Santiago v. Commonwealth of P.R.

Decision Date24 August 2011
Docket NumberNo. 10–1449.,10–1449.
PartiesJeraline SANTIAGO, As Next Friend of Her Minor Son, Plaintiff, Appellant,v.Commonwealth of PUERTO RICO et al., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit


Alfredo Fernández, Carolina Santa Cruz, Elias Correa Menéndez and Delgado & Fernández, LLP on brief for appellant.Jose R. Olmo–Rodriguez on brief for appellees Cotto and Oyola.Angel E. Rotger–Sabat and Maymi, Rivera & Rotger, P.S.C. on brief for appellee Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.Before THOMPSON, SELYA and DYK *, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This appeal grows out of a lurid allegation that a bus driver assigned to transport special education students to and from a public school sexually abused one of his charges. It presents important questions concerning the parameters of the “under color of state law” requirement of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the “actual knowledge” requirement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681–1688.

After a dizzying array of procedural twists and turns, the district court resolved these questions in favor of the defendants and brought the action to a close. The plaintiff appeals. Although our reasoning differs in certain respects from that of the court below, we affirm.


During the fall of 2003, a six-year-old boy, whom we shall call “Jherald,” was enrolled at a public school in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.1 This school is administered by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico through its Department of Education (the Department). Jherald was born with a profound bilateral hearing impairment and, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400– 1482, receives a variety of educational support services free of cost. As part of this mix and as required by the terms of Jherald's individualized education program (IEP), see id. § 1414(d), the Department, at the times relevant hereto, furnished him with daily transportation to and from school.

The Department receives federal funding to assist it in meeting its responsibilities to students with disabilities who, like Jherald, are under its supervision. It uses these funds, in part, to pay for the transportation of such students. For the 20032004 academic year, the Department entered into a contract with Guillermo Cotto and Luz Oyola, the proprietors of a bus company, to furnish services of this nature. In turn, Cotto and Oyola hired the needed drivers, including one Freddy Márquez. Márquez regularly drove the vehicle (owned by the bus company) that transported Jherald to and from school.

On or about October 15, 2003, Jherald appeared visibly nervous when he returned home from school. His mother, plaintiff-appellant Jeraline Santiago, asked him what had happened. Jherald proceeded to describe in disturbing detail the alleged sexual abuse.2

The next morning, Jeraline went to the school and told Jherald's teacher about her son's accusation. The teacher referred her to a school social worker. The two spoke but Jeraline, frustrated by what she perceived as the social worker's failure to take the matter seriously, later tried unsuccessfully to contact the school principal. At some point, Jeraline removed Jherald from the school.

On May 7, 2008, Jeraline sued on behalf of her minor son. Her complaint included a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Cotto, Oyola, and their jointly owned bus company (collectively, the private defendants), a Title IX claim against the Commonwealth, and a smorgasbord of claims under local law. From that point forward, the case took a series of unusual twists and turns. We mention only those events that pertain to the issues on appeal.

Following the completion of pretrial discovery, the private defendants moved for summary judgment. The plaintiff opposed the motion, and the district court denied it. At the same time, however, the court ordered the plaintiff to show cause why summary judgment should not be granted on the section 1983 claim. Santiago v. Puerto Rico ( Santiago I ), No. 08–cv–01533, 2009 WL 3878286, at *3–4 (D.P.R. Nov. 12, 2009). The court also dismissed, sua sponte, the plaintiff's federal claims against the Commonwealth. Id. at *4.

Both the plaintiff and the private defendants sought reconsideration, and the plaintiff served a response to the show-cause order. The district court acted on these submissions as a unit. It concluded that the private defendants were not state actors and, therefore, granted summary judgment in their favor on the section 1983 claim. Santiago v. Puerto Rico ( Santiago II ), No. 08–cv–01533, 2009 WL 4921612, at *2 (D.P.R. Dec. 10, 2009). The court simultaneously reinstated the plaintiff's Title IX claim, expressing a tentative belief that the complaint (by then amended) stated a Title IX claim against the Commonwealth upon which relief could be granted. Id.

This time, it was the Commonwealth that moved for reconsideration. The plaintiff objected, insisting that the Commonwealth should not be allowed to raise new arguments in a reconsideration motion. The plaintiff added that, in all events, the motion should be treated under the standards applicable to motions brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and, so treated, should be denied.

The district court granted the motion to reconsider. It explained that, because it originally dismissed the Title IX claim sua sponte, the Commonwealth had not waived any grounds for dismissal. Santiago v. Puerto Rico ( Santiago III ), No. 08–cv–01533, 2010 WL 500401, at *1 (D.P.R. Feb. 5, 2010). The court proceeded to evaluate the (previously reinstated) Title IX claim under Rule 12(b)(6) and dismissed it. Id. at *1–2 & n. 2. It then dismissed the local law claims without prejudice, see 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c), and entered a final judgment.

This timely appeal ensued. In it, the plaintiff challenges both the order for summary judgment on the section 1983 claim against the private defendants and the order dismissing the Title IX claim against the Commonwealth.


We divide our substantive discussion into two parts, corresponding to the plaintiff's dual assignments of error.

A. Section 1983.

To put the lower court's section 1983 ruling in perspective, we must first iron out a procedural wrinkle. The court's entry of summary judgment on this claim followed a motion to reconsider an earlier order. We normally review a district court's decision to grant or deny a motion for reconsideration for abuse of discretion. See, e.g., Bennett v. Saint–Gobain Corp., 507 F.3d 23, 34 (1st Cir.2007). Here, however, the parties' arguments were directed to the underlying substantive issue (the propriety vel non of summary judgment) rather than the procedural issue (the desirability vel non of reconsideration). Consequently, the summary judgment standard applies in connection with our review of this ruling. See Ruiz Rivera v. Pfizer Pharm., LLC, 521 F.3d 76, 81–82 & n. 6 (1st Cir.2008).

We review the entry of summary judgment de novo. Foote v. Town of Bedford, 642 F.3d 80, 82 (1st Cir.2011). In that exercise, we take the facts, along with all reasonable inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Houlton Citizens' Coal. v. Town of Houlton, 175 F.3d 178, 184 (1st Cir.1999). We will affirm only if the record, so viewed, discloses that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2).

For this purpose, an issue is “genuine” if the record allows a rational factfinder to resolve it in favor of either party. Borges ex rel. S.M.B.W. v. Serrano–Isern, 605 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2010). A fact is “material” only “if its existence or nonexistence has the potential to change the outcome of the suit.” Id. at 5.

The legal framework pertaining to a section 1983 claim is well established. Section 1983 supplies a private right of action against a person who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights secured by the Constitution or by federal law.” Redondo–Borges v. U.S. Dep't of HUD, 421 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir.2005) (quoting Evans v. Avery, 100 F.3d 1033, 1036 (1st Cir.1996)). To make out a viable section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show both that the conduct complained of transpired under color of state law and that a deprivation of federally secured rights ensued. See id. We focus here on the “under color of state law” requirement.

Section 1983's “under color of state law” requirement is the functional equivalent of the Fourteenth Amendment's “state action” requirement. See United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 794 n. 7, 86 S.Ct. 1152, 16 L.Ed.2d 267 (1966); Perkins v. Londonderry Basketball Club, 196 F.3d 13, 17 n. 1 (1st Cir.1999). Accordingly, we regard case law dealing with either of these formulations as authoritative with respect to the other, and we use the terminologies interchangeably.

Only the private defendants have been sued under section 1983. If their conduct cannot be classified as state action, the claim against them must fail. 3 See Rendell–Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830, 838, 102 S.Ct. 2764, 73 L.Ed.2d 418 (1982).

Cotto, Oyola, and the company that they own are without question private parties. The mere fact that they entered into a contract with the Department to transport public school students does not alter their status. See id. at 840–41. In some circumstances, however, the conduct of private parties may be “fairly attributable to the State,” Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 937, 102 S.Ct. 2744, 73 L.Ed.2d 482 (1982), and therefore may constitute action under color of state law.

The Supreme Court has observed that [o]nly by sifting facts and weighing circumstances can the nonobvious involvement of the State in private conduct be attributed its true significance.” Burton v. Wilmington Parking Auth., 365 U.S. 715, 722, 81 S.Ct. 856, 6 L.Ed.2d...

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