Forrester v. Clarenceville Sch. Dist.

Decision Date06 May 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 20-12727
PartiesEMMALEE FORRESTER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. CLARENCEVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan

EMMALEE FORRESTER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CLARENCEVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

Case No. 20-12727

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN SOUTHERN DIVISION

May 6, 2021


OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

Plaintiffs are nine former students at Defendant Clarenceville School District who were allegedly harassed and assaulted by a choir and theater teacher between 2008 and 2018. Plaintiffs bring claims against the school district, school administrators, and the choir teacher, and they allege violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq., the Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act ("ELCRA"), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.2101, et seq., the Due Process Clause of the Michigan Constitution, and Michigan's Child Protection Law, Mich. Comp. Laws § 722.621, et seq. (ECF No. 13.) They also bring claims under gross negligence, negligence, invasion of privacy, and assault and battery. (Id.)

Defendant school district and school administrators have filed a motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 21.) They claim that many of the alleged harassment and assaults are time barred and that Plaintiffs' negligence and gross negligence claims against Defendants Clarenceville School District and Defendant Paul Shepich, Superintendent

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of Clarenceville School District, are barred on immunity grounds. The matter has been thoroughly briefed. (ECF Nos. 36, 37.) The court has reviewed the record and does not find a hearing to be necessary. E.D. Mich. LR 7.1(f)(2). For the reasons provided below, Defendants' motion will be granted in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The following are facts as alleged in Plaintiffs' complaint. In a motion to dismiss, the court accepts Plaintiffs' factual allegations as true but makes no overt finding as to truth or falsity. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

Plaintiffs are nine former students of Clarenceville Middle School and High School, where Defendant Jason Debandt taught choir and theater. (ECF No. 13, PageID.141-42.) Plaintiffs allege separate instances of sexual assault and harassment by Defendant Debandt; the events giving rise to Plaintiffs' claims took place at different times. Nonetheless, the alleged experiences of Plaintiffs show a similar pattern.

Defendant Debandt allegedly showed favoritism to Plaintiffs in his position as a school instructor, purchasing them food and clothing and inviting Plaintiffs into his office during school hours. (Id., PageID.141-42, 158-74.) He communicated privately with Plaintiffs through text messages and social media. (Id.) Over time, the messages became more sexually explicit, and eventually, Defendant Debandt made open sexual advances, commented on Plaintiffs' appearance, and touched Plaintiffs in a sexual manner. (Id.) When Plaintiffs rebuffed Defendant Debandt's advances, he allegedly retaliated against Plaintiffs by using his authority as a teacher to create a hostile learning environment. (Id.) Defendant Debandt engaged in sexual acts with several Plaintiffs. (Id.)

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The alleged sexual harassment and assaults took place over the course of several years. For example, according to the complaint, Defendant Debandt abused Plaintiff Katelyn Estepp between 2009 and 2012, and he abused Plaintiff Justyse Perry between 2014 and 2018. (Id., PageID.159-61, 164-66.)

Plaintiffs allege that between 2010 and 2018 several teenage girls, including four Plaintiffs, notified Defendant Troy Nelson, the principal of Clarenceville High School, and Defendant Alan Kantor, the assistant principal, of Defendant Debandt's sexual advances and harassment. (Id., PageID.174-81.) According to Plaintiffs, despite claiming that they would investigate the complaints, Defendants Nelson and Kantor neither initiated an internal investigation nor contacted law enforcement. (Id.)

Plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit on October 7, 2020. (ECF No. 1.)

II. STANDARD

Under Rule 12(b)(6), a party can move to dismiss a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." When reviewing motions under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiffs. Bassett v. Natl Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Determining plausibility is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to

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draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679. The plaintiff must present "more than labels and conclusions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545. "[A] formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do." Id.

When reviewing a motion to dismiss, the court "may not consider matters beyond the complaint." Hensley Mfg. v. ProPride, Inc., 579 F.3d 603, 613 (6th Cir. 2009). However, the court may consider "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference . . . and matters of which a court may take judicial notice." Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). The court may also consider "a document that is not formally incorporated by reference or attached to a complaint" when "[the] document is referred to in the complaint and is central to the plaintiff's claim." Greenberg v. Life Ins. Co. of Va., 177 F.3d 507, 514 (6th Cir. 1999).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(f) makes "allegation[s] of time or place . . . material when testing the sufficiency of a pleading." A complaint is subject to dismissal "where the face of the complaint discloses a failure to file within the time allowed." Hoover v. Langston Equip. Ass., Inc., 958 F.2d 742, 744 (6th Cir. 1992). If the complaint is time barred, "the plaintiff may come forward with allegations explaining why the statute of limitations should be tolled." Id. Like all plaintiffs opposing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "[t]he allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bishop v. Lucent Tech., Inc., 520 F.3d 516, 520 (6th Cir. 2008). When "defendants have highlighted the apparent untimeliness of the complaint, plaintiffs may not simply rely on the bare assertion that they were unaware of the facts underlying their cause of action." Id.

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III. DISCUSSION

The school district and school administrators, Defendants Clarenceville School District, Shepich, Nelson, Kantor, Renee Valentine (Assistant Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator for the Clarenceville School District), and David Bergeron (Assistant Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator for the Clarenceville School District), advance two grounds for their motion to dismiss.1 First, they argue that Plaintiffs' gross negligence and negligence claims (Counts 7-11) against Defendants Clarenceville School District and Shepich are barred under Michigan's Governmental Tort Liability Act, Mich. Comp. Laws § 691.1407. (ECF No. 21, PageID.378-83.) Plaintiffs, in the response, agree to dismissal of the claims.2 (ECF No. 36, PageID.521.) Thus, dismissal is warranted for Plaintiffs' counts of gross negligence and negligence against Defendants Clarenceville School District and Shepich.3

Second, Defendants argue that many of the abusive acts detailed in the complaint are barred by statutes of limitation. (ECF No. 21, PageID.367-70.) According

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to Defendants, five Plaintiffs are time barred completely while four Plaintiffs can bring claims accruing only after October 6, 2017, three years prior to the date that Plaintiffs filed their complaint. (Id., PageID.370.)

Defendants analyze Plaintiffs' claims in five categories: Plaintiffs' claim under § 1983 (Counts 2-4), Title IX (Count 1), ELCRA (Count 5), gross negligence and negligence (Counts 7-11), and Michigan's Child Protection Law (Count 12). (Id., PageID.367.)

The applicable statute of limitations for Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims is three years. "[Section] 1983 claims are best characterized as tort actions for the recovery of damages for personal injury and . . . federal courts must borrow the statute of limitations governing personal injury actions from the state where the § 1983 action was brought." Cooey v. Strickland, 479 F.3d 412, 416 (6th Cir. 2007). When § 1983 claims arise in Michigan, as Plaintiffs' claims do in this instance, "the appropriate statute of limitations . . . is [Michigan's] three-year limitations period for personal injury claims." Wolfe v. Perry, 412 F.3d 707, 714 (6th Cir. 2005) (citing Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.5805); accord Garza v. Lansing Sch. Dist., 972 F.3d 853, 867 n.8 (6th Cir. 2020). Federal law governs when the statute of limitations accrues. Cooey, 479 F.3d at 416.

Like constitutional claims brought under § 1983, the applicable statute of limitations for Title IX claims is "the state personal injury limitations period." Lillard v. Shelby Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 76 F.3d 716, 729 (6th Cir. 1996). In Michigan, that period is three years. See Wolfe, 412 F.3d at 714. Courts also use the same federal accrual rules for Title IX as they do for § 1983. See, e.g., Dibbern v. Univ. of Mich., Case No. 12-15632, 2016 WL 2894491, at *18 (E.D. Mich. May 18, 2016) (Cox, J.); Haley v.

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Clarksville-Montgomery Cnty. Sch. Sys., 353 F. Supp. 3d 724, 734 (M.D. Tenn. 2018) ("The analysis concerning when the statute of limitations [for a Title IX claim] began to run is the same as [a § 1983 claim].").

Claims that arise under state law are governed by state statutes of limitation. See, e.g., Coyer v. HSBC...

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