Doe v. Avon Old Farms Sch.

Decision Date31 March 2023
Docket Number3:21-cv-748 (JAM)
PartiesJANE DOE et al., Plaintiffs, v. AVON OLD FARMS SCHOOL, INC. et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut

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JANE DOE et al., Plaintiffs,
v.

AVON OLD FARMS SCHOOL, INC. et al., Defendants.

No. 3:21-cv-748 (JAM)

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 31, 2023


OMNIBUS RULING ON PENDING MOTIONS

JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

In this lawsuit, two young women and their mother allege, among other things, a vast conspiracy by a private preparatory school, its employees, local police officers, and the world's largest retail company to cover up an alleged sexual assault. The plaintiffs bring an astounding 52 legal claims under several federal and state laws against ten defendants in a discursive, disorganized, and at times incomprehensible complaint-a complaint larded with more than 1,000 paragraphs spanning nearly 200 pages and in open mockery of the basic requirement of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

If that were not enough, the claims keep changing. This case is on its fifth amended complaint, and the plaintiffs have-unsurprisingly at this point-moved to file a sixth amended complaint. For the reasons set forth below, I will dismiss most of the plaintiffs' claims, deny their motion to file a sixth amended complaint, and impose Rule 11 sanctions for a particularly scurrilous allegation that plaintiffs' counsel has advanced against one of the defendants.

Background

Richard Bontatibus and Erica LuBonta Bontatibus (“LuBonta”) bring this case on behalf of their minor daughters, Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2.[1] LuBonta also brings claims against several

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defendants based on her former employment with Avon Old Farms-the preparatory school at the center of this lawsuit-a private day and residential all-boys high school located in Avon, Connecticut.[2]

Although the plaintiffs level most of their allegations against Avon Old Farms, they sue nine other defendants.[3] Two of these defendants work at the school: James Detora and Robert Whitty serve as the current Headmaster and Associate Head of School, respectively.[4] The next two defendants include John Doe, the alleged perpetrator of a sexual assault against Jane Doe, as well as John Doe's mother, who the plaintiffs and parties refer to by her initials, G.G.[5] A third group of defendants includes the Town of Avon and three local police officers who supervised or investigated Jane Doe 1's report of sexual assault: Chief of Police James Rio, Lieutenant Rodney Williams, and Sergeant Jeffrey Gilbert.[6] The final defendant is the retail giant Walmart, Inc., who is named as a defendant arising from the location of the alleged sexual assault at a Walmart store in Avon.[7]

Procedural posture

The plaintiffs filed their first of many complaints on May 30, 2021.[8] They amended that pleading only a few days later in June and then filed a second amended complaint the following month.[9] After certain defendants moved to dismiss, the plaintiffs filed a third amended complaint

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in November 2021.[10] Several months later in February 2022, the plaintiffs requested to file a fourth, and then a fifth, amended complaint.[11] I reluctantly permitted them to file their fifth amended complaint and expressed my serious concern that these frequent requests may be imposing “unnecessary litigation costs and burdens” on the defendants.[12] With that warning issued, the plaintiffs filed their fifth amended complaint in April 2022.[13]

Fifth amended complaint

I take the plaintiffs' allegations in their most recent complaint as true for the purpose of this ruling. In the introduction to the complaint, the plaintiffs accuse Avon Old Farms of “systemic discriminatory and illegal conduct towards women.”[14] At the center of this broad accusation are the claims of both Jane Does and their mother, all three of whom allege that students and school officials discriminated against them over the course of their mother's employment at the school. Avon Old Farms hired LuBonta as a teacher in June 2019, and she worked there until the school fired her two years later in June 2021.[15]

The plaintiffs present each of their 52 claims in their complaint by separate legal count (e.g., Count 1: Sexual Assault - Assault and Battery, Jane Doe 1 v. John Doe). But they do not organize their claims in a coherent fashion. Therefore, in order to understand the basic factual framework for their claims, I will begin by briefly summarizing the claims as presented by each plaintiff below.

First, Jane Doe 1 alleges that an Avon Old Farms' student, John Doe, sexually assaulted her when they encountered one another at a Walmart in Avon.[16] Following that assault, she

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alleges that all ten defendants then engaged in a multi-layered conspiracy to cover up what had occurred.[17] Second, Jane Doe 2 alleges that she experienced multiple instances of sexual harassment from another Avon Old Farms student-not a party to this lawsuit-and that she, along with her family, made several complaints about this student to school officials who failed to adequately address the matter.[18] Finally, LuBonta alleges that her daughters' harassment and the school's ineffectual response precipitated several instances of employment discrimination against her, which ultimately culminated in the school firing her.[19]

Federal funding

In order to understand the statutory and regulatory background against which many of the plaintiffs' claims arise, I begin with a discussion of the federal funding mechanism that imposed certain statutory obligations on Avon Old Farms that are at the heart of this lawsuit. As a private, wealthy, and independent secondary school, Avon Old Farms does not receive federal funding. But that all changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, the school accepted federal money from the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act.[20] The receipt of those federal dollars subjected the school to the requirements of a well-known federal civil rights law, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”).[21]

This law would have new and potentially significant implications for an all-boys, private secondary school. Although the parties dispute exactly when Avon Old Farms became subject to

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Title IX, they generally agree that it happened sometime that spring.[22] The plaintiffs further allege both that the school has not paid back the PPP money it received under the CARES Act, and, even if it had, because it used the money to improve “real property” and “purchase fixtures” on its campus, the school remains subject to the federal civil rights law for as long as it uses that property or those fixtures for educational purposes.[23] Notably, the school vehemently disputes these contentions.[24] But I need not settle these fact issues at this stage of the proceedings.

Tuition assistance

According to the plaintiffs, Avon Old Farms used these federal funds (or at least a portion of them) to provide a specific employee benefit only to the sons, but not the daughters, of school employees.[25] In the past, the school administered a “tuition remission program” for the sons of Avon Old Farms' employees and a “tuition assistance program” for the daughters of school employees.[26] The remission program reduces the amount of tuition that an employee has to pay for his or her son to attend Avon Old Farms, while the assistance program helps employees pay for their daughters to attend a separate private school. Of course, the latter program makes sense for an all-boys institution that can matriculate only the sons of school employees.

For sons, the “staff tuition remission” benefit is based on the employee's years of service and “allows for a percentage of day tuition to be remitted” if the son is admitted and chooses to attend Avon Old Farms.[27] In contrast, the “staff tuition assistance for daughters” benefit was

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available “to full time employees['] daughters who are seeking admissions at an independent school.”[28] Avon Old Farms would “provide tuition assistance equal to the difference between the cost of the day student tuition at the school and any financial aid awarded to the student.”[29] The school noted in its September 2019 Employee Handbook, however, that both benefits are “subject to change at any time and [are] subject to availability based on the budget authorized by the [Avon Old Farms] Board of Directors.”[30]

And change it did. In the wake of COVID-19, the school placed “on hold” the tuition assistance benefit for daughters for the 2020-2021 academic year due to “the negative financial implications” of the pandemic.[31] Avon Old Farms explained that “[w]hen appropriate the school will determine if this program can be continued and will communicate to the community accordingly.”[32] The school did not reduce or eliminate the tuition remission benefit for the sons of Avon Old Farms' employees.[33]

Because LuBonta was a school employee, her daughters were eligible for this tuition assistance benefit if either attended certain private schools.[34] Jane Doe 2, LuBonta's eldest daughter, attended the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut-an all-girls private day and boarding school.[35] After Avon Old Farms changed its tuition assistance benefit for the 2020- 2021 academic year, LuBonta had to cover the difference in Jane Doe 2's tuition.[36]

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The school's benefit change also-according to the plaintiffs-prevented LuBonta's youngest daughter, Jane Doe 1, from “considering attending an all-girls private high school.”[37]Finally, the plaintiffs complain that Avon Old Farms did not allow either Jane Doe 1 or 2 to enroll as students there after the benefit changed.[38]

Sexual harassment of Jane Doe 2

LuBonta and Jane...

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