D.R. by L.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, 91-1136

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Citation972 F.2d 1364
Docket NumberNo. 91-1137,Nos. 91-1136,No. 91-1136,No. 22,C,91-1137,91-1136,22,s. 91-1136
Parties, 76 Ed. Law Rep. 947 D.R., a Minor Child, by Her Parent and Natural Guardian, L.R., and L.R., Individually and in Her Own Right, Appellants,v. MIDDLE BUCKS AREA VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL, William Goode, James C. Bazzel, Martha Richino, Susan Peters, Bucks County Intermediate Unithristina Tuttle, Penn Ridge School District, Charles Fambro, Fred Freeman, James A. Gallagher, Brian Miller, Marc R. Ratcliffe, James M. Sperling, Lester Sutphin. L.H., Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Appellant,v. MIDDLE BUCKS AREA VOCATIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL, and William Goode and James C. Bazzel and Martha Richino and Susan Peters and James A. Gallagher and Brian Miller and Marc R. Ratcliffe and James M. Sperling and Lester Sutphin.
Decision Date11 August 1992

Before: SLOVITER, Chief Judge, GREENBERG and SEITZ, Circuit Judges.

Reargued In Banc May 6, 1992



SEITZ, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents us with a classic case of constitutional line drawing in a most excruciating factual context.

Plaintiffs, D.R., a minor child, by her parent, L.R. and L.H., both public high school students, as well as L.R. in her own right, 1 appeal the decision and order of the district court dismissing their amended complaints against Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School ("Middle Bucks"), Penn Ridge School District ("Penn Ridge"), Bucks County Intermediate Unit No. 22 ("Unit No. 22"), and individually named teachers and officials 2 ("school defendants"). Claims were also asserted against seven male students. Only two students, James Gallagher and Marc Ratcliffe, appeared, but because all seven were allegedly involved in the wrongful conduct we shall include all of them in referring to "student defendants." 3 Future references to "plaintiffs" will apply to D.R., by her parent, and L.H. unless otherwise noted.

The amended complaints pleaded claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3) (1988), as well as state law claims. Federal jurisdiction was invoked under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1341 and 1343 (1988), 4 and pendent jurisdiction over the state law claims. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988).


Plaintiffs were two female students in a graphic arts class at Middle Bucks. 5 They allege that while attending the arts class during the 1989-90 school year, several male students in the same class physically, verbally and sexually molested them. This conduct took place primarily in the unisex bathroom and a darkroom, both of which were part of the graphic arts classroom.

Plaintiff, D.R., avers that the student defendants grabbed her and either forced or carried her into the bathroom or darkroom on a regular basis and physically abused her. She asserts that such conduct took place on an average of two to four times per week from January to May of 1990. Plaintiff, L.H., claims that some of the student defendants molested her two to three times per week from December 1989 to May of 1990. Plaintiffs allege that the sexual molestation consisted of offensive touching of their breasts and genitalia, sodomization and forced acts of fellatio. The student defendants also allegedly forced plaintiffs to watch similar acts performed on other students.

Defendant Susan Peters was the student teacher in the graphic arts classroom during the time of the alleged conduct in question. Plaintiffs do not claim to have informed Peters of the molestation but assert that Peters was or should have been in the classroom during the time of the acts complained of and either heard or should have heard the incidents taking place. Peters admittedly experienced difficulty in controlling the class generally. She allegedly was exposed to a variety of misconduct by the student defendants including obscene language and gestures, and physically, but not sexually, offensive touching of females including herself in the main classroom.

Plaintiff, L.H., avers that in December of 1988, she told defendant Bazzel, Assistant Director of Middle Bucks, that one student defendant was trying to force her into the bathroom for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct. She alleges that Bazzel did not take action to correct the situation. Plaintiffs also allege that other individual school defendants had knowledge of the severe non-sexual misconduct occurring in the classroom.

Based on the foregoing allegations, the amended complaints assert violations of plaintiffs' civil rights by the school and student defendants under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3) as well as Pennsylvania law.


On the basis of the record before it, the district court found that defendants Goode, Peters, and Bazzel were entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983. D.R., L.R. and L.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, No. 90-03018 and 90-03060, 1991 WL 14082 at * 9-10, 1991 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 1292 at * 17-18 (E.D.Pa. Feb. 1, 1991). Rather than dismissing on that basis as to those defendants, however, the district court granted defendants' motions 6 to dismiss both complaints under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim.

The district court first held that a special custodial relationship between plaintiffs and the school defendants was established by virtue of the state's compulsory attendance and truancy laws, Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 24 §§ 13-1326-13-1330, 13-1333 and 13-1343 (1962 & Supp.1991), thus creating an affirmative constitutional duty on the part of the school defendants to protect plaintiffs from the types of acts committed by the student defendants. D.R., L.R. and L.R., 1991 WL 14082 at * 6, 1991 U.S.Dist. LEXIS 1292 at

Page 27

The court found that the existence of the affirmative duty to act was complemented by Pennsylvania law which gives school officials in loco parentis standing to take any action necessary to prevent disciplinary infractions and educationally disruptive behavior. Pa.Stat.Ann. tit. 24 § 13-1317 (1962 & Supp.1991). Nevertheless, the court concluded that the amended complaints failed to allege sufficient knowledge of the student misconduct on the part of the school defendants to charge them with the requisite reckless indifference to plaintiffs' rights to support a § 1983 claim and, therefore, dismissed the complaints.


Plaintiffs' amended complaints allege that the school defendants had knowledge of the physical, verbal and sexual abuse committed by the student defendants and maintained a policy of laxity toward such conduct. They assert that the district court impermissibly narrowed their allegations by focusing solely on the issue of the school defendants' awareness of the sexual misconduct. Thus, as a consequence, they argue that the district court erred in granting the Rule 12(b)(6) motions, given the more expansive allegations and theories presented in their amended complaints.

The school defendants respond that the district court's dismissal can be affirmed by this court without reaching the issue of the sufficiency of the factual allegations as to their knowledge of the conduct of the student defendants. They assert that, contrary to the district court's ruling, no special relationship of constitutional proportions existed between plaintiffs and the school defendants. Thus, they say that this § 1983 action is not maintainable. We turn to that important and complex issue in this most wrenching factual setting.

A. Standard of Review

This court's scope of review of the district court's dismissal for failure to state a claim is plenary. Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir.1990). We are required to "accept as true the facts alleged in the amended complaints and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom." Id. Construing the pleadings in favor of plaintiffs then, we must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663, 665-66 (3d Cir.1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1065, 109 S.Ct. 1338, 103 L.Ed.2d 808 (1989).

B. Legal Sufficiency of the Complaints under § 1983

Generally, the first issue in a § 1983 case is whether a plaintiff sufficiently alleges a deprivation of any right secured by the constitution. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 140, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 2692, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979). When a defendant asserts the affirmative defense of qualified immunity, however, the court must determine as a threshold matter whether the defendant is entitled to that defense. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Thus, we must begin by addressing the immunity defense 7 asserted by defendants Goode, Peters and Bazzel. 8

Officials exercising discretionary powers are "shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their...

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