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J.G. v. Hackettstown Public School District

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 8, 2018

J.G., on behalf of minor K.C. Plaintiff,



         Presently before the Court is Defendants Hackettstown Public School District, Kevin O'Leary, Kathleen Matlack, and Jennifer Spuckes' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff J.G.'s Amended Complaint Pursuant Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims of: (1) hostile environment, contrary to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d; (2) discrimination, contrary to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. § 10:5-1, et. seq.;(3) deprivation of her freedom of speech, contrary to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (4) violation of her constitutional right to free speech under Article I of the New Jersey Constitution. For the reasons discussed herein, Defendants' motion is denied.


         This case involves allegations by a high school student, who claims that she was discriminated against and that her constitutional rights were violated when the Hackettstown Public School District investigated and ultimately suspended the student for bullying.[1] Plaintiff J.G. brings this matter on behalf of her minor daughter, K.C., a 17 year old student at Hackettstown High School. (Amended Complaint at ¶ 7). On March 8, 2017, K.C. was summoned to the office of Defendant Kevin O'Leary, Assistant Principal at Hackettstown High School. (Id. at ¶¶ 13, 17). Apparently, K.C. and other students were overheard having a conversation about guns and violence, which O'Leary wished to address. (Id.). O'Leary asked K.C. whether the conversation concerned the Black Lives Movement; when she told him that she was speaking about confrontations between police and African Americans, O'Leary responded, "all lives matter." (Id. at ¶¶ 19-21). According to K.C, she understood this to mean that she was not to discuss the Black Lives Movement while in school. (Id. at ¶ 25). Apparently, during this conversation O'Leary also remarked that some individuals are lucky to have light-colored skin and pass as Caucasian, which K.C. took as an insult, being that she is bi-racial. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-24). However, K.C. was not disciplined for this incident.

         In any event, five days later, March 13, 2017, K.C. again drew the administrator's attention, this time for uttering a purportedly offensive slur. During K.C.'s English class, students were reading the play, "Blood Brothers," which has a scene where a corrupt police officer treats two suspects differently based on their economic status. (Id. at ¶ 26). As students were picking roles to play, K.C. volunteered to play the police officer, referring to the officer as "the pig." (Id. at ¶ 27). Her English Teacher, Defendant Matlack, reprimanded her for her choice of word and K.C. apologized. (Id. at ¶ 28). This being said, J.G. received a phone call a half hour later from Principal Matthew Scanlon, who explained to her that K.C. was the subject of a Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (hereinafter, "HIB") investigation, pursuant N.J.S.A. § 18A:37-13, et seq.. (Id. at ¶ 29). The basis of this investigation was K.C.'s use of the word "pig," which may have offended a student in the class whose father is a police officer. (Id. at ¶¶ 30-31). However, Plaintiff avers that the student was not present when she made the purportedly offensive slur. (Id. at ¶ 31).

         Later that day, the school conducted an HIB investigation, which was attended by K.C., Defendant Jennifer Spuckes, an HIB Investigation specialist, and Defendant O'Leary. (Id. at ¶ 36). K.C. apparently recorded this meeting[2]. In any event, during the meeting, K.C. expressed to Defendants Spuckes and O'Leary that use of the word "pig" did not reflect her view of law enforcement and claimed that the classmate who may have been offended by the statement was not present when she uttered the word. (Id. at ¶¶ 39, 41). According to the Complaint, "Mr. O'Leary and Ms. Spuckes analogized the use of the term 'pig' to the use of the term 'nigger' and, later, the term 'fag.'" (Id. at ¶ 42). Apparently, both of them asked her how she would feel if someone called her by either name.[3] (Id. at ¶¶ 43-44). Despite objecting to these slurs, Defendants O'Leary and Spuckes continued to utter them in front of her. (Id. at ¶ 45). The two also criticized K.C. for continuing to discuss the Black Lives Movement, which they compared to someone overhearing a sexually degrading conversation between two teachers. (Id. at ¶ 48).

         Following the investigation, Defendant O'Leary notified J.G. that they concluded that K.C. had committed an "unintentional HIB offense" and would serve a one day in-school suspension. (Id. at ¶ 52). These findings were later brought to the Board of Education on March 22, 2017; however, the Complaint does not state what findings or actions were taken thereafter. (Id. at ¶ 56). This being said, the parties do not dispute that Plaintiff did not appeal the initial HIB violation finding.

         Legal Standards

         I. Rule 12(b)(1) Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) a claim can be dismissed for "lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter." This motion to dismiss may be asserted at any time in a case. In re Kaiser Group Int 7, Inc., 399 F.3d 558, 565 (3d Cir. 2005). In a motion to dismiss based on subject matter jurisdiction, "the standard ... is much more demanding [than the standard under 12(b)(6)]." 'When subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff must bear the burden of persuasion.'" Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

         If the defendant's attack is facial, the court may take all allegations in the complaint as true and "may dismiss the complaint only if it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff will not be able to assert a colorable claim of subject matter jurisdiction." Liu v. Gonzales, No. 07-1797, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74611, at *7 (D.N.J. Oct. 5, 2007). The standard of review differs substantially when the challenge is factual. Then, there is no presumption of truthfulness to a plaintiffs claims in the complaint. RLR Invs., LLC v. Town of Kearny, No. 06-4257, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44703, at *8 (D.N.J. June 20, 2007) (citations omitted).

         Thus, consideration of the motion does not have to be limited; conflicting evidence may be considered so that the court can decide factual issues that may bear on its jurisdiction. Id. Furthermore, "[w]hen resolving a factual challenge, the court may consult materials outside the pleadings, and the burden of proving jurisdiction rests with the plaintiff." Med. Soc'y of N.J. v. Herr, 191 F.Supp.2d 574, 578 (D.N.J. 2002) (citing GouldElecs. Inc. v. U.S., 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000)). However, "[w]here an attack on jurisdiction implicates the merits of plaintiff s [f]ederal cause of action, the district court's role in judging the facts may be more limited." RLR Invs., LLC, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44703, at *9 (internal citations omitted).

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Failure to State a Claim

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court is required to accept as true all allegations in the Complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and to view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman,38 F.3d 1380, 1384 (3d Cir. 1994). "To survive a motion to dismiss, 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 Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). While a court will accept well-pleaded allegations as true for the purposes of the motion, it will not accept bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences, or sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; see also Morse v. ...

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