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C.K. v. Wrye

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 7, 2017

C.K., Plaintiff.


          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         Defendants Central Intermediate Unit #10 (“CIU”) and the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District (“POASD”) filed motions for summary judgment against Plaintiff, C.K.[1] For the reasons that follow, their motions are granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. C.K.'s Relationship with Hope Wrye

         In the fall of 2000, C.K. enrolled as a student in Larry Krest's emotional support class at the POASD High School.[2] Defendant Hope Wrye was Mr. Krest's assistant in that class.[3]

         C.K. remained in Mr. Krest's class until February 2001, when he transferred to another school district.[4] A few months later, in November 2001, C.K. transferred back to POASD, where he remained until dropping out completely in October 2002.[5]

         During this period, while still a minor, C.K. began a sexual relationship with Ms. Wrye. Although the parties disagree about when, exactly, the sexual relationship began, it is undisputed that Ms. Wrye eventually became pregnant with C.K.'s child, who was born in September 2003.

         Also during this period, several CIU and POASD officials held a meeting with Ms. Wrye about her personal relationships with students at the school - and possibly about her personal relationship with C.K. The parties and various witnesses give disparate accounts of this meeting, which will be discussed infra.

         B. Procedural History

         C.K. instituted this action by filing a complaint in February 2015, [6] and on October 9, 2015, C.K. filed his Second Amended Complaint, which contained five counts.[7] In Count II, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, C.K. alleged that his “inappropriate” relationship with Ms. Wrye violated his constitutional right to bodily integrity, and that his injuries were the “direct and proximate result” of a policy or custom of CIU and POASD.[8] In Count III, brought under 20 U.S.C. § 1681 (i.e., “Title IX”), C.K. alleged that this relationship “created a sexually hostile educational environment, and unreasonably interfered with C.K.'s educational opportunities.”[9]

         On February 6, 2017, CIU and POASD moved for summary judgment on Counts II and III, arguing that C.K. is unable to produce sufficient evidence to prevail on his claims at trial.


         A. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is granted when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[10] A dispute is “genuine if a reasonable trier-of-fact could find in favor of the non-movant, ” and “material if it could affect the outcome of the case.”[11] To defeat a motion for summary judgment, then, the nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record that would allow a jury to rule in that party's favor.[12] When deciding whether to grant summary judgment, a court should draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[13]

         B. Claim under Title IX

         Section 1681(a) of Title 20 of the United States Code - “Title IX” - states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .” In order to prevail against a school on a sexual harassment claim, a plaintiff needs to show, inter alia, that an “appropriate person” at the school had “actual notice of . . . the teacher's misconduct.”[14] Here, C.K. has failed to produce enough evidence to allow a jury to find that an “appropriate person” at CIU or POASD had “actual notice” of his relationship with Ms. Wrye.

         C.K. bases his argument on this point entirely on the aforementioned meeting between school officials and Ms. Wrye. At the outset, it is unclear who, exactly, attended this meeting. The conflicting evidence shows that, besides Ms. Wrye, it may also have been attended by Charles Young (principal of the POASD High School), [15] Gary Springer (special education supervisor at POASD), [16] Dennis Shanafelt (special education director at CIU), [17] and Kerri Ann Bloom (special education supervisor at CIU).[18] Since, at this stage, this Court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of C.K., it will assume that all these officials were in attendance. Evidence about the exact timing of this meeting is also imprecise, but the Court will assume that it occurred while Ms. Wrye was employed at the school and while C.K. was enrolled there as well.

         More important than attendance and timing of this meeting is what was discussed in it; the officials who were involved in it, however, remember very little about its substance. In his deposition testimony, Mr. Young indicated that “the meting proceeded by bringing [Ms. Wrye] in and informing her of a rumor that had come to light with regard to her providing rides or being in a vehicle with C.K.”[19]Mr. Young has no recollection of discussing anything else regarding Ms. Wrye's relationship with C.K., e.g., whether anyone had observed any romantic or sexual behavior between Ms. Wrye and C.K.[20] Similarly, Mr. Springer recalls that the topic of the meeting was “grapevine hearsay that . . . an aide . . . had been giving students a ride in her personal vehicle after school hours.”[21] Like Mr. Young, he cannot recall hearing anything about a sexual or romantic relationship between Ms. Wrye and C.K.[22] Mr. Shanafelt remembers that “there were rumors that there was an issue between” Ms. Wrye and C.K., or a “rumor that there might be something between” the two of them, but his deposition testimony is no more specific than that.[23] Ms. Bloom remembers a “gossipy report” that “said that [Ms. Wrye] and this student were friends, were something, ” and that the report involved someone “see[ing] this student in [Ms. Wrye's] car . . . and also at her home.”[24] Ms. Bloom recalls “a report . . . of [Ms. Wrye] in an inappropriate relationship with a student, ” but does not remember any facts “which would support a purported inappropriate relationship” between the two.[25]

         Ms. Wrye's testimony contains scarcely any more detail. She remembers someone “from [CIU or POASD] questioning [her] about an inappropriate relationship with a student, ” but cannot remember being questioned about her relationship with C.K.[26] She claims that someone at the meeting “said that they had received an accusation that someone - I don't exactly recall what it was . . . that someone saw me with a student or kissing a student, ”[27] but pressed further, she could not recall whether anyone actually asked if she had kissed a student, ”[28] and did not suspect that the officials were referring to her relationship with C.K.[29]

         Ms. Wrye spoke to Mr. Krest after this meeting.[30] With respect to that conversation, Mr. Krest remembers later telling someone that Ms. Wrye said “the principal accused her of having an affair with one of her students, ”[31] but questioned at his deposition, he simply remembers that Ms. Wrye told him that “an accusation had been made.”[32] He does not remember C.K.'s name being mentioned.[33]

         Ms. Wrye's testimony mentions a “Barb Neff allegation thing.”[34] Barbara Neff was a food services employee at POASD who lived near Ms. Wrye at the time of the underlying events.[35] She claims that C.K. spent “many evenings and weekends” at Ms. Wrye's home and claims to have observed “outwardly inappropriate behavior between” Ms. Wrye and C.K., including “physical contact, kissing, [and] hugging, ” some of which was “passionate.”[36] Although she recalls reporting this behavior to a physical education teacher at the school, she does not recall reporting it to “an authority or to the principal.”[37] None of the officials questioned could recall speaking with Ms. Neff, either.[38] Mr. Krest indicated that Ms. Wrye told him that the accusations against her were made by a “female cafeteria worker, ” but could not identify Ms. Neff's name when prompted.[39]

         Unfortunately for C.K.'s case, no reasonable trier of fact could, on this evidence, find that an appropriate person at either CIU or POASD had actual notice of Ms. Wrye's misconduct. The officials can remember, at most, hearing that Ms. Wrye and C.K. were driving home together after school and possibly visiting each other outside school hours. Mr. Young and Mr. Springer specifically deny remembering that there was any sexual or romantic behavior between Ms. Wrye and C.K.; Ms. Bloom cannot recall any facts “which would support a purported inappropriate relationship” between the two; and Mr. Shanafelt can only remember hearing about “something between” them.

         Before this Court, C.K. points to Ms. Wrye's recollection of being questioned at the meeting about an “inappropriate relationship, ” but Ms. Wrye specifically denied remembering being questioned about her relationship with C.K. She did state that perhaps someone saw her “with a student or kissing a student, ” but also could not actually remember being asked about kissing a student. Mr. Krest's recollections are similarly too vague and amorphous to support a finding that any CIU or POASD official had actual knowledge of any of Ms. Wrye's alleged misconduct. And finally, although it is undisputed that Ms. Neff observed inappropriate behavior and reported it to someone, C.K. does not argue here that the school's physical education teacher was an “appropriate person.” C.K.'s Title IX claim, then, must fail.

         C. Claim Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983[40]

         Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides a means by which individuals may recover for violations of their constitutional rights. The statute, however, does not allow recovery under a respondeat superior theory of liability.[41] Therefore, when a plaintiff attempts to recover from a municipal entity like CIU or POASD, he must show that his injuries were the result of a policy or custom of the municipality.[42] Further, ...

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