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Kobrick v. Stevens

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 1, 2017




         Plaintiff Alexandra Kobrick commenced this action advancing several constitutional statutory and common law claims against her former teacher two school districts and various administrators (Doc 1) Before the court are three motions (Docs 102 105 107) for summary judgment filed by the school districts and administrators pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 For the reasons that follow we will grant the pending motions

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[1]

         This action arises from an approximately eight-month-long sexual relationship between plaintiff Alexandra Kobrick (“Kobrick”) and defendant Matthew Stevens (“Stevens”), her former music teacher and band director, which began during her senior year in high school. (See Doc. 1).

         Stevens was hired as the assistant marching band director by defendant Western Wayne School District (“Western Wayne”) in June of 2009. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 108 ¶ 22).[2] Stevens' direct supervisor at Western Wayne was Ray Stedenfeld (“Stedenfeld”), director of the band. (See Doc. 140 ¶¶ 17-86). Stevens was hired at Western Wayne for the fall 2009 marching band season. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2). According to Stevens' resume, his employment with Western Wayne ended in December of 2009. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2). Stevens' resume includes prior employment as a student teacher at two schools, Western Wayne and Lakeside Elementary School, as well as an interim high school music teacher position at Blue Ridge School District from November of 2009 to February of 2010. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2).

         On November 18, 2009, Joseph Totsky (“Totsky”), a guidance counselor at Western Wayne, received an anonymous call from someone claiming to have “some news the school should be made aware of.” (Doc. 108 ¶¶ 81, 84). The caller, later identified as a parent of a Western Wayne student, expressed concern about what she believed to be an “inappropriate relationship” between another student, C.N., [3] and Stevens during the 2009 band season. (Id. ¶¶ 45, 84-85). Totsky met with the parent in his office that day. (See Totsky Dep., 21:22-22:24, 33:9-34:6, Aug. 12, 2015).[4] The parent explained that she had noticed text messages on her daughter's phone which suggested that C.N. (a friend of her daughter) was involved in a sexual relationship with Stevens. (Id. at 26:10-27:22). Totsky immediately reported what he learned to defendant Patrick Sheehan (“Sheehan”), principal at Western Wayne at the time. (Doc. 108 ¶¶ 32, 35, 37, 44). Sheehan in turn reported the information to defendant Andrew Falonk (“Falonk”) then-superintendent of Western Wayne (See Id. ¶¶ 21 24-25)

         Falonk testified that when he first received word of the anonymous call he believed the report to likely be a “rumor” (See Falonk Dep 65:1-6 Apr 2 2015) Nonetheless because the report was “at this level ” Falonk thought it was “worth looking into it so that we could answer any questions if in fact someone asked or came forward” (Id. at 68:14-24) Falonk tasked Sheehan to escort CN to the nurse's office or the guidance office to ask whether the rumor was true (Doc 108 ¶¶ 26-27) Falonk also ordered Sheehan to speak with CN's parents (Id. ¶ 29)

         Both CN and her parents denied the rumor (Id. ¶¶ 28 30 34) A female guidance counselor Joanne Tagle (“Tagle”) interviewed CN (See Id. ¶¶ 62-63 65-66) CN reported to Tagle that she “felt comfortable” around Stevens (Id. ¶ 72) Tagle queried whether CN was in a “sexual relationship” with Stevens (Id. ¶ 73) CN answered “No” (Id. ¶¶ 20 73) Tagle also asked whether the pair had any inappropriate contact including hugging or kissing (Id. ¶¶ 74-75) CN denied any physical contact (Id. ¶¶ 74-75) During later criminal proceedings related to this litigation CN admitted that she had “denied everything” when interviewed by Tagle (Id. ¶ 20)

         Tagle also called CN's father whom she knew through his employment with Children and Youth Services (See Id. ¶ 78; Tagle Dep 59:4-8 Aug 12 2015) CN's father denied the rumor (See Doc 108 ¶¶ 54-55; see also Id. ¶¶ 29-30 34 51) Western Wayne concluded that accusation was “unfounded” and believed “there was no further investigating necessary” based on the responses of CN and her father. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54). It is not entirely clear from the record whether Stevens was still employed at Western Wayne at the time of this investigation or whether his term as assistant band director had expired. It is undisputed that Falonk and Sheehan never spoke to Stevens regarding the “rumor.” (Id. ¶ 23; Sheehan Dep. 66:3-11, Mar. 30, 2015).

         Defendant Lakeland School District (“Lakeland”) received Stevens' standard application for teaching in Pennsylvania public schools on June 29, 2010. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2). Stevens' resume identified his educational background, his prior experience at Western Wayne and Blue Ridge, and four references. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2). The application contained three favorable recommendation letters, including one authored by Stedenfeld in his capacity as Stevens' direct supervisor at Western Wayne. (Doc. 103 ¶ 2; Doc. 129 ¶ 2; see Doc. 106 ¶ 215). The application also contained a mandatory background check and child abuse history clearance, both reflecting no history of child abuse. (Doc. 103-3 at 104-05; see Doc. 103 ¶ 3; Doc. 129 ¶ 3). A member of the Lakeland school board highly recommended Stevens for the job. (Doc. 103 ¶ 5; Doc. 129 ¶ 5). Lakeland did not separately contact Western Wayne for additional information. (Sheehan Dep. 181:22-25). Sheehan testified that, had someone from Lakeland contacted him about Stevens' application, he likely would have disclosed the 2009 rumor. (See Id. at 181:4-182:25).

         Stevens participated in two interviews, the first with defendant Margaret Billings-Jones (“Billings-Jones”), then-superintendent of Lakeland, and the second with Billings-Jones and the school board. (Doc. 103 ¶ 4; Doc. 129 ¶ 4). On July 21, 2010, Lakeland hired Stevens as a secondary music teacher for the 2010-2011 school year. (Doc. 103 ¶ 6; Doc. 129 ¶ 6). Stevens was appointed to the additional post of assistant band director in October of 2010. (See Doc. 103 ¶ 6; Doc. 129 ¶ 6). During his first year at Lakeland, Stevens participated in new teacher induction training conducted by a local intermediate unit. (See Doc. 103 ¶ 8; Doc. 106 ¶ 265; Doc. 129 ¶ 8). This training is mandated under state law and includes instruction on the Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators. (See Doc. 106 ¶ 263).[5]The training program covers, inter alia, appropriate professional conduct and “teacher-student sexual conduct.” (Id.)

         Kobrick first met Stevens at band camp in the summer preceding the 2010-2011 school year, which was her junior year at Lakeland. (See Kobrick Dep. 170:12-171:3, Apr. 1, 2015). Kobrick described her relationship with Stevens during her junior year as a “normal” teacher-student relationship. (Id. at 364:3-5). Kobrick spent much time in the band room both during and after school throughout her junior year due to her music-focused curriculum. (See Doc. 103 ¶ 10; Doc. 129 ¶ 10). During the 2010-2011 school year, in advance of a school trip, Stevens exchanged cell phone numbers with all band members for use in the event of an emergency. (Kobrick Dep. 211:18-213:8).

         Kobrick intended to pursue a career in music education after graduation, and her curriculum and extracurricular activities were focused toward that goal. (See Id. at 68:8-69:9, 90:23-91:4). Kobrick auditioned and was selected for the position of drum major at the end of her junior year (Id. at 24:18-26:13; see also Doc 103 ¶ 11; Doc 106 ¶ 38; Doc 129 ¶ 11) Kobrick's senior year class schedule included music appreciation jazz band and instrumental music courses in addition to her drum major responsibilities (Doc 103 ¶ 15; Doc 129 ¶ 15; see Doc 106 ¶ 40) Kobrick's schedule resulted in her having more contact with Stevens than other members of the band (Doc 103 ¶¶ 13-14; Doc 129 ¶¶ 13-14) At some point during Kobrick's senior year Stevens arranged with a study hall teacher Derrick Shayka (“Shayka”) for Kobrick to spend her study hall period in the band room (Kobrick Dep 194:8-195:19 198:20-200:5) Neither school staff nor Kobrick's parents were concerned that she spent so much of her time in the band room with Stevens given her music-oriented studies (See Doc 103 ¶¶ 18-19 23 27 31 34-36 41-42 64-65 71 95; Doc 106 ¶¶ 37-41 45 95 126 146 166 192-93)

         Stevens began texting Kobrick about topics “outside of school ” including their personal lives sometime in the fall of 2011 (Doc 108 ¶¶ 7-8; Doc 140 ¶¶ 7-8; Kobrick Dep 213:13-24) On December 31 2011 Kobrick texted Stevens and joked that she wished she had someone to share a New Years' Eve kiss with and Stevens replied that he would kiss Kobrick (Kobrick Dep 217:14-218:23) Kobrick was 17 years' old at the time (See Doc 101 ¶ 1; Doc 138 ¶ 1) Stevens was 29 (See Doc 101 ¶ 9; Doc 138 ¶ 9)

         The relationship between Stevens and Kobrick became physical in January of 2012 when Stevens kissed Kobrick on the lips while she was helping him to sort records in the band room (See Doc 106 ¶¶ 99-100; Doc 131 ¶¶ 99-100; Kobrick Dep 222:15-224:21) Kobrick was “shocked” by the kiss but did not leave the room (See Kobrick Dep. 224:22-225:14). Stevens touched Kobrick in “private areas over [her] clothes” during a second incident later that afternoon, and a second kiss and more sexual touching occurred the next day. (Id. at 230:23-236:17, 240:5-17, 243:20-249:1; see also Doc. 106 ¶ 104; Doc. 108 ¶¶ 10-11; Doc. 140 ¶¶ 10-11). Kobrick did not report these incidents to her friends, parents, or Lakeland administrators. (Kobrick Dep. 227:18-228:1, 249:14-19, 269:23-274:14). Kobrick explained that she did not think her mother-a colleague of Stevens at the high school-would believe her because Stevens “was a teacher . . . in a place of authority.” (Id. at 228:11-229:14, 237:3-12). Kobrick testified that, although she was initially shocked at Stevens' conduct, she enjoyed his attention. (Id. at 269:23-272:8).

         The sexual contact between Stevens and Kobrick began occurring regularly and escalated to include other sexual acts, including oral sex. (Id. at 251:24-253:13, 267:21-268:20). Relations took place in the band room-including in Stevens' office, a practice room, and a drum closet-both during and after school. (Id. at 253:14-254:16, 255:25-256:3; see also Doc. 106 ¶¶ 106-07). On several occasions, the acts transpired with other students in the band room: the pair would hide in a drum closet and close the door to avoid discovery. (Kobrick Dep. 255:4-257:8). Sexual contact even occurred on an overnight school trip, when Kobrick snuck out of a room she was sharing with her mother to visit Stevens. (Doc. 106 ¶¶ 116-17; Doc. 131 ¶¶ 116-17). Kobrick testified that the only person who may have known of the relationship was defendant Thomas Kameroski (“Kameroski”), then-principal at Lakeland, who “walked in one time” when Kobrick had her “arms wrapped around [Stevens'] waist.” (Kobrick Dep. 259:18-262:2). As soon as Kameroski entered the room, Kobrick “immediately” dropped her arms. (Id. at 264:1-23). Kobrick believes Kameroski witnessed the embrace. (Id. at 263:17-25, 264:24-265:5).[6] Kameroski denies that this incident occurred. (Doc. 103 ¶¶ 57, 85).

         Kobrick estimated that she and Stevens had sexual contact two or three times weekly through the end of the school year. (Kobrick Dep. 258:2-259:1, 269:20-22). Kobrick graduated from Lakeland on June 1, 2012 and turned 18 one month later. (See Kobrick Dep. 285:9-12, 293:7-17). According to Kobrick, at the time she graduated, “nobody knew what was going on between [Kobrick] and Mr. Stevens other than [Kobrick] and Mr. Stevens.” (Id. at 274:7-14). Kobrick did not disclose the relationship to her friends or family or to any staff while at Lakeland. (Id. at 294:24-296:7). During the course of the relationship and until she left for college, Kobrick thought of Stevens as a “boyfriend.” (Id. at 297:1-16, 394:20-5). At the time, she believed their relationship was consensual. (Id. at 268:21-269:16, 271:25-272:15).

         The relationship continued during the summer after Kobrick's graduation. (Id. at 285:9-17). When Kobrick left for college in mid-August, the physical aspect of the relationship ended, but Kobrick and Stevens exchanged text messages and talked on the phone while she was away. (Id. at 292:14-24, 301:24-302:16, 303:25-304:22). Their relationship devolved when, in September of 2012, Stevens called Kobrick and became pushy asking her to touch herself while on the phone with him. (Id. at 304:23-308:7). Kobrick refused and decided to cease all contact with Stevens. (Id. at 311:13-20). Stevens texted Kobrick a handful of times thereafter, but Kobrick made excuses to avoid talking to him. (Id. at 312:7-313:18).

         When Kobrick returned to Lakeland for a classroom observation in January of 2013, she saw Stevens in the band room behaving flirtatiously with two younger students. (See Id. at 323:20-326:2, 330:10-334:5; see also Doc. 103 ¶ 50; Doc. 129 ¶ 50). Kobrick warned Stevens to “watch himself and watch how he was acting with those girls because he's going to get caught.” (Kobrick Dep. at 334:6-13). She testified that this conversation was her last with Stevens. (See Id. at 335:1-3).

         Kobrick called her mother on February 14, 2013 and disclosed that she had sexual relations with Stevens during her senior year. (Doc. 103 ¶¶ 52-53; Doc. 106 ¶¶ 51, 53). Kobrick's mother contacted the Pennsylvania State Education Association (“PSEA”) for guidance. (Doc. 106 ¶ 54). A PSEA representative advised that the incident should be reported to Billings-Jones. (Id. ¶ 55). Kobrick's mother met with Billings-Jones that afternoon and relayed Kobrick's report. (Doc. 103 ¶ 55; Doc. 106 ¶¶ 57, 59). Billings-Jones immediately notified the district attorney and thereafter contacted Kameroski, the district's counsel, and its solicitor. (See Doc. 103 ¶¶ 55-56; Doc. 106 ¶¶ 59-60, 72-74). Billings-Jones directed Kameroski to ensure that Stevens was not alone with students and to escort him from school property. (See Doc. 103 ¶¶ 56-57; Doc. 106 ¶¶ 69-70). Billings-Jones also contacted the Department of Education to report Kobrick's allegations. (Doc. 106 ¶ 83).

         On February 15, 2013, Kobrick provided a written statement to the district attorney's office detailing the sexual contact with Stevens. (Kobrick Dep. 345:6-10). Stevens was charged with institutional sexual assault, unlawful contact with minor, and corruption of minors and was arrested on February 19, 2013. Commonwealth v. Stevens, No. CP-35-CR-563-2013 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. 2013)[7]; (see also Doc. 103 ¶ 58; Doc. 106 ¶ 85). Lakeland terminated Stevens' employment following his arrest. (Doc. 103 ¶ 60; Doc. 106 ¶ 86). On June 16, 2014, Stevens entered a plea of guilty to one count of corruption of minors. Commonwealth v. Stevens, No. CP-35-CR-563-1023 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. June 16, 2014); (Doc. 101 ¶ 111). The state court sentenced Stevens to a term of 6 to 23 months' imprisonment. Commonwealth v. Stevens, No. CP-35-CR-563-2013 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. Oct. 1, 2014). Prior to this incident, no administrator or staff member at Lakeland had ever received any reports of or otherwise suspected sexual misconduct by Stevens. (See Doc. 103 ¶¶ 20, 25, 30, 32, 39-40, 45, 103; Doc. 106 ¶¶ 108-13, 122-24, 133-35, 137, 139, 145, 153, 155, 157, 159, 161, 164, 167, 170-75, 179-81, 184-89, 194, 196).

         At her mother's recommendation, Kobrick commenced counseling on the day she reported Stevens' conduct to authorities. (Kobrick Dep. 341:16-21, 342:1-19). Kobrick began suffering from anxiety after reporting the relationship and is prescribed Zoloft to manage her symptoms. (See Id. at 362:5-363:1). Kobrick also suffers from nightmares and crying spells, and “get[s] sick to [her] stomach” talking about what happened. (Id. at 378:12-379:10). Kobrick testified that, over the course of two years preceding her deposition, she treated with a counselor while at school, a social worker while at home, and her primary care physician concerning her anxiety and stress. (Id. at 353:6-362:4). Kobrick also testified that she has been unable to work in a classroom and had to change her music education major (See Id. at 90:2-91:18)

         Kobrick commenced this action with the filing of a 14-count complaint (Doc 1) on November 25 2013 Kobrick generally catalogues the defendants into three groups: the Western Wayne defendants (Western Wayne School District Falonk and Sheehan); the Lakeland defendants (Lakeland School District Billings-Jones and Kameroski); and Stevens individually After Rule 12(b)(6) motion practice the following claims remain against the Western Wayne and Lakeland defendants:

• Count 4: a claim against the Lakeland School District Billings-Jones and Kameroski pursuant to 42 USC § 1983 for violation of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment;
• Count 5 a claim against Lakeland School District for discrimination in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act (“Title IX”) 20 USC § 1681(a);
• Count 6: a claim against Western Wayne School District Falonk and Sheehan pursuant to 42 USC § 1983 for violation of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment;
• Count 7: a claim against Lakeland School District for discrimination in violation of Title IX 20 USC § 1681(a); and
• Count 14: a claim against Kameroski and Sheehan for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law

See Kobrick v Stevens No 3:13-CV-2865 2014 WL 4914186 at *9-19 (MD Pa Sept 30 2014) (Mannion J)[8]

         All defendants moved for summary judgment on July 15, 2016. (Docs. 100, 102, 105, 107). The motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition. In view of the distinct theories of liability attending Kobrick's claims against Stevens, the court addresses Stevens' motion (Doc. 101) by separate memorandum of today's date. We analyze the school district and administrator defendants' Rule 56 motions herein.

         II. Legal Standard

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact” and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with “affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, ” in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

         III. Discussion

         Kobrick's claims against the Western Wayne and Lakeland defendants are threefold: first, that the defendants, individually and at the institutional level, failed to protect Kobrick's bodily integrity and thereby violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process; second, that the defendant school districts were deliberately indifferent to known sexual harassment in violation of Title IX; and third, that defendants Kameroski and Sheehan intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon Kobrick. The court addresses each claim seriatim.

         A. Section 1983 Claims

         Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code creates a private cause of action to redress constitutional wrongs committed by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute is not a source of substantive rights, but serves as a mechanism for vindicating rights otherwise protected by federal law. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe,536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002); Kneipp v.Tedder,95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). To state a claim under Section 1983, plaintiffs must show a deprivation of a “right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a person acting under color of state law.” Kneipp, 95 F.3d at 1204 (quoting Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)). The defendants do not ...

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