth allegations that ‘raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s].'” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 213 (quoting Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Assoc., Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)). A well-pleaded complaint, even when “it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of…facts is improbable, ” will not be dismissed as long as the pleader demonstrates that his or her claim is plausible. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 - 56).

         Nevertheless, the facts provided do need to raise the expectation of relief above a purely speculative level, and must include more than “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 - 32 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 - 56). Rule 8(a)(2) “requires a ‘showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 232. “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

         IV. Discussion

         A. Count I

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against both Plum and Kost. (Docket No. 1 at 27 - 34). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that - under the Fourteenth Amendment - she has a liberty interest in her bodily integrity and the right to be free from sexual assault, that her rights were clearly defined at the time of the events at issue, and that she was denied due process when her rights were violated as a direct result of the deliberate indifference of Plum and Kost. (Id. at 27). Plaintiff's claims are grounded in the state-created danger and failure to investigate theories of liability, as well as the holding in Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). (Id. at 27 - 34). In defense, Plum and Kost deny that Plaintiff has pled facts sufficient to sustain her Fourteenth Amendment claim under these theories.

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides that:

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….

         Section 1983 serves as a means of vindicating violations of federal constitutional and statutory rights. Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). In order to properly state a valid § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a person acting under color of law violated enumerated constitutional or statutory rights. Berg v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 268 (3d Cir. 2000). “‘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.'” Dorley v. South Fayette Twp. Sch. Dist., 129 F.Supp.3d 220, 226 (W.D. Pa. 2015) (quoting Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000)).

         1. Substantive Due Process

         To the extent that Plaintiff is alleging due process violations, [3] the Court notes that the Fourteenth Amendment “provides procedural and substantive protections to citizens by ensuring that states shall not ‘deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.'” Dorley, 129 F.Supp.3d at 226 (quoting U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1). However, it has generally been held that the Fourteenth Amendment imposes no obligation upon government or government officials to intervene to protect citizens from private violence. Fetterman v. Westmoreland Cnty. Childrens Bureau, ___ F.App'x ___, 2017 WL 888216, at *3 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 486 U.S. 189, 196 - 97 (1989)). Deprivation of bodily integrity “does not have distinct legal standing on its own.” Dorley, 129 F.Supp.3d at 231 (citing Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008)). Thus, the state-created danger theory was conceived as a narrow exception to address situations in which “‘the state acts in a way that makes a person substantially more vulnerable to injury from another source than he or she would have been in the absence of the state intervention.'” Fetterman, 2017 WL 888216, at *3 (quoting Schieber v. City of Phila., 320 F.3d 409, 416 (3d Cir. 2003)).

         In order for Plaintiff to state a substantive due process claim under the state-created danger theory of liability, the following must be shown:

(1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts… and (4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.

Dorley, 129 F.Supp.3d at 232 (quoting Bright v. Westmoreland Cnty., 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d ...


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