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Flood v. Sherk

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 30, 2019

MICHAEL FLOOD, JR., et al., Plaintiffs,
DAVID SHERK, et al, Defendants.



         Plaintiffs Michael Flood Jr., Alecia Flood, and minor plaintiff T.F. ("Plaintiffs") sued minor defendants K.S., C.S., E.S., and H.R. (collectively, the "minor Defendants"), as well as each minor Defendant's parent, for defamation. The allegedly defamatory statements arose from two incidents in which the minor Defendants allegedly falsely accused T.F. of sexual assault. T.F. and each of the minor Defendants were students at the Seneca Valley Intermediate High School ("Seneca Valley"), which is part of the Seneca Valley School District (the "School District") in Butler County, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs also sued the School District, alleging that the School District violated the Fourteenth Amendment by applying its student discipline policies and its policies against sexual harassment in a discriminatory manner. Namely, Plaintiffs allege that the School District's decision to punish T.F. based upon the minor Defendants' accusations, coupled with the School District's decision to not punish the minor Defendants for making allegedly false accusations, led to the deprivation of T.F.'s constitutional rights.

         Now before the Court is Defendant Seneca Valley School District's Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. (ECF No. 105). This matter has been fully briefed by the parties, (ECF Nos. 106, 114, 115), and the Court held Oral Argument on this pending Motion on August 20, 2019, (ECF No. 130). The matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court concludes that the Amended Complaint fails to plead that a final policymaker took any action toward T.F. that could represent official policy attributable to the School District. The Court also concludes that the Amended Complaint fails to plead that any final policymaker of the School District had actual or constructive knowledge of prior events of sexual misconduct such that any final policymaker could have been "deliberately indifferent" to the need for additional safeguards against disparate applications of School District policy. Therefore, the School District's Motion to Dismiss will be GRANTED. The Court further concludes that any further amendment would be futile, and thus Count III of the Amended Complaint will be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         The remaining claims in the Amended Complaint, as well as all counterclaims asserted by the Defendants in this case, will be DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. All of these remaining claims and counterclaims are brought under Pennsylvania law by Pennsylvania residents against Pennsylvania residents. The dismissal of the claim against the School District removes the final federal-law cause of action in this case, and thus the Court concludes that the exercise of supplemental jurisdiction over these remaining claims is not warranted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         a. Procedural history

          Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit on October 1, 2018, asserting a litany of claims against a number of defendants. (Compl., ECF No. 1). After extensive motions practice and a hearing on pending motions to dismiss, the Court dismissed all counts of the original Complaint without prejudice. (Mem. Order, ECF No. 94). Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on May 30, 2019, asserting three causes of action: defamation against minor Defendant K.S., defamation against minor Defendants C.S., E.S., and H.R., and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment against the School District pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 99). The minor Defendants each answered the claims against them, (ECF Nos. 108, 109, 111, and 126), and the Sherk and Seaman Defendants asserted counterclaims against Plaintiffs under Pennsylvania law, (ECF Nos. 109, 111). The School District moved to dismiss the claim against it, (ECF No. 105), and that Motion is the subject of this Opinion.

         b. Factual background

          The Court derives the following material allegations from Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 99). At all material times to this dispute, T.F., K.S., C.S., E.S., and H.R., were students at the Seneca Valley Intermediate High School ("Seneca Valley"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 12). T.F. and K.S. were both employed by the Zelienople Community Pool in Butler County, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 2017. (Id. ¶ 13). On or about July, 19, 2017, K.S. advised her supervisor that T.F. had sexually assaulted her at the pool, and T.F. was fired on July 26, 2017. (Id.).

         On or about October 3, 2017, a teacher overheard K.S. telling other students that she had been sexually assaulted by T.F. at the pool over the summer. (Am. Compl. ¶ 15). K.S. was called to a guidance counselor's office, where she accused T.F. of sexual assault. (Id.). The guidance counselor reported the allegation to Childline, a program operated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for reporting child abuse and neglect. (Id.). K.S. was interviewed by a forensic interviewer employed by the Butler County Alliance for Children, and she maintained that T.F. had sexually assaulted her at the pool. (Id.). On October 8, 2017, T.F. was criminally charged with indecent assault and two counts of harassment. (Id. ¶ 16). K.S. complained to administrative personnel at Seneca Valley that T.F. made her feel "uncomfortable" in class because of the incident over the summer at the pool. (Id. ¶ 17). Seneca Valley principal, Dr. Matt Delp, responded by changing T.F.'s class schedule. (Id.). After a Petition Alleging Delinquency was filed, [1] T.F. entered into a consent decree under which he did not admit K.S.'s accusation, but agreed to be supervised by the Butler County Juvenile Probation Department for a six-month period of probation. (Id. ¶ 18).

         On March 23, 2018, T.F. received an invitation from C.S. inviting him to "hang out" with her and her friends. (Am. Compl. ¶ 19). T.F. claims that he visited C.S.'s residence and saw C.S., E.S., and H.R. consuming alcoholic beverages. (Id.). T.F. claims that he did not consume any alcohol and left shortly after arriving. (Id.). On March 26, 2018, other students at Seneca Valley overheard K.S. and C.S. preparing a false statement that C.S. would provide to a Seneca Valley guidance counselor. (Id. ¶ 20). C.S. allegedly told the guidance counselor that T.F. entered her home uninvited on the night of March 23, 2018, and sexually assaulted her. (Id.). Thereafter, C.S., E.S., and H.R., were interviewed by the Butler County Alliance for Children. (Id.). C.S., E.S., and H.R. allegedly repeated their accusations to other Seneca Valley students over the next several days. (Id. ¶¶ 21-27).

         T.F. was criminally charged with indecent assault, forcible compulsion, criminal trespass, and simple assault on April 9, 2018. (Am. Compl. ¶ 29). On April 10, 2018, T.F. was removed from class at Seneca Valley by local police, after having been placed in leg and wrist shackles. (Id. ¶ 30). Following a hearing, T.F. was confined at the Keystone Education Center for nine days. (Id.). On April 12, 2018, T.F. was released on house arrest with an ankle monitor. (Id. ¶ 32). Seneca Valley athletic director Heather Lewis did not permit T.F. to play baseball for Seneca Valley, despite Butler County probation officials informing Mr. and Mrs. Flood that he would be permitted to play baseball. (Id.).

         Shortly after T.F.'s arrest, the Floods began investigating the allegations and incidents and obtained exculpatory evidence. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 33-38). The Floods provided the Butler County District Attorney's Office with this information on May 21, 2018. (Id. ¶ 38). T.F.'s ankle monitor was removed on May 29, 2018, after Assistant District Attorney Russ Karl interviewed E.S. and H.R., who allegedly admitted to lying about the sexual assault. (Id.). On August 30, 2018, all charges against T.F. stemming from the March 23, 2018, incident were dismissed by court order. (Id. ¶ 39). K.S., C.S., E.S., and H.R., were not punished by Seneca Valley in connection with these events. (Id. ¶ 40).

         Plaintiffs attach several School District student conduct policies to their Amended Complaint. (Am. Compl., Exh. 15, Exh. 16, ECF Nos. 99-1, 99-2). These policies were promulgated and approved by the Seneca Valley School District School Board of Directors (the "School Board") and were in operation during all times relevant to this dispute. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 61, 62). Pursuant to these policies, the principal is charged with investigating sexual harassment allegations and doling out discipline. (Id. ¶ 63). Plaintiffs allege that there is only an appeal process for students that are subject to discipline by the principal, but there is no process for an aggrieved student to appeal the principal's decision that discipline is not warranted in a particular case. (Id.).

         Plaintiffs also allege five instances involving sexual misconduct involving others that, in Plaintiffs' view, establish a pattern of discriminatory disciplinary decisions made by Seneca Valley officials on the basis of sex. Paragraphs 64 through 68 of the Amended Complaint read as follows:

64. In December 2016, a male Seneca Valley Intermediate High School student was accused by two girls of touching them inappropriately. One girl admitted that she put the boy's cell phone down her shirt, precipitating his attempt to retrieve it. The principal failed to interview witnesses supporting the boy's claim that he had done nothing wrong to the second girl. The boy was suspended for ten days but the girl who admitted that her accusation was false received no discipline and the boy's claim that the second girl's allegations were false was not investigated.
65. In 2017, multiple Seneca Valley Intermediate High School female students (who upon information and belief were cheerleaders) sexted male students. "The display or distribution of pornography to others, including the use of a cellular telephone" is a Level III Offense pursuant to Policy #218. The female students were not disciplined while male students sexting girls were subjected to discipline.
66. In 2018, Seneca Valley Intermediate High School male student D.H. was accused via an anonymous online complaint of snapping a girl's bra and touching her thigh. He was suspended from school even though there were no witnesses and no proof whatsoever.
67. In 2018, a Seneca Valley High School male student was suspended due to a false sexual harassment allegation made by a female student. The principal failed to investigate the boy's claim that the allegation was false.
68. In 2019, a Seneca Valley Middle School male student was falsely accused of sexually harassing a female student. The girl later admitted that she lied, but she was not disciplined.

         According to Plaintiffs, neither Dr. Delp nor the School District have punished K.S., C.S., E.S., or H.R., despite having knowledge of the alleged falsity of their allegations and despite multiple complaints from the Plaintiffs in this case. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 70-71). The Plaintiffs argue that this evinces a discriminatory application of Seneca Valley's polices against bullying and sexual harassment, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Id. ¶ 71).

         II. STAND ...

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