CIVIL RIGHTS-TITLE IX-SEXUAL MISBEHAVIOR BY A TEACHER

May 2nd, 2022 by Rieders Travis in Civil Rights

Jane Doe a Fictitious Name v. Loyalsock Township Sch. Dist., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 68665 (M.D. Pa. April 13, 2022) (Brann, J.)  From September 2013 through the summer of 2014, Jane Doe was sexually assaulted by her middle school basketball coach. She was not the first student this coach groomed and then victimized, and, in 2016, police arrested the coach for sexually abusing Jane Doe and the prior victim. The coach pleaded guilty to felony institutional sexual assault and misdemeanor corruption of minors. Jane Doe now seeks damages from her school district (i.e., the coach’s employer), alleging a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 as well as claims sounding in negligence and intentional infliction of emotion distress. The school district moves to dismiss these claims, focusing on the foreseeability of the coach’s abusive conduct. But because Jane Doe adequately pleads that the school district had actual knowledge of the risks the abusive coach posed to female students, most of Jane Doe’s claims will be permitted to proceed.

Construed in a light most favorable to Jane Doe, the principal’s intimation that he took steps to shield Jane Doe and other girls at the Middle School from Vassallo’s suspected sexual abuse reasonably suggests “that he possessed knowledge about the danger she posed to [Jane Doe] and other children”—particularly given Loyalsock’s receipt of the ChildLine report about Vassallo’s prior inappropriate behavior with a female student. Taken together and accepted as true, Jane Doe’s allegations about the 2010 ChildLine report and the observations and admissions by School District staff—in particular, the High School principal— demonstrate than an appropriate person had actual knowledge that Vassallo posed a substantial danger to students.  Jane Doe’s Title IX claim survives at this early stage of the proceedings.  Loyalsock’s motion to dismiss Count I was denied.

The Court agrees with Loyalsock that although Vassallo’s abuse of Jane Doe, “which was outrageous and criminal,” may have occurred in the course of Vassallo’s employment, “it falls outside of the scope of that employment,” as it “was completely divorced from her employer’s goals.” Second, Jane Doe raises the alternative argument that Loyalsock can be held vicariously liable for Vassallo’s abuse because the School District “ratified” Vassallo’s conduct. But under the Restatement (Second) of Agency, “[r]atification is the affirmance by a person of a prior act which did not bind him but which was done or professedly done on his account, whereby the act . . . is given effect as if originally authorized by him.” Jane Doe does not cite, and the Court is not aware of, any legal authority holding a school district vicariously liable for sexual assault by a school employee based on the district’s ratification of the abuse.  Vassallo’s sexually abusive conduct fell outside the scope of her employment and was not ratified by Loyalsock. Because this legal deficiency cannot be remedied by any additional factual pleadings, Jane Doe’s claim for vicarious liability (Count II) is dismissed with prejudice.  The facts alleged demonstrated that Vassallo’s abuse was foreseeable – and arguably foreseen.  Loyalsock’s motion to dismiss Counts III, VI and VII were therefore denied.  To sustain an IIED claim, a plaintiff must establish that the defendant’s tortious conduct was intentional; emotional distress caused by a defendant’s negligence supports only a cause of action for NIED. Because the relevant exception is limited to injuries “caused by the negligent acts of the local agency,” Loyalsock has it right: Jane Doe’s “negligence claims against the school district fall under [this] exception for the PTSCA,” but “the claim for [IIED] does not.” Jane Doe’s IIED claim (Count V) is therefore dismissed with prejudice.  The pleadings here establish that Loyalsock teachers and administrators had reasonable cause to suspect that Jane Doe was the victim of child abuse; however, they fall short of establishing any prior allegations of sexual abuse. Accordingly, to the extent Jane Doe’s negligence per se claim is premised on an underlying violation of 23 Pa. C.S. § 6311, it may proceed. But, as alleged, Count VII cannot rely on 24 P.S. § 2070.1 as a predicate. The harm at issue here is not in dispute: a Loyalsock Middle School basketball coach sexually abused Jane Doe in 2013 and 2014. The primary question before the Court is whether this abuse was foreseeable. Because Jane Doe pleads facts that, taken together and accepted as true, demonstrate the School District’s actual knowledge of the risk of abuse, most of her claims may proceed.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]

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