JUDGE JAMES M. MUNLEY, United States District Court.
Defendants Gordon West and John Kretschmer, Wayne Highlands School District employees, strip searched a male high school student, Plaintiff Ryan Highhouse (hereinafter "plaintiff"), on February 11, 2014 at Honesdale High School, believing he stole $250 from another student during gym class. Plaintiff asserts that his seizure and subsequent strip search were unlawful, and he brings the instant civil rights suit against Defendants Wayne Highlands School District (hereinafter "School District") Gregory Frigoletto, Diane Scarfalloto, John Kretschmer and Gordon West (collectively "defendants"). Before the court for disposition is defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint. For the reasons explained below, we will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion.
This case arises from a high school vice principal and a teacher's strip search of a male student. On February 11, 2014, plaintiff, a sixteen (16) year-old high school student, attended Honesdale High School located in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 12, Am. Compl. (hereinafter "Am. Compl.") ¶¶ 16, 19a). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Gordon West and John Kretschmer, a high school teacher and vice principal, respectively, received a complaint from another student, M.O.
Defendants West and Kretschmer summoned plaintiff, confined him to a room, and questioned him regarding the missing $250.
On January 14, 2016, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint against the defendants. (Doc. 1, Compl.). Count I asserts federal civil rights claims under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (
On April 6, 2016, plaintiff filed an amended complaint, asserting the same causes of action. (Doc. 12). The defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's amended complaint on April 20, 2016. (Doc. 14). The parties have briefed their respective positions and the matter is ripe for disposition.
The court has federal question jurisdiction over this civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter "section 1983").
The defendants filed their motion to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court tests the sufficiency of the complaint's allegations when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. All well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be viewed as true and in the light most favorable to the non-movant to determine whether, "`under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'"
Defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's federal civil rights and punitive damages claims, and plaintiff's claims pursuant to the Pennsylvania Constitution. Plaintiff concedes that his Pennsylvania constitutional claims asserted in Count II should be dismissed. (Doc. 17, Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n at 3-4). Therefore, the court will grant defendants' motion to dismiss Count II as unopposed.
Plaintiff argues, however, that his federal civil rights and punitive damages claims are sufficiently alleged. Accordingly, we will examine the amended complaint to determine if plaintiff has properly pled federal civil rights and punitive damages claims against the defendants.
I. Plaintiff's section 1983 claims
Defendants seek to dismiss all of plaintiff's federal civil rights claims against them. Plaintiff asserts his federal civil
42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus, to establish a claim under section 1983, two criteria must be met. First, the conduct complained of must have been committed by a person acting under color of state law.
The defendants challenge plaintiff's federal civil rights claims on six grounds. First, Defendants Frigoletto and Scarfalloto move to dismiss all civil rights claims against them, arguing they had no personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional conduct. Second, the individual defendants seek the dismissal of all claims against them in their official capacities as duplicative of the claims against the School District. Third, Defendants West and Kretschmer contend their seizure and strip search of plaintiff did not violate plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights. Fourth, defendants argue plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action pursuant to the Fifth Amendment. Fifth, the individual defendants assert qualified immunity shields them from liability pertaining to plaintiff's civil rights claims. Sixth, defendants argue that plaintiff's municipal liability claim should be dismissed because plaintiff failed to identify any policy, practice, or custom that caused plaintiff's injuries.
We will briefly discuss defendants' first two arguments. Defendants Frigoletto and Scarfalloto, the school superintendent and principal, respectively, first move to dismiss all civil rights claims against them, arguing they had no personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional conduct. In section 1983 cases, it is well established that respondeat superior is not a viable theory.
Absent vicarious liability, each government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct. To set forth an action for supervisory liability under section 1983, a "plaintiff must demonstrate that the supervising officials: (1) personally participated in violating a person's rights; (2) directed others to violate a person's rights; or (3) had knowledge of and acquiesced in a subordinate's violation of a person's rights."
As discussed in detail below, plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendants Frigoletto and Scarfalloto participated in violating or directed Defendants West and Kretschmer to violate plaintiff's constitutional rights. Additionally, the complaint fails to state that Frigoletto and Scarfalloto actually knew or acquiesced in West and Kretschmer's alleged unconstitutional conduct. Where a plaintiff merely hypothesizes that an individual defendant may have had knowledge of or personal involvement in the deprivation of his or her rights, individual liability will not follow.
Next, Defendants West and Kretschmer seek the dismissal of all claims against them in their official capacities as duplicative of the claims against the School District. Official capacity actions are redundant where the entity for which the individuals worked is named. "As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity."
Having disposed of the defendants' first two arguments, the court will next address the remainder of defendants' arguments pertaining to plaintiff's Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims against Defendants West and Kretschmer and the School District.
A. Fourth Amendment unlawful search and seizure
Plaintiff claims that Defendants West and Kretschmer subjected him to an unlawful search and seizure in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. These defendants contend that plaintiff has not pled sufficient facts to reasonably infer that they unlawfully searched and seized plaintiff. After a careful review, the court agrees with plaintiff.
The Fourth Amendment protects against state officials conducting unlawful searches and seizures.
To establish a Fourth Amendment unlawful search and seizure claim against a public school, the plaintiff must allege the following two elements: 1) a search and seizure occurred and 2) the search and seizure are unreasonable under the circumstances.
In 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States decided
To establish this new constitutional rule pertaining to school authorities strip searching students, the Supreme Court first addressed the student's subjective expectation of privacy. The Court noted that strip searches objectify students and demean and degrade their inherent human dignity "as embarrassing, frightening, and humiliating."
To justify this kind of intrusion, the Supreme Court held that school officials must have some evidence that the drug or other item they suspect is being hidden by the student is dangerous in terms of its "power or quantity", or must have some reason to suppose that the forbidden item is hidden in a student's underwear.
In the instant matter, plaintiff alleges that Defendants West and Kretschmer lacked both kinds of information prior to conducting a strip search. (Am. Compl. ¶ 20). First, the missing $250 posed no danger, in terms of its power or quantity, to the students or school administrators. (
B. Fifth Amendment Due Process
Count I of plaintiff's amended complaint asserts a Fifth Amendment Due Process claim against Defendants West and Kretschmer. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, that "[n]o person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. CONST. AMEND. V. It is well-established, however, that the Fifth Amendment restricts the actions of federal officials, not state actors.
C. Qualified Immunity
Next, Defendants West and Kretschmer argue that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields them from liability regarding plaintiff's unlawful search and seizure claims. Qualified immunity can serve as a defense to an individual defendant accused of a civil rights violation.
For a qualified immunity analysis, therefore, the court must examine: 1) whether the officials violated a constitutional right and 2) whether that right was clearly established at the time.
We have previously concluded that plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to establish a violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment-namely the right of a student to be free from an unreasonable strip search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, whether Defendants West and Kretschmer are entitled to qualified immunity turns on whether that right was "clearly established" at the time of their actions.
A legal right is "clearly established" where "its contours [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right."
As previously discussed, the Supreme Court of the United States decided
D. Municipal liability
The defendants' final issue pertains to the School District as a defendant in the section 1983 civil rights claims raised in Count I. As explained more fully below, for a municipal entity, such as a school district, to be liable on a civil rights claim, the violation of the plaintiff's civil rights must have been caused by a policy or custom of that municipal entity. Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to allege a proper policy or custom, therefore the School District should be dismissed from Count I. Plaintiff asserts that the complaint properly alleges municipal liability against the School District. After a careful review, we agree with plaintiff.
Plaintiff seeks to hold the School District responsible for the civil rights violation committed by its employees. Municipal employers, such as school districts, however, cannot be held vicariously liable for the constitutional violations committed by their employees.
Once a plaintiff identifies the "policy" at issue, he must demonstrate causation, that is, that the municipality through its policy was the "`moving force' behind the injury."
If no pattern of violations exists, the plaintiff bears a high burden to establish deliberate indifference. He must demonstrate that the violation of federal rights was a highly predictable consequence of the municipality's failure to train its employees regarding how to handle recurring situations.
Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges that prior to the incident, the School District failed to train its employees regarding "the proper exercise of its employees' disciplinary and investigatory powers, including improper detentions and searches of students." (Am. Compl. ¶ 31). The School District also failed to train its employees pertaining to the employees following "established policies, procedures, directives and instructions regarding the search and/or detention of the Plaintiff, and others under [similar] circumstances." (
We find that plaintiff has made sufficient allegations to support causation based upon a failure to train policy. Read in conjunction with plaintiff's factual averments, these allegations may impose municipal liability against the School District. As such, the portion of the motion to dismiss attacking municipal liability will be denied.
II. Punitive Damages
Finally, defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's claim for punitive damages, arguing that punitive damages are not available against the School District or the other defendants in their official capacities. We agree.
Punitive damages are not available against the School District or the individual defendants in their official capacities.
"[A] jury may be permitted to assess punitive damages in an action under [section] 1983 when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others."
In the instant case, plaintiff has sufficiently pled that Defendants West and Kretschmer's actions evinced a reckless or callous indifference to plaintiff's federally protected rights. Specifically, Defendants West and Kretschmer lacked a reasonable suspicion that the missing $250 posed a danger to students or that students steal money and hide it in their underwear. (Am. Compl. ¶ 20). Additionally, Defendants West and Kretschmer summarily dismissed plaintiff's request to have his mother present-even though plaintiff's mother was present in the school building at the same time Defendants West and Kretschmer strip searched plaintiff. (
For the above-stated reasons, the court will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion to dismiss. The court will grant defendants' motion to dismiss Count II, plaintiff's claims under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The court will dismiss Defendants Frigoletto and Scarfalloto from this case as plaintiff failed to allege these defendants participated in violating or directed Defendants West and Kretschmer to violate plaintiff's constitutional rights. The court will also dismiss all claims against Defendants West and Kretschmer in their official capacities as duplicative of plaintiff's claim against the School District. Finally, the court will dismiss plaintiff's Fifth Amendment claim.
Thus, remaining in this case are the following claims and defendants: 1) unlawful search and seizure claim in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against Defendants West and Kretschmer; 2) Fourteenth Amendment municipal liability failure to train claim against the School District; and 3) punitive damages claim against Defendants West and Kretschmer in their individual capacities. An appropriate order follows.