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Weissenbach v. Tuscaloosa County School System

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division

November 8, 2018

ABIGAIL WEISSENBACH, Plaintiff,
v.
TUSCALOOSA COUNTY SCHOOL SYSTEM, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. SCOTT COOGLER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Abigail Weissenbach (“Weissenbach”) brings this action against Defendants Tuscaloosa County School System (“Tuscaloosa County”), Joe Bradley Petrey, Jr. (“Petrey”), Schmitt Moore (“Moore”), James Barnett (“Barnett”), Gary Mims (“Mims”), Don Presley (“Presley”), Charles Orr (“Orr”), Randy Smalley (“Smalley”), Bill Copeland (“Copeland”), Laura McBride (“McBride”), Marcy Burroughs (“Burroughs”), Thad Fitzpatrick (“Fitzpatrick”), and Elizabeth Swinford (“Swinford”) (collectively “Defendants”), alleging claims under Alabama state law, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. (“Title IX”), and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. All claims relate to an alleged sexual relationship between Weissenbach and her high school teacher Petrey. Before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by Tuscaloosa County and Moore, Barnett, Mims, Presley, Orr, Smalley, and Copeland (collectively “Board Members”) (doc. 29) and Burroughs and Fitzpatrick (doc. 30).[1] The motions have been fully briefed by the parties and are ripe for review. For the reasons described more fully herein, Defendants Tuscaloosa County and the Board Members' motion to dismiss (doc. 29) and Defendants Burroughs and Fitzpatrick's motion to dismiss (doc. 30) are due to be granted.

         I. Background[2]

         Weissenbach is a former high school student of Brookwood High School in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. Weissenbach was born in 1996, and from the 2013 to 2015 school years she had a sexual relationship with Petrey, who was her high school history and psychology teacher.

         During high school, Weissenbach took dance classes at McCalla Dance Academy. At those classes, Weissenbach talked about Petrey as if he were her boyfriend. When her dance teachers learned that Petrey was actually Weissenbach's teacher, they reported their concerns to Brookwood High School administrators. During a conference call between the dance teachers, Principal McBride, Vice Principal Burroughs, and Vice Principal Fitzpatrick, the administrators implied that they were upset about Weissenbach and Petrey's relationship and that they would make sure that it did not continue.

         Following this conversation, Burroughs told Weissenbach's dance teachers that the administrators had informed the Tuscaloosa County School Board about their complaints and that the situation was being investigated. However, during the next school year, the dance teachers learned from other students that Weissenbach and Petrey were continuing to eat breakfast and lunch together at school. In July 2015, illicit photos of Weissenbach and Petrey were posted to the school Facebook page and Twitter, and a link to a cloud-based photo-sharing account with other photographs of Weissenbach and Petrey were also made widely available.

         According to Weissenbach's Amended Complaint, the remaining defendants not discussed in the preceding facts are members of the Tuscaloosa County School Board. Specifically, Weissenbach alleges that Defendants Moore, Barnett, Mims, Presley, Orr, Smalley, and Copeland were Tuscaloosa County School Board members during Weissenbach and Petrey's relationship. Swinford was the Superintendent of the Tuscaloosa County School System.

         II. Standard of Review

         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         The Court must “inquire into whether it has subject matter jurisdiction at the earliest possible stage in the proceedings.” Univ. of S. Ala. v. Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 410 (11th Cir. 1999). “[B]ecause the constitutional standing doctrine stems directly from Article III's ‘case or controversy' requirement, this issue implicates . . . subject matter jurisdiction, and accordingly must be addressed as a threshold matter regardless of whether it is raised by the parties.” Duty Free Americas, Inc. v. Estee Lauder Companies, Inc., 797 F.3d 1248, 1271 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Nat'l Parks Conservation Ass'n v. Norton, 324 F.3d 1229, 1242 (11th Cir. 2003)). “Article III standing must be determined as of the time at which the plaintiff's complaint is filed, ” and “the standing inquiry requires careful judicial examination of a complaint's allegations to ascertain whether the particular plaintiff is entitled to an adjudication of the particular claims asserted.” Hollywood Mobile Estates Ltd. v. Seminole Tribe of Fla., 641 F.3d 1259, 1265 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Focus on the Family v. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Auth., 344 F.3d 1263, 1275 (11th Cir. 2003) and Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 752 (1984)). “[I]t is well settled that a federal court is obligated to inquire into subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte whenever it may be lacking.” Univ. of S. Ala., 168 F.3d at 410. “The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of proving the essential elements of standing, although ‘[a]t the pleading stage, general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct may suffice[.]'” DiMaio v. Democratic Nat'l Comm., 520 F.3d 1299, 1301 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992)).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         In general, a pleading must include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, in order to withstand a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a complaint “must plead enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ray v. Spirit Airlines, Inc., 836 F.3d 1340, 1347- 48 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)) (internal quotation marks omitted). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Stated another way, the factual allegations in the complaint must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Edwards v. Prime, Inc., 602 F.3d 1276, 1301 (11th Cir. 2010). A complaint that “succeeds in identifying facts that are suggestive enough to render [the necessary elements of a claim] plausible” will survive a motion to dismiss. Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, this Court first “identif[ies] pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. This Court then “assume[s] the[] veracity” of the complaint's “well-pleaded factual allegations” and “determine[s] whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. Review of the complaint is “a context-specific task that requires [this Court] to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. If the pleading “contain[s] enough information regarding the material elements of a cause of action to support recovery under some ‘viable legal theory, '” it satisfies the notice pleading standard. Am. Fed'n of Labor & Cong. of Indus. Orgs. v. City of Miami, 637 F.3d 1178, 1186 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Roe v. Aware Woman Ctr. for Choice, Inc., 253 F.3d 678, 683-84 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         III. Discussion

         A. Standing as to Request for Injunctive Relief

         Although not addressed by the parties, the Court must first determine, as a threshold matter, whether Weissenbach has standing to assert her claims against the Defendants. See Nat'l Park Conservation Ass'n, 324 F.3d at 1242. The Court determines standing according to differing strands of analysis: the constitutional requirements under Article III and prudential limitations on the exercise of otherwise constitutionally allowed claims. Elend v. Basham, 471 F.3d 1199, 1205-06 (11th Cir. 2006). To establish standing under Article III, a plaintiff must show (1) “an injury in fact, ” (2) “a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, ” and (3) that “it [is] likely, as opposed to merely speculative that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560-61 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The injury in fact must be “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Id. at 560. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Also, the causal connection must be “fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court.” Id. (internal quotation marks, citations, and alterations omitted); see also Church v. City of Huntsville, 30 F.3d 1332, 1337 (11th Cir. 1994) (“Because injunctions regulate future conduct, a party has standing to seek injunctive relief only if the party alleges, and ultimately proves, a real and immediate-as opposed to a merely conjectural or hypothetical-threat of future injury.”). Under prudential requirements, “a plaintiff cannot raise the claims of third parties; cannot claim standing based on a generalized grievance; and must raise a claim within the zone of interest covered by a statutory conferral of standing.” Elend, 471 F.3d at 1206 (citing Cone Corp. v. Fla. Dep't of Transp., 921 F.2d 1190, 1203-10 (11th Cir. 1991)).

         In her Amended Complaint, Weissenbach not only asks for monetary damages but also for declaratory and injunctive relief. Specifically, Weissenbach asks the Court to enjoin the Defendants from continuing to violate her rights under Title IX, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Alabama state law. (See Doc. 28 at 19.) Weissenbach also asks the Court to “[i]ssue an injunction ordering these Defendants: (1) not to engage in gender discrimination and sexual harassment; (2) . . . to establish written policies and procedures against such discriminatory conduct; (3) and to establish a grievance procedure for reporting such conduct[.]” (Id.)

         Assuming “as true all material allegations contained in the complaint and constru[ing] the complaint in a light most favorable to the complaining party, ” Elend, 471 F.3d at 1208, Weissenbach has not fulfilled her burden to show that she has standing to pursue injunctive relief against Defendants. As Weissenbach is a former student of Brookwood High School, she has presented no facts to indicate that an injunction against Tuscaloosa County, its board members, or its administrators would prevent future harm or remedy the past harm that she allegedly suffered. Moreover, she has not alleged that she faces any possibility of real or imminent future harm resulting from any of the Defendants' alleged conduct. See Williams v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga., 477 F.3d 1282, 1303 (11th Cir. 2007) (affirming district court's dismissal of Title IX claims for injunctive relief when plaintiff no longer attended college where sexual harassment allegedly occurred). Thus, the Court cannot conclude that an injunction would prevent Weissenbach from suffering any future harm. Where, as here, a plaintiff cannot show that she is likely to suffer future harm from the defendants' conduct, she “does not have standing to seek prospective relief even if [s]he has suffered a past injury.” 31 Foster Children v. Bush, 329 F.3d 1255, 1265 (11th Cir. 2003).

         To the extent that Weissenbach is seeking injunctive relief to prevent Defendants from harming current Tuscaloosa County students, these claims fail because they raise the rights of third parties not before the Court. See Harris v. Evans, 20 F.3d 1118, 1121 (11th Cir. 1994) (noting the general prohibition against third-party standing). The general prohibition against litigants asserting the rights of third parties “assumes that the party with the right has the appropriate incentive to challenge (or not challenge) governmental action and to do so with the necessary zeal and appropriate presentation.” Kowalski v. Tesmer, 543 U.S. 125, 129 (2004). Even so, the doctrine of “third-party standing” allows a party who has standing in his own right to assert the rights of another upon “two additional showings.” Id. at 130. The first question is “whether the party asserting the right has a ‘close' relationship with the person who possesses the right. Second, [it must be] considered whether there is a ‘hindrance' to the possessor's ability to protect his own interests.” Id. (citations omitted). Here, Weissenbach has made no showing that she maintains a close relationship with current students within the Tuscaloosa County School System.[3] Moreover, even if she were able to make such a showing, there is nothing that suggests that there would be a hindrance to those students pursuing an action in their own name. Accordingly, Weissenbach lacks standing to pursue injunctive relief, and her claims seeking injunctive relief are due to be dismissed.

         B. State-Law Claims

         Tuscaloosa County, the Board Members, Burroughs, and Fitzpatrick all move to dismiss Weissenbach's state-law claims against them. They argue that Weissenbach's claims against them for negligence, wantonness, and intentional infliction of emotional distress are barred by immunity. Specifically, these defendants raise two types of immunity: State immunity with respect to the state law claims brought against Tuscaloosa County and the Board Members and administrators in their official capacities and state-agent immunity with respect to the state law claims brought against the Board Members, Burroughs, and Fitzpatrick in their individual capacities. Burroughs and Fitzpatrick also move to dismiss Weissenbach's state-law claims for failure to state a claim. The Court will address each argument in turn.

         1. State Immunity

         Tuscaloosa County argues that Weissenbach's state-law claims against it are due to be dismissed because it is entitled to absolute immunity with respect to those claims. The Alabama Constitution provides “[t]hat the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity.” Ala. Const. art. I, § 14. This immunity extends to state agencies. See Ex parte Hale Cty. Bd. of Educ., 14 So.3d 844, 848 (Ala. 2009). Because, under Alabama law, county boards of education are considered “local agencies of the State, they are clothed in constitutional immunity from suit.” Id. This immunity is absolute and a plaintiff is completely barred from bringing any state-law action for monetary, injunctive, or declaratory relief against a county school board. See Bd. of School Comm'rs of Mobile Cty. v. Weaver, 99 So.3d 1210, 1217 (Ala. 2012).

         As the Amended Complaint describes Defendant Tuscaloosa County as “the governing body for the Tuscaloosa County School System in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama” (doc. 28 ¶ 2), the Court concludes that Defendant Tuscaloosa County is in fact the Tuscaloosa County School Board. Because county boards of education are entitled to absolute immunity, Defendant Tuscaloosa County's motion to dismiss the state law-claims against it is due to be granted.

         The Board Members, Fitzpatrick, and Burroughs also argue that they are entitled to absolute immunity with respect to Weissenbach's state-law claims against them in their official capacities. The Court agrees. “[A]ctions for damages against State agents in their official or representative capacities are considered actions to recover money from the State and are barred by State immunity under § 14.” Ex parte Moulton, 116 So.3d 1119, 1140 (Ala. 2013). Thus, a plaintiff may not bring claims for monetary relief against a county school board member in his or her official capacity in this circumstance. See Ex parte Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Educ., 88 So.3d 837, 842 (Ala. 2012). This rule extends to a school board's employees. See Matthews v. Ala. Agric. & Mech. Univ., 787 So.2d 691, 697 (2000) (concluding that university employees sued in their official capacities for monetary damages are entitled to absolute immunity under § 14). However, § 14 does not prohibit “actions brought under the Declaratory Judgments Act . . . seeking construction of a statute and its application in a given situation” or actions brought to enjoin “[s]tate officials in their representative capacity where it is alleged that they had acted fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond their authority, or in a mistaken interpretation of law.” Moulton, 116 So.3d at 1131, 1141 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Here, the Court has already held that Weissenbach's claims for injunctive relief are due to be dismissed for lack of standing. Moreover, Weissenbach's request for a declaratory judgment does not fall within the declaratory judgment exception to § 14. Weissenbach asks the Court to “[g]rant [her] a declaratory judgment holding that the actions of the Defendants . . . violated . . . Alabama state laws.” (Doc. 28 at 19.) It is not a request for “construction of a statute.” Moulton, 116 So.3d 1131. Thus, to the extent that Weissenbach's state-law claims are brought against the Board Members in their official capacities, their motion to dismiss is due to be granted. Moreover, as Burroughs and Fitzpatrick are employees of the Tuscaloosa County School Board, their motion to dismiss Weissenbach's state-law claims against them in their official capacities is also due to be granted.

         2. State-Agent Immunity

         The Board Members, Burroughs, and Fitzpatrick also argue that Weissenbach's state-law claims against them in their individual capacities are barred by state-agent immunity. State agents are immune from civil liability when the conduct complained of involves the formulating of plans, policies, or designs, when the decisions complained of are administrative in nature, such as the “hiring, firing, transferring, assigning, or supervising [of] personnel, ” when the agent is discharging duties imposed on an agency by statute, rule, or regulation, and when the agent is exercising judgment in enforcing criminal law, releasing prisoners or persons of unsound mind, or educating students. Ex parte Cranman, 792 So.2d 392, 405 (Ala. 2000). A state agent is not immune, however, “when the [s]tate agent acts willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of law.” Id. Moreover, a state agent is not ...


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