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J.C. v. Greensburg-Salem School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 15, 2019

J.C., a minor, B.C., a minor, and Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. in their own right, Plaintiffs,
v.
GREENSBURG-SALEM SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          MARILYN J. HORAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On December 19, 2018, Plaintiffs filed the present Complaint against Defendant Greensburg-Salem School District. (ECF No. 1). Plaintiffs bring various claims against the Defendant District under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.;the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and Title IX of the Education Amendments, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. Id. The Defendant District moves to dismiss the Complaint "pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure." (ECF No. 5). The parties provided briefs, (ECF Nos. 6, 10, 13), and argued the Motion before this Court on June 20, 2019.

         For the following reasons, the Defendant District's Motion to Dismiss will be denied in part and moot in part, as the Court finds, sua sponte, that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction over several claims.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff J.C, a fifteen-year-old boy, is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities in math, and a speech and language disorder. (ECF No. 1, at ¶ 23-24). Related to his diagnoses, "J.C. has difficulty with expressive language and communicating needs and feelings, and has social skill deficits." Id. at ¶ 25. These deficits "make it difficult for him to interact with peers," as well as "make him more susceptible to bullying and abuse." Id. Accordingly, J.C. has received behavioral support services since the fall of 2010. Id. at ¶ 26.

         J.C. has a younger brother, Plaintiff B.C., who is twelve years old. Id. at ¶ 27. The boys' parents are Plaintiffs Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. Id. at ¶ 9-10. Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. own their own business, which Mr. R.C. continues to operate. Id. at ¶ 85. Until the events at issue in this case, Mrs. M.C. also worked for the business, assisting in managing the business's finances and operations. Id. at ¶¶ 85-86. The family resides in the Defendant Greensburg-Salem School District, where the boys were enrolled in school from at least 2012 through the end of the 2014-15 school year. Id. at ¶¶ 7-10, 28, 30.

         In the summer of 2012, before J.C. began second grade and before B.C. began kindergarten, J.C. reported to his behavior services consultant (who was not an employee of the Defendant District) that another student had exposed his penis to J.C. on the school bus. Id. at ¶¶ 28, 30-31. That student, named D.H., "was well-known in Defendant District as a behavior and discipline problem." Id. at ¶ 36. After the 2012-13 school year began, J.C. became upset that D.H. "was attempting to put himself in proximity to" B.C., and "J.C. feared D.H. would sexually assault B.C. if J.C. did not protect him." Id. at ¶ 32. Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. notified the school of the incident and their concerns, and ultimately met with the school's principal on September 18, 2012 to discuss the matter. Id. at ¶ 33. At the meeting, the principal assured the parents "that she would share the information with J.C.'s teachers so the students could be appropriately supervised." Id. at¶35. The parents "trusted that the principal would appropriately address the situation" and that the interactions between the students would be monitored going forward. Id. at ¶¶ 34-35, 37.

         At the start of the 2013-14 school year, and unknown to J.C.'s parents, J.C. and D.H. were permitted to sit with or near each other at the back of school bus, where the bus driver could not observe their interactions. Id. at ¶ 38. D.H. repeatedly victimized J.C. by forcing J.C. to touch his penis and by rubbing his penis on J.C. Id. at ¶¶ 39-40. Due to J.C.'s social skills deficits, J.C. did not report these incidents immediately. Id. at ¶ 41. Over time, J.C. began displaying, among other things, self-harm behaviors, inability to regulate his emotions, heightened agitation, and difficulty interacting with his brother. Id. at ¶¶ 42-43. Mrs. M.C. communicated her concerns about J.C.'s behaviors to the Defendant District, which "failed to take any steps to determine the cause of J.C.'s change in behavior." Id. at ¶¶ 44-45.

         J.C. and B.C. continued to ride the bus with D.H. the following school year, and "[b]y early February 2015, the sexual abuse had increased" to include D.H. pulling down J.C.'s pants and touching J.C.'s penis. Id. at ¶¶ 46-47, 63. On February 5, 2015, J.C. reported the abuse to his learning support teacher, but the teacher did not notify Mr. R.C. or Mrs. M.C. Id. at ¶¶ 48-49, Instead, Mrs. M.C. learned of the abuse when J.C. disclosed it to her that afternoon. Id. at ¶ 50. The parents took J.C. to the pediatrician and reported the abuse to the local police in the days that followed J.C.'s disclosure. Id. at ¶¶ 52, 54. The parents also decided to keep J.C. and B.C. home from school until they could be assured of the boys' safety at school and on the school bus. Id. at ¶ 53. They spoke with the principal regarding changes that could be put in place to keep J.C. safe, Id. at ¶ 58. The Defendant District offered to provide J.C. with alternative transportation and proposed changing J.C.'s homeroom assignment, as D.H. was also in that classroom. Id. at ¶ 59. The parents were dissatisfied with the Defendant District's proposal because it meant changes for J.C. rather than for D.H., which J.C. perceived as punishment. Id. at ¶ 60. Additionally, due to his Autism Spectrum Disorder, "J.C. struggled with transitions, and these changes would have a significant impact on him." Id.

         On February 26, 2015, the parents met with the Defendant District and "confirmed that until Defendant completed its formal investigation of the sexual abuse, J.C. and B.C. would not be returning to school." Id. at ¶ 64. The Defendant District failed to complete or finalize its investigation and did not provide a written report to the family. Id. at ¶ 65. The Defendant District also did not revise J.C.'s individualized education plan (IEP) to ensure that J.C. received the support and supervision he needed. Id. at ¶¶ 66, 74. Consequently, Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. kept the boys at home for the rest of the school year. Id. at ¶¶ 67, 76. Although the Defendant District sent letters to the parents in March 2015 regarding the boys' absences, the Defendant District did not meet with the parents about attendance, discuss attendance during J.C.'s IEP meeting in April 2015, or pursue truancy charges against the parents. Id. at ¶¶ 69, 75. In August 2015, Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. enrolled their sons in a cyber charter school, where the boys still attend. Id. at ¶ 77.

         The family contends that as a result of the sexual abuse and the Defendant District's failure to respond appropriately, the family has been, and continues to be, harmed mentally, emotionally, and financially. The family alleges that "J.C. continues to manifest and express anxiety over the February 2015 sexual abuse and the peer involved," and that he "remains fearful of seeing that peer again." Id. at ¶ 82. B.C. has also "developed issues with anger and frustration, and his relationship with J.C. was further strained by these incidents," because he "blames J.C. for his removal from Defendant District." Id. at ¶¶ 83, 91. The family further alleges that "Mrs. M.C. was traumatized by J.C.'s abuse and disclosure, and to date experiences panic attacks." Id., at ¶ 78. She has "required extensive support" in order to care for J.C. and B.C., including in-home tutoring to support the boys in their cyber school program. Id. at ¶¶ 78-80. Additionally, Mrs. M.C. "was unable to work consistently for the family business," which "resulted in tremendous financial burden" on the family. Id. at ¶ 78. Mr. R.C., too, "has experienced significant anxiety and guilt over not having been able to protect J.C." Id. at ¶ 89. Lastly, these incidents have had a negative impact on the parents' marriage, and the family "will require ongoing therapeutic supports to address the traumas they have individually and collectively experienced." Id. at ¶¶ 87, 92.

         As a result of the foregoing, the parents filed an administrative due process complaint with the Office for Dispute Resolution on May 17, 2017. Id. at ¶ 16. They alleged that the Defendant District violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) "by failing to provide J.C. a free, appropriate public education" and by "discriminat[ing] against J.C. on the basis of his disability." (ECF No. 16, at 2; ECF No. 1, at ¶ 16). Related to the due process complaint, the parties "entered into a Tolling Agreement, establishing the filing date for purposes of the timely filing determination as February 17, 2017." (ECF No. 1, at ¶ 17). Following several hearings, the Hearing Officer issued a decision on February 15, 2018, finding that the Defendant District failed in its "free, appropriate public education" (FAPE) obligations to J.C. under the IDEA, from February 17, 2015 through the end of the 2014-15 school year. Id. at ¶ 20. The Hearing Officer also found that the Defendant District had acted with deliberate indifference toward J.C. and thus had discriminated against J.C. in violation of § 504. Id. at ¶ 21. The Hearing Officer ordered the Defendant District to provide six hours of compensatory education per day for each day that the Defendant District was in session from February 17, 2015 through the end of the 2014-15 school year, Id. at ¶ 20. Lastly, the Hearing Officer denied the parents' claim for reimbursement for private professional services they obtained for J.C. as a result of the Defendant District's failure to provide a FAPE, because the parents did not present evidence sufficient to make a determination. (ECF No. 16, at 23-24). Neither the parents nor the Defendant District appealed the Hearing Officer's decision. (ECF No. 1, at ¶ 22).

         On December 19, 2018-ten months after the issuance of the Hearing Officer's decision, and more than three years and ten months after J.C.'s disclosure of continued sexual abuse by D.H.-Plaintiffs, Mr. R.C., Mrs. M.C., J.C, and B.C., filed the present Complaint. (ECF No. 1). In Counts I and II, J.C. asserts violations of § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, respectively, claiming that because the Hearing Officer found the Defendant District acted with deliberate indifference, Plaintiffs are entitled to compensatory damages. Id. at ¶¶ 93-103. In Counts III and IV, Mr. R.C., Mrs. M.C., and B.C. bring associational claims under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, respectively. Id. at ¶¶ 104-21. In Count V and VI, J.C. asserts § 1983 claims for breach of a special custodial relationship and stated-created danger, respectively. Id. at ¶¶ 122-43. In Count VII, Mr. R.C. and Mrs. M.C. also bring a § 1983 claim, asserting a violation of the parents' liberty interest "in the parenthood and companionship of their child," and in "the maintenance and integrity of their family." Id. at ¶¶ 144-148. In Count X, [1] J.C. asserts a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, caused by sex- based harassment. Id., at ¶¶ 149-52. Lastly, in Count XI, Plaintiffs assert a claim for attorneys' fees and costs under § 504 and the ADA. Id. at ¶¶ 153-61.

         The Defendant District moves to dismiss the Complaint "pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(f)[2] of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure," arguing that Counts I and II were not timely filed; that the remaining claims are barred by the applicable statutes of limitations; and that the § 1983 claims are improperly duplicative of the § 504 and ADA claims, as well as legally insufficient. (ECF Nos. 5, 6).

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a court may dismiss a complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Subject matter jurisdiction is the court's "(] Jurisdiction over the nature of the case and the type of relief sought; the extent to which a court can rule on the conduct of persons or the status of things." Subject Matter Jurisdiction, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). In other words, "a court's subject- matter jurisdiction is its power to hear cases." Lightfoot v. Cendant Mortg. Corp., 137 S.Ct. 553, 560 (2017). The plaintiff has the burden of establishing that the court has subject matter jurisdiction, Reg'I Med. Transp., Inc. v. Highmark, Inc., 541 F.Supp.2d 718, 725 (E.D. Pa. 2008), and the defendant can challenge whether the plaintiff has done so, through either a facial challenge or a factual challenge to the complaint. In re Horizon Healthcare Servs. Data Breach Litig, 846 F.3d 625, 632 (3d Cir. 2017).

         In a facial challenge, the court looks to the face of the complaint and accepts as true the facts alleged by the plaintiff. Hartig Drug Co. v. Senju Pharm. Co., 836 F.3d 261, 268 (3d Cir. 2016). If the court cannot conclude, based on face of the complaint, that jurisdictional requirements are met, then the court must dismiss the complaint. In re Horizon Healthcare Servs. Data Breach Litig., 846 F.3d at 633 (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). In a factual challenge, however, the plaintiffs factual allegations are not presumed to be true, and the court "is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case." Hartig Drug Co., 836 F.3d at 268.

         Lastly, even if the defendant does not mount a challenge under Rule 12(b)(1), the court has "an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists." Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006). The court cannot exercise jurisdiction where Congress has not given it, even if all parties assume subject matter jurisdiction exists. Hartig Drag Co., 836 F.3d at 267.

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         In deciding a motion to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must first "accept all factual allegations as true" and "construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Eid v. Thompson, 740 F.3d 118, 122 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotations omitted). The court then must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Id. A complaint is sufficient only when it is facially plausible, meaning that the court is able "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). To be plausible on its face, the complaint must contain more than "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action" and "mere conclusory statements." Id. The court need not "accept unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences." Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013).

         When a court grants a motion to dismiss, the court "must permit a curative amendment unless such an amendment would be inequitable or futile." Great Western Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP,615 F.3d 159, 174 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal quotations omitted). Further amendment is inequitable where there is "undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, [or] unfair prejudice." Grayson v. May view State Hosp.,293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002). Amendment is futile "where an amended complaint 'would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.'" M. U. v. Downingtown ...


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