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Cuvo v. Pocono Mountain School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 23, 2019

ROBERT CUVO and LISA CUVO, on behalf of the minor Child, A.C., Plaintiffs,


          JOSEPH F. SAPORITO, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge

         This is a civil rights action, initiated upon the filing of the complaint in this matter on June 14, 2018. (Doc. 1). An amended complaint was filed as a matter of right on June 19, 2018. (Doc. 4). In their amended complaint, the plaintiffs allege violations of A.C.'s federal civil rights while he was a member of the wrestling team of the defendant, Pocono Mountain School District (the “school district”). The plaintiffs also assert state law claims of negligence and respondeat superior. The defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint (Doc. 14) which we granted in part and denied in part. (Doc. 25; Doc. 26). Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a second amended complaint. (Doc. 27). The defendants have moved to dismiss the second amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 29). This motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. (see Doc. 30; Doc. 33; Doc. 34). For the reasons set forth herein, we will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

         I. Statement of Facts

         The facts set forth in the second amended complaint (Doc. 29) are as follows: A.C. was a home-schooled student who participated as a member of the school district's wrestling team. The team was coached by defendant Josh Haines and his assistant, defendant Michael Hollar. (Doc. 4 ¶¶16-18). Defendant William Hantz was the athletic director for the school district. During the course of a wrestling practice on December 18, 2017, the members of the wrestling team were told by Haines and Hollar that they would not be wrestling during that practice, but rather they would be playing tackle football. (Id. ¶¶19-20). The tackle football was conducted indoors without any protective equipment where Haines and Hollar participated in the activity. (Id. ¶¶21-22, 24). Haines and Hollar instructed the team to engage in tackle football despite that the members of the team had no training in playing tackle football. (Id. ¶ 23). It is alleged that Haines and Hollar engaged in and allowed the activity to continue for approximately twenty minutes where students were getting tackled violently to the ground in ways that it was obvious that injury would occur if the activity was permitted to continue. (Id. ¶25). After the activity was conducted for approximately twenty minutes, A.C. was tackled to the ground by another student who was acting pursuant to the order of Haines and Hollar, and as a result, A.C.'s femur snapped in half causing him excruciating pain along with required surgery and extensive physical therapy. (Id. ¶¶25-32). Also, the plaintiffs have alleged that the tackle football was being played on wrestling mats which are designed to create friction and grip in order to prevent slipping and sliding. (Id. ¶29). When A.C. was tackled, the mat created a grip which did not permit A.C.'s leg to slide and give way therefore causing his femur to snap. (Id. ¶ 30). It is alleged that A.C. is permanently unable to participate in activities which he enjoyed prior to this injury. (Id. ¶33).

         Counts I and II of the second amended complaint assert Fourteenth Amendment claims, “for a state created danger and for the right to bodily integrity.” Count III alleges a §1983 Monell liability claim. Counts IV and V allege state law claims for negligence and respondeat superior respectively. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The plaintiffs do not object to the dismissal of Count II and to the dismissal of punitive damages except against Hollar in his individual capacity. (Doc. 33, at 3-4).

         II. Legal Standards

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for ''failure to state a claim upon which relief is granted.'' Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). ''Under Rule 12(b)(6), a motion to dismiss may be granted only if, accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds the plaintiff's claims lack facial plausibility.'' Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen, Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)). Although the Court must accept the fact allegations in the complaint as true, it is not compelled to accept ''unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'' Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007)). Under Rule12(b)(6), the defendant has the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991); Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 32-33 (3d Cir. 1980); Holocheck v. Luzerne County Head Start, Inc., 385 F.Supp.2d 491, 495 (M.D. Pa. 2005). In deciding the motion, the court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as ''documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.'' Tellab, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007).

         III. Discussion

         The defendants have moved for dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims on a variety of grounds including whether the plaintiffs have failed to allege facts which support a §1983 state created danger or bodily integrity claim; whether the plaintiffs' count III Monell claims against defendants Haines and Hollar should be dismissed; whether the plaintiffs' second amended complaint should be dismissed on the grounds of immunity; whether the plaintiffs' respondeat superior count should be dismissed for failure to state a claim; whether the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages; and whether the plaintiffs Robert Cuvo and Lisa Cuvo, have failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted on their own behalf.

         The plaintiffs have brought this federal civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides in pertinent part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 does not create substantive rights, but instead provides remedies for rights established elsewhere. City of Oklahoma v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 816 (1985). To establish a § 1983 claim, the plaintiff must establish that the defendants, acting under color of state law, deprived the plaintiff of a right secured by the United States Constitution. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir.1995). To avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim, a civil rights complaint must state the conduct, time, place, and persons responsible for the alleged civil rights violations. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 353 (3d Cir. 2005). Here, the plaintiffs advance Fourteenth Amendment claims, based on the events of December 18, 2017, on the basis of a state created danger theory (Count I). The defendants maintain that the plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claims are not cognizable under § 1983.

         A. State-Created Danger (Count I)

         1. Applicable Law

         In Kniepp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1201 (3d Cir. 1996), the Third Circuit first adopted the state created danger theory as a mechanism by which plaintiffs may establish constitutional violations, under Section 1983, if an individual incurs harm as a direct result of certain state actions. In other words, “liability may attach where the state acts to create or enhance a danger that deprives a plaintiff of his or her Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive due process.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 177 (3d Cir. 2013) (emphasis in original).

         In Bright v. Westmoreland County, 443 F.3d 276 (3d Cir. 2006), the Third Circuit articulated the following four-factor test to determine whether a plaintiff has ...

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