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M.C. v. Hollis Independent School District No. 66 of Harmon County

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 23, 2017

M.C., a minor, by and through his father and next friend, TYRONE CAMPBELL, and TYRONE CAMPBELL, Plaintiffs,
v.
HOLLIS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 66 OF HARMON COUNTY, OKLAHOMA a/k/a HOLLIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBIN J. CAUTHRON United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs filed the present action asserting claims against Hollis Independent School District No. 66 of Harmon County, Oklahoma (“District”), Hollis Public School Board of Education (“Board”) (collectively, the “School”), Superintendent Jennifer McQueen, Principal Marty Webb, and a former teacher, Jennifer Caswell. Plaintiffs allege the District violated Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), and assert a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violations of a minor's Fourteenth Amendment rights against the District, Board, McQueen, and Webb. Plaintiffs assert a negligence per se claim against McQueen and Webb. Plaintiffs also allege claims of enticement in violation of 76 Okla. Stat. § 8, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), and a § 1983 violation against Defendant Caswell.

         Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 55) and Plaintiffs have responded. Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. No. 56) against Defendant Caswell. Although the time to respond has passed, Defendant Caswell has neither filed a response nor sought additional time to respond. Both motions are now at issue and will be addressed herein.

         I. BACKGROUND

         During the 2013-14 school year, Defendant Jennifer Caswell[1] entered into a sexual relationship with M.C., a minor and eighth grade student. Caswell was a teacher employed by the School. On March 11, 2014, a parent informed Principal Marty Webb that he had information regarding a sexual relationship between Caswell and M.C. According to the parent, M.C. admitted to having a sexual encounter with Caswell. Principal Webb and Assistant Principal Jared Robinson interviewed M.C. the same day. M.C. denied the allegations. M.C. repeated the denial after M.C.'s father, Plaintiff Tyrone Campbell, arrived at the school. Principal Webb and Assistant Principal Robinson interviewed other students who had supposedly also heard rumors of the relationship. It is disputed whether the parties concluded the rumors were false.

         After the interviews, M.C. was removed from Caswell's class and spent the class period in the “in-school detention” room. M.C. returned to Caswell's classroom after about one week. On March 28, 2014, students reported to District officials that M.C. was spending time in Caswell's classroom outside of his assigned class time and the pair were whispering and giggling together. Caswell and M.C. denied these allegations when interviewed and the District issued Caswell a written reprimand regarding the report.

         On April 4, 2014, M.C. was participating in an after-school event when supervisors noticed he was not at his assigned post. The supervisor found M.C. and Caswell in her dark classroom. District officials were contacted the same day and after surveillance video confirmed the allegations, District Superintendent Jennifer McQueen was prepared to place Caswell on administrative leave while the School conducted an investigation. Rather than take leave, Caswell resigned on April 7, 2014. Beginning April 7, Hollis police conducted an investigation where both Caswell and M.C. continued to deny the sexual relationship.

         On April 10, 2014, Principal Webb received reports that M.C. and Caswell were seen driving together around town in the evenings and Caswell bought M.C. chewing tobacco from a liquor store. Principal Webb informed Campbell of this fact and Campbell was aware Caswell had been visiting M.C. at his house. After the conclusion of the school year in May, M.C. went to his mother's home in Mississippi where Caswell was later arrested after she traveled to Mississippi and took M.C. to a motel.

         II. DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         A. Standard of Review

         Defendants moved for summary judgment on the Title IX, § 1983, negligence, and negligence per se claims. The standard for summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment may only be granted if the evidence of record shows “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of material fact requiring judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A fact is material if it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). If the movant carries this initial burden, the nonmovant must then set forth specific facts outside the pleadings and admissible into evidence which would convince a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmovant. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). All facts and reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         B. Title IX

         The District argues for favorable judgment because Plaintiffs cannot prove a claim for relief under Title IX. Title IX, or 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), provides that “[n]o person . . . shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Id. To be successful with the claim, Plaintiffs must show the District “(1) had actual knowledge of, and (2) was deliberately indifferent to (3) harassment that was so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it (4) deprived the victim of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school.” Murrell v. Sch. Dist. No. 1, Denver, Colo., 186 F.3d 1238, 1246 (10th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

         The actual knowledge element has been described by the Tenth Circuit as requiring the school to have “actual knowledge of a substantial risk of abuse to students based on prior complaints by other students.” Escue v. N. Okla. Coll., 450 F.3d 1146, 1154 (10th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The prior complaints do not need to be “clearly credible” because the school official will come to know “that a school employee is a substantial risk to sexually abuse children.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). For example, one complaint of a teacher making inappropriate comments is “plainly insufficient” to provide notice of a sexual relationship between a teacher and student. Id. (citation omitted). However, knowledge is likely achieved some time before the school district “receives a clearly credible report of sexual abuse.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         On March 11, a parent who spent substantial amounts of time with M.C. reported to District officials that M.C. admitted to having a sexual relationship with Caswell. The parent stated he was concerned and thought M.C. was telling the truth. When questioned by District officials, M.C. denied any inappropriate contact with Caswell. Even if District officials concluded the rumors were false on March 11, their suspicion should have been heightened at the time the second report of misconduct was received. Certainly one report from a parent who questioned M.C., received an admission, and thought it was truthful, and an additional report from students that M.C. was spending time outside of class with Caswell and the pair were whispering and giggling is beyond a “plainly insufficient” report and approaching a “clearly credible report of sexual abuse.”

         Considering the two reports cumulatively, the Court finds there is a dispute of material fact regarding what knowledge the District officials obtained, and when. In resolving the disputed facts, a reasonable jury could conclude the District had actual knowledge of a substantial risk that Caswell was sexually abusing M.C. See J.M. ex rel. Morris v. Hilldale Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 1-29, 397 F. App'x 445, 452-53 (10th Cir. 2010) (concluding a reasonable jury could find a student report of inappropriate conduct gave the school district actual knowledge) (unpublished); Roof v. Newcastle Pub. Sch. Dist., No. 1- 1 of McClain Cty., No. CIV-14-1123-HE, 2016 WL 502076, at *4 (W.D. Okla. Feb. 8, 2016) (finding that a second allegation of inappropriate sexual conduct between student and teacher gave the district arguable actual notice). Defendants' Motion fails concerning the first element, and thus the Motion is denied on the Title IX claim.

         C. § 1983

         Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, stating the District, the Board, McQueen, and Webb violated M.C.'s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process and equal protection rights. Defendants argue summary judgment should be granted because Plaintiffs failed to show the School violated either constitutionally protected right.

         In violating M.C.'s substantive due process rights, Plaintiffs argue the Defendants should be liable under the danger creation theory. Generally, § 1983 provides that state entities may be liable only for their own acts, and the acts of third parties are excluded. See Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1251 (10th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). An exception to the general rule allows a plaintiff to prevail “only when a state actor affirmatively acts to create, or increases a plaintiff's vulnerability to, or danger from ...


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