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Thomaston v. Baldwin County Board of Education

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

June 25, 2019

DAN THOMASTON, AS NATURAL FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND OF M.T., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
BALDWIN COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          SONJA F. BIVINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Eddie Tyler, Baldwin County Board of Education, Cecil Christenberry, Shannon Cauley, and David Cox's motions to dismiss and supporting memorandums (Docs. 6-9). The motions, which have been fully briefed, have been referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for entry of a report and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and S.D. Ala. CivLR 72(a)(2)(S). Upon consideration of all matters presented, the undersigned RECOMMENDS, for the reasons stated herein, that Defendants' motions be GRANTED.

         I. PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND [1]

         Plaintiff Dan Thomaston, as “father and next friend of M.T., a female minor child” (“Plaintiff”), commenced this action on August 28, 2018. (Doc. 1). In his complaint, Plaintiff asserts a Title IX claim for student-on-student sexual harassment against Defendants Baldwin County Board of Education (“Board of Education”); Eddie Tyler (“Tyler”), the Superintendent of the Board of Education; Kyle Nobles (“Nobles”), the former principal of Bay Minette Middle School; Cecil Christenberry (“Christenberry”), the President of the Board of Education; Shannon Cauley (“Cauley”), the Vice President of the Board of Education; David Cox (“Cox”), a member of the Board of Education; and Lisa Kreps (“Kreps”), assistant principal at Bay Minette Middle School.[2] (Id.).

         According to Plaintiff, M.T. had just turned thirteen years old and was starting her eighth-grade year at Bay Minette Middle School in 2016. (Id. at ¶10). On August 28, 2016, a male student made up a rumor that M.T. “had ‘fucked' five different boys” and spread this rumor throughout the school, including involving other students and having them “participate in false malicious gossip.” (Id. at ¶11). M.T. heard the rumor and became very upset. (Id.). That day, Kreps, the school's assistant principal, called M.T.'s mother and advised her of the incident. (Id. at ¶12). M.T.'s mother immediately went to the school and met with Nobles, the principal, who told her he would “take care of it.” (Id.).

         Nobles questioned the male student, who “openly admitted that he did it” and stated that he spread the rumor because M.T. “‘deserved it,' even thought [sic] it wasn't true.” (Id. at ¶13). Despite his assurances that he would “take care of it, ” Nobles “took no corrective action” to stop or refute the false rumor. (Id. at ¶14). The male student was not disciplined, his parents were not notified of his actions, no efforts were made to rehabilitate M.T.'s reputation, and no “protective efforts, or otherwise corrective statements or announcements were made regarding the falsity of the rumors[.]” (Id.).

         On September 5, 2016, “it was discovered” that the male student was falsely telling other students that M.T. had sent naked pictures of herself to male classmates. (Id. at ¶15). This was reported to Nobles, who again took no corrective action. (Id.). “After Christmas break, ” the male student “started the rumors back up about M.T.” by telling other students that she was having sex with someone, and the rumors “escalated into a fight between two boys.” (Id. at ¶16). Again, the school took no corrective action. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, the “bullying continued with one boy falsely telling others that he was beaten up because he slept with M.T.” (Id. at ¶17). No. school official “made any effort to stop the well-known bullying.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff alleges that as a result of “the relentless and unchecked bullying[, ]” M.T. suffered “devastating public humiliation” and “extreme emotional and psychological distress” with accompanying “physical manifestations[.]” (Id.). According to Plaintiff, M.T. is a special education student who, prior to the bullying, “was a normal, confident, well-rounded child” who was academically successful and participated in a number of sports and other extracurricular activities. (Id. at ¶18). However, “the bullying has destroyed her life with severe physical/medical manifestations.” (Id. at ¶19). M.T. withdrew from school and became a home school student. (Id.).

         Plaintiff alleges that the “‘student on student' or peer” harassment of M.T. “was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively barred her access to her right to an education.” (Id. at ¶20). In the sole count of the complaint, Plaintiff asserts “that the Defendants, including the principal and other staff members, were guilty of deliberate indifference to the sexual bullying” of M.T. by other students, which “created an intimidating, hostile, offensive and abusive school environment” in violation of Title IX. (Id. at ¶21). Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, and costs and attorney's fees. (Id. at p. 5).

         Defendants seek the dismissal of Plaintiff's Title IX claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim. (Docs. 6-9). The motions have been fully briefed and are now ready for resolution.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a motion to dismiss an action on the ground that the allegations in the complaint fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On such a motion, the “issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.” Little v. City of N. Miami, 805 F.2d 962, 965 (11th Cir. 1986) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). “When considering a motion to dismiss, all facts set forth in the plaintiff's complaint ‘are to be accepted as true and the court limits its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.'” Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting GSW, Inc. v. Long Cnty., 999 F.2d 1508, 1510 (11th Cir. 1993)). The court must draw “all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor.” St. George v. Pinellas Cnty., 285 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2002).

         However, the court is not required to accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The U.S. Supreme Court has suggested that courts adopt a “two-pronged approach” when considering motions to dismiss: “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664). Importantly, “courts may infer from the factual allegations in the complaint ‘obvious alternative explanation[s],' which suggest lawful conduct rather than the unlawful conduct the plaintiff would ask the court to infer.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 682).

         Rule 12(b)(6) is read in consideration of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), which requires “‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Although Rule 8 does not require detailed factual allegations, it does demand “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must state on its face a plausible claim for relief, and “[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. Unless a plaintiff has “nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, ” the complaint “must be dismissed.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S at 556).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Title IX is a federal statute that prohibits gender discrimination in education. It provides: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a). Sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination under Title IX. Williams v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga., 477 F.3d 1282, 1293 (llth Cir. 2007). The Supreme Court has recognized that a plaintiff may bring a private cause of action under Title IX based upon a school's deliberate indifference to student-on-student gender-based harassment. See Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 646-47 (1999). A plaintiff ...


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