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Tessa Graham v. David Vanden Huevel

March 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pisano, District Judge.



Presently before the Court is a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim filed by Defendants Christina Steffner ("Steffner"), Bryan Purzak ("Purzak"), Joanne Calabro ("Calabro"), and Robert Gratz ("Gratz") (collectively, the "Administrators") and Defendant Hackettstown Public School District (the "District"), pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff Tessa Graham opposes the motion. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Plaintiff fails to state a claim under all Counts alleged against the District and the Administrators, and thus the motion to dismiss will be granted.

I. Background

On March 10, 2010, Plaintiff commenced this action against the District, former District teacher David Vanden Huevel ("Vanden Huevel"), former District Principals Steffner and Purzak, former District Superintendent Calabro, current District Superintendent Gratz, and John Does and ABC fictitious entities. In her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that when she began attending Hackettstown Public High School in 2004 at the age of 14, Vanden Huevel, then a 45-year-old tenured art teacher at the High School, sought a relationship with Plaintiff that was beyond the typical student-teacher relationship. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that DVH "made inappropriate comments to, sexual advances upon and/or touching of, the Plaintiff during school hours and upon school grounds." (Compl. ¶12.) Nowhere in the Complaint does Plaintiff state if or when she complained to anyone regarding Vanden Huevel's actions. According to Plaintiff, the Warren County Prosecutor's Office began an investigation of Vanden Huevel sometime prior to December 2006 that failed to result in a charge of statutory sexual abuse, but that nonetheless determined that his contact with Plaintiff exceeded an acceptable student-teacher relationship. Vanden Huevel's employment as a teacher in the District ended in December 2006.*fn1

Plaintiff also contends that she suffered from depression throughout her high school career as a direct result of Vanden Huevel's conduct. After the criminal investigation, Plaintiff began to experience severe seizure-like anxiety attacks that ultimately resulted in hospitalization and her withdrawal from Hackettstown High School. Plaintiff was admitted to a few different hospitals beginning February 28, 2007 to treat "panic/anxiety disorder, major depression, borderline personality traits, and superficial cutting," as well as "anorexia with purging," before finally being discharged on May 10, 2007. (Compl. ¶13.) In April 2007, Plaintiff began therapy sessions with her family, in which Vanden Huevel's conduct was addressed.

The District and the Administrators filed the instant motion on June 25, 2010, seeking the dismissal of the Complaint against them on the grounds that Vanden Huevel was a private actor who pursued his own goals in a way that could not have been detected or subject to control by his employer. The Court heard oral argument on February 22, 2011.

II. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court may grant a motion to dismiss if the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Supreme Court set forth the standard for addressing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 562, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). The Twombly Court stated that, "[w]hile a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, ... a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do[.]" Id. at 555 (internal citations omitted). Therefore, for a complaint to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact) ..." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations and footnote omitted).

More recently, the Supreme Court has emphasized that, when assessing the sufficiency of a civil complaint, a court must distinguish factual contentions and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). A complaint will be dismissed unless it "contain[s] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‗state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). This "plausibility" determination will be "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009) (citations omitted).

III. Discussion

A. Section 1983 Claims

In Counts 8, 11, 14, 17, and 20 of her Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the District and the Administrators are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating her constitutional rights under color of state law. Plaintiff sets forth three theories of liability under Section 1983: (1) it was the "custom, policy and practice" of the District and the Administrators not to provide education, instruction, training, or supervision on proper conduct in the classroom to teachers such as Vanden Huevel; (2) the District and the Administrators allowed the inappropriate conduct of a male teacher toward female adolescent students and ratified such conduct as a matter of custom, policy, and practice; and (3) District and the Administrators violated her right to bodily integrity under the substantive due process portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Governmental entities may be sued under Section 1983 for depriving someone of his or her constitutional rights. Marran v. Marran, 376 F.3d 143, 155 (3d Cir. 2004). They may only be held liable, however, where the actions of its agents or employees are effected pursuant to some policy, practice, or custom of the entity. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 2036 (1978).

1. Failure to Instruct

Plaintiff claims that it was the "custom, policy and practice" of the District and the Administrators not to provide education, instruction, training, or supervision on proper conduct in the classroom to teachers such as Vanden Huevel. In City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 109 S. Ct. 1197 (1989), the Supreme Court explained that "Monell's rule that a [governmental entity] is not liable under § 1983 unless a . . . policy causes a constitutional deprivation will not be satisfied by merely alleging that the existing training program for a class of employees . . . represents a policy for which the [governmental entity] is responsible." 489 U.S. at 389. Instead, an entity's failure to train its employees in a relevant respect can result in liability "only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [employees] come into contact." Id. at 388-89. The Court further explained that the failure to train or instruct must reflect "a ‗deliberate' or ‗conscious' choice by a[n entity]-a ‗policy' as defined by our prior cases-[to be held] liable for such a failure under § 1983." Id. at 389.

In Canton, the Supreme Court stated that a governmental entity can be liable for failure to instruct only when "the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the [entity] can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need." 489 U.S. at 390. As an example, the Court suggested that city policymakers must train its police force in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force because they know that officers will arrest fleeing felons and they have armed the officers to accomplish that task. Id. at 390 n.10. In this case, the need for training is not so obvious. Providing no guidance to a teacher as to what constitutes sexual abuse, as Plaintiff has alleged, cannot fairly be characterized as likely to result in sexual abuse. In fact, "[t]he offending conduct here . . . is the sort of behavior that is so obviously wrong and contrary to right that an ordinary person could recognize it as inappropriate even without any additional training." Young v. Pleasant Valley School Dist., 2010 WL 55711, *10 (M.D. Pa. 2010); see Kline v. Mansfield, 255 Fed. Appx. 624, 639 (3d Cir. 2007) (finding that "because not committing the crime of sexually abusing a child is obvious, the failure of [the school] to train its employees to spot signs of sexual abuse . ...

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