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C.M. v. Pemberton Township High School

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

June 29, 2017

C.M. and CATHERINE P. FERNANDEZ, on behalf of her minor daughter, C.M., Plaintiffs,



         Plaintiffs C.M., a minor, and her mother, Catherine P. Fernandez (together, the “Plaintiffs”) originally filed this civil rights action and an application to proceed in forma pauperis (“IFP”) on December 19, 2016 [Docket Nos. 1, 1-1]. On January 27, 2017, the Court granted Plaintiffs' IFP application [Docket No. 3]. The Court also screened Plaintiffs' Complaint, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), and issued an Opinion on January 27, 2017 [Docket No. 2] (the “January 2017 Opinion”), dismissing with prejudice all claims by Plaintiffs against individual defendants John Bamber, Ida Smith, and Kathleen Devlin (the “Individual Defendants”), and dismissing without prejudice Plaintiffs' claims against the Pemberton Township High School District (the “School District”) and the Pemberton Township Board of Education (together with the School District, the “Pemberton Defendants”).

         The Court granted Plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint remedying the deficiencies identified in its January 2017 Opinion, within thirty days. Plaintiffs timely requested an extension of the time to amend the pleadings, which this Court granted [Docket Nos. 4, 5]. On March 17, 2017, Plaintiffs submitted an Amended Complaint [Docket No. 6]. Thereafter, on March 30, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a submission entitled “Motion for Punitive Damages” [Docket 7]. The Court now screens Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B) and, for the reasons set forth below, finds that the Amended Complaint shall proceed. Additionally, the Court denies Plaintiffs' Motion for Punitive Damages.


         The underlying facts of this suit are recited in the January 2017 Opinion [Docket No. 2]. The Court incorporates the facts as set forth in the January 2017 Opinion by reference, to the extent those facts have been restated in the Amended Complaint. The Court will nevertheless provide an overview of the relevant factual and procedural background, as well the new allegations included in the Amended Complaint.

         Plaintiff C.M. is a high school student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) enrolled at Pemberton Township High School. Am. Compl. p. 5. Plaintiffs allege that C.M. suffered a series of physical assaults and sexual and gender harassment by other students. Id. pp. 6-8. These alleged incidents include a student tripping and injuring C.M., students punching C.M. in the stomach, multiple unexplained sprains, and at least one occurrence of sexual harassment by another student. Id. p. 6. Plaintiffs allege that after notifying the school officials of these incidents, the Pemberton Defendants did not properly investigate the allegations, exhibiting deliberate indifference to the matters. As a result, Plaintiffs allege that the Pemberton Defendants violated C.M.'s civil rights by depriving her of protection from an unsafe educational environment and the ability to participate in certain educational activities, such as after-school tutoring. Id. pp. 17-20.

         On or about June 25, 2015, Plaintiff Fernandez instituted a complaint against the School District with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”), alleging sex and disability discrimination by the School District against C.M. on the basis of its failure to adequately respond to Plaintiffs' complaints. Id. p. 17.

         The OCR considered the allegations in the context of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131, et seq., and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1681. The OCR determined, as a preliminary matter, that the School District failed to adequately respond to Plaintiffs' allegations, of which the School District was on notice, and that the School District's existing and proposed anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies did not comply with the requirements of Title IX, Section 504, or the ADA. OCR Determination, Am. Compl. pp. 26, 29-32.[1] Following the OCR's determination, the School District agreed to implement a resolution agreement to address these concerns and to conduct a supplemental investigation into the tripping incident, the results of which were to be communicated to Plaintiff Fernandez. Id. p. 29. Plaintiffs contend that the School District has failed to comply with the resolution agreement. Am. Compl. p. 9. The OCR also noted, “[t]he complainant may have the right to file a private suit in federal court whether or not OCR finds a violation.” OCR Determination, Am. Compl. p. 33.

         Plaintiffs commenced the present action against the Pemberton Defendants and three individuals on December 19, 2016, alleging violations of Section 504, the ADA, and Title IX. After reviewing the Complaint, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), on January 27, 2017, the Court dismissed all claims against the Individual Defendants with prejudice and all claims against the Pemberton Defendants without prejudice [Docket Nos. 2, 3]. Plaintiffs amended their pleadings on March 17, 2017 [Docket No. 6].


         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), a district court must screen a complaint filed by plaintiffs who are proceeding in forma pauperis, and dismiss any claim that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.

         A complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual conduct that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679. In other words, “a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to ‘show' such an entitlement with its facts.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009).

         Courts must liberally construe pleadings filed by pro se litigants. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). If a complaint can be remedied by an amendment, a district court may not dismiss the complaint with prejudice, but must permit the amendment. Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002).

         III. ...

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