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Doe v. School District Number 1

United States District Court, D. Colorado

January 14, 2020

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT NUMBER 1, DENVER, COLORADO a/k/a Denver Public Schools (“DPS”), TOM BOASBERG, in his official capacity as superintendent of DPS, JULIE CATHERINE MURGEL, in her official capacity as principal of Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello School (“DCIS Montbello”), Defendants.

          ORDER

          RAYMOND P. MOORE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 26.) The motion has been fully briefed. (ECF Nos. 42, 47.) The Court has reviewed the pleadings, case file, and applicable law and now grants the motion for the reasons stated below.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint, view those allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Brokers' Choice of Am., Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc., 757 F.3d 1125, 1136 (10th Cir. 2014); Mink v. Knox, 613 F.3d 995, 1000 (10th Cir. 2010). The complaint must allege a “plausible” right to relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 569 n.14 (2007); see also Id. at 555 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”). Conclusory allegations are insufficient, Cory v. Allstate Ins., 583 F.3d 1240, 1244 (10th Cir. 2009), and courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quotation omitted). To determine whether a claim is plausible, a court considers “the elements of the particular cause of action, keeping in mind that the Rule 12(b)(6) standard doesn't require a plaintiff to set forth a prima facie case for each element.” George v. Urban Settlement Servs., 833 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). However, if the allegations “are so general that they encompass a wide swath of conduct, much of it innocent, ” the plaintiff has not “nudged [her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012) (quotation omitted).

         II. BACKGROUND

         For present purposes, the Court accepts the allegations in the complaint as true. When Plaintiff was seventeen, she was a student at DCIS Montbello, a DPS high school, and attended a school trip to France. More than a week before the trip, Plaintiff learned that she had been assigned to stay with a host family that included a son, and she asked the teacher supervising the trip to change her assignment to a host family with a daughter. The teacher refused to do so. The teacher did not inform the principal or Plaintiff's parents about Plaintiff's placement. Plaintiff alleges that the host son sexually harassed her repeatedly during her stay with the host family and, on her last night there, sexually assaulted her.

         The next day, Plaintiff reported the assault to the teacher supervising the trip. By that time, however, the students had left their host families and traveled to another city in France. The teacher did not immediately report the assault to anyone. Nor did she arrange or provide any services, such as medical treatment or counseling, to help Plaintiff cope with the trauma she was experiencing as a result of the assault. The trip ended three days later, and the students returned to Denver. The following Monday, another two days later, the supervising teacher reported the assault to the principal, Defendant Murgel. That day, Defendant Murgel held a meeting with Plaintiff, her mother, the teacher who supervised the trip, a dean, and a social worker. At the meeting, Defendant Murgel opined that it would be difficult to take action against the host son, presumably because he was not a student of DPS, or even a U.S. citizen, and lived in another country. At the end of the meeting, the social worker assisted Plaintiff with filing a police report.

         Due to her handling of the situation, the teacher who supervised the trip was either terminated or forced to resign. Plaintiff suffered from severe emotional distress, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident. She was subsequently placed on a “504 plan” and assigned a social worker by DPS. Plaintiff contends that the support from DPS was “too little, too late” because “[t]he damage had already been done.” (ECF No. 1, Compl. at ¶ 55).

         Plaintiff's complaint asserts seven claims against DPS and three individual Defendants individually and in their official capacities, but only one claim remains in the case-that DPS violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by its deliberate indifference to sexual harassment.[1] Plaintiff contends that DPS “placed [her] in a housing situation in which it was reasonably foreseeable that [she] would be at risk of violence, sexual assault, and/or rape” (Id. at ¶ 1), that her placement with the host family violated DPS policies requiring female students to be placed only with host families that had daughters (and male students to be placed only with host families that had sons) and all students on overnight stays to “only be with students of the same sex based on arrangements made by the program supervisor” (Id. at ¶¶ 14, 15), that her placement violated a state law requiring school officials to use reasonable care to protect students from reasonably foreseeable acts of violence, and that “any reasonable person would have recognized that placing a seventeen-year-old girl in a housing situation with a male student in the house for a week might lead to an act of violence, including in particular sexual assault” (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 20).

         III. ANALYSIS

         To state a claim of school district liability under Title IX, a plaintiff must allege that the district (1) had actual knowledge of and (2) was deliberately indifferent to (3) harassment that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it (4) deprived the victim of access to the educational benefits or opportunities provided by the school. Murrell v. Sch. Dist. No. 1, 186 F.3d 1238, 1246 (10th Cir. 1999). The Court finds Plaintiff's complaint fails to satisfy the first two elements.

         A. Actual Knowledge

         With respect to the first element, Plaintiff does not allege that DPS had any specific reason to believe that the host son posed a substantial risk to her safety other than because he was a male. Compare Escue v. N. Okla. Coll., 450 F.3d 1146, 1154 (10th Cir. 2006) (“Generally, the district courts that have examined the issue [of actual knowledge when prior acts of harassment are alleged] have required that the school have actual knowledge of a substantial risk of abuse to students based on prior complaints by other students.” (quotation omitted)). Plaintiff cites no authority to support her argument that DPS had actual knowledge that harassment or an assault would occur simply because she was assigned to a host family with a son. Unsupported assumptions are insufficient to establish actual knowledge. The fact that some males commit sexual assault against females is insufficient to establish that every male poses a substantial risk to every female. According to the complaint, by the time anyone at DPS knew of a substantial risk to Plaintiff, she was no longer staying with the host family and the students had continued their trip by traveling to another city in France. Because there is no basis for concluding DPS had actual knowledge that Plaintiff faced a substantial risk of harassment or assault beforehand and no allegation that further harassment occurred once DPS was made aware of what had happened, Plaintiff necessarily fails to state a Title IX claim.

         B. ...


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