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D.M. v. Easton Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017

D.M., a Minor, by TINA, SOTTOSANTI-MACK, Guardian, Petitioner,


          STENGEL, C.J.

         This case involves the alleged assault and battery of a fifth grade student, D.M., in Easton Area School District. Plaintiffs allege D.M. was punched in the chest and jabbed in the cheek with a pencil by E.J., another fifth grade student. (Am. Compl. ¶ ¶ 9, 11.) Plaintiffs assert four claims against E.J.-battery, assault, outrageous conduct causing severe emotional distress, and false imprisonment. (See Am. Compl.) They assert a fifth cause of action against the School District, alleging a violation of the constitutional right to bodily integrity. (Am. Compl. ¶45-52.) The School District moves to dismiss this fifth cause of action. (Doc. No. 3.) Plaintiffs opposed the School District's motion. (Doc. No. 4.)

         I. Background [1]

         During the relevant period, plaintiff D.M. and Defendant E.J. were fifth grade students in the Easton Area School District attending Easton Area Middle School.[2] E.J. had a number of psychological, emotional, and developmental issues, which E.J.'s mother made public when she addressed the United States Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions during a 2012 hearing.[3]

         In January 2014, E.J. punched D.M. and another fifth grade student in their chests when they told E.J. that he should stop teasing a younger student who suffered from autism.[4] A written report memorializing this incident was submitted to school district administrative personnel.[5]

         On April 1, 2014, E.J. demanded that D.M. give him a pencil.[6] After D.M. refused, E.J. seized D.M.'s pencil and jabbed him in the cheek.[7] A written report of the incident was submitted on behalf of D.M.[8]

         II. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs filed an initial complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County, Civil Division on February 17, 2017.[9] On March 27, 2017, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint.[10] Defendant removed this matter to the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441, 1446.[11] Removal was based on count five of the amended complaint, alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[12]This Court has original jurisdiction over the action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         On April 25, 2017, defendant School District moved to dismiss count five for failure to state a claim.[13] On May 10, 2017, plaintiffs filed their brief in opposition.[14]

         III. Standard

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure challenges the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). To sustain this challenge, the factual allegations in the complaint must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Conclusory allegations are insufficient to support a facially plausible claim; the facts asserted must allow 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). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must construe the complaint liberally, accept all factual allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

         When presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true but may disregard legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Second, a district court must determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. In other words, a complaint must do more than allege entitlement to relief. A complaint has to “show” such an entitlement with its facts. Id.; see also Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008). “Where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679; see also Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232-34 (holding that: (1) factual allegations of a complaint must provide notice to the defendant; (2) the complaint must allege facts indicative of the proscribed conduct; and (3) the complaint's “‘[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'”) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555) (alterations in original)).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading need not contain detailed factual allegations, but must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545. A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders “naked assertion[s]” devoid of “further factual enhancement.” Id. at 557.

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiffs' amended complaint asserts that the School District violated D.M.'s constitutional right to bodily integrity under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1988. (Am. Compl. ¶¶45-52.) Plaintiffs allege that D.M. was a member of a discrete class of persons, students at Easton Area Middle School, subjected to potential harm by the School District's actions. (Id. at ¶ 46.) Plaintiffs submit that the School District violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in concealing, tolerating, and trivializing repeated violence by students. Plaintiffs allege the School district intentionally and/or recklessly failed to report repeated incidents of violence and knowingly permitted defendant to remain on school premises. The School District moves to dismiss count five of the amended complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983, [15] a plaintiff must show that the defendant “acting under the color of state law, deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.” Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981) (overruled on other grounds)). Generally, the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause does not impose a duty on the state to protect. DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989). Two exceptions to this general rule are (a) the “special relationship” exception and (b) the “state-created danger” exception. Morse, 132 F.3d at 907. Plaintiffs fail to demonstrate that either exception is applicable. Plaintiffs also fail to demonstrate municipal liability arising from a policy or custom, or lack thereof, under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). For the reasons discussed below, I find that plaintiffs are not entitled to relief under § 1983 and count five of the amended complaint is dismissed.

         A. The “special relationship” exception is inapplicable.

         The special relationship exception allows a plaintiff to recover under § 1983 “when the state enters into a special relationship with a particular citizen . . . [and] fails, under sufficiently culpable circumstances, to protect the health and safety of the citizen to whom it owes an affirmative duty.” D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Tech. Sch., 972 F.2d 1364, 1369 (3d Cir. 1992) (en banc) cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1118 (1996). The Supreme Court has held that the special relationship exception applies to “incarcerated or involuntarily committed citizens.” See Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 167 (3d Cir. 2013). The state's duty to protect arises from “the State's affirmative act of restraining an individual's freedom to act on his own behalf-through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraint of personal liberty, ” which triggers due process protections. Id. at 168 (citing DeShaney. 489 U.S. at 200).

         The Third Circuit has consistently held that a special relationship does not exist between a school and its students. D.R., 972 F.2d at 1369 (reasoning that the state must have exclusive physical custody to establish a special relationship with an individual); Morrow, 719 F.3d at 170 (“[P]ublic schools, as a general matter, do not have a constitutional duty to protect students from private actors.”); Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 807-08 (3d Cir. 2000); see also Veronia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995) (“[W]e do not, of course, suggest 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.”) (dicta) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         D.M.'s compulsory school attendance does not qualify as a “special relationship.” See D.R., 972 F.2d at 1369; Gremo v. Karlin, 363 F.Supp.2d 771, 782 (E.D. Pa. 2005). Whether plaintiffs are entitled to relief under § 1983 therefore turns on whether the “state-created danger” exception applies.

         B. The “state-created danger” exception is inapplicable.

         Pursuant to the “state-created danger” exception, a state actor may be liable under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause where the state authority injures a citizen or renders a citizen “more vulnerable to injury from another source than he or she would have been in the absence of state intervention.” Bright v. Westmoreland Cty., 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Schieber v. City of Philadelphia, 320 F.3d 409, 416 (3d Cir. 2003)).

         A plaintiff attempting to avail himself of the “state-created danger” exception must plead four elements to survive a motion to dismiss:

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, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state's actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; 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.

Henry v. City of Erie, 728 F.3d 275, 282 (3d Cir. 2013). The failure to plead any one of these four elements defeats a plaintiff's state-created danger claim. Gayeman v. Sch. Dist. of the City of Allentown, No. 14-cv-1518, 2016 WL 3014896, at *4 (E.D. Pa. May 26, 2016) (citing Morse, 132 F.3d at 914).

         1. The harm was not foreseeable or fairly direct.

         “Under Third Circuit jurisprudence, a harm is foreseeable when a state actor has actual awareness, based on concrete information, of a risk of harm to an individual or class of individuals such that the actor is on notice that his or her act or failure to act significantly enhances the risk of harm.” Gremo, 363 F.Supp.2d at 784. In Gremo, the plaintiff, a high school student, was attacked by approximately fifteen students when they threw a garment over his head and repeatedly punched and kicked him. Id. at 777-78. Plaintiff argued that he was entitled to relief under § 1983 based on the “state-created danger” exception. The Court held that the harm was foreseeable because “the state actors had actual awareness based on concrete information that was sufficient to amount to notice that the individual defendants' omissions and commissions would enhance the risk of harm to [plaintiff].” Id. at 786. The defendants in Gremo were aware of “repeated actual attacks” and “knew of violent incidents by the same group of students that repeatedly occurred in the same manner, and in the same locations.” Id.

         In contrast, in Gayemen, the court held that the risk of harm was not foreseeable.[16]2016 WL 3014896, at *6. The plaintiff was a student at the high school for only a few days when he was assaulted by four other students. Id. at *2. Although there was some evidence that the defendants were associated with a street gang, testimony from several teachers/administrators demonstrated that they had no knowledge of this fact. Id. at *6. The court held that regardless of potential “gang involvement, ” plaintiff's assault was not foreseeable. Id. There was no prior contact, violence, or threats exchanged between the plaintiff and defendants. Id. Likewise, there was no evidence that ...

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