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Lewis v. Blue Springs School District

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

November 2, 2017

REBECCA LEWIS, Individually and as Ad Litem on behalf of Decedent an Decedent's wrongful death beneficiaries, Plaintiff,
v.
BLUE SPRINGS SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          NANETTE K. LAUGHREY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Rebecca Lewis is the mother of Ryker Lewis. Plaintiff alleges that the Blue Springs School District, administrators, counselors, and teachers were aware of but failed to stop severe and pervasive bullying that her son experienced at school and that as a result, he committed suicide during his freshman year at the age of 15. The Blue Springs Defendants[1] now move under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the 14 counts pled against them, or in the alternative ask that Plaintiff be ordered to make a more definite statement. Doc. 21. The motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         The following facts are alleged in Lewis' complaint and accepted as true for purposes of resolving the Motion to Dismiss.[2]

         Missouri law requires children to receive schooling until they are 16 years old. Ryker lived in the Blue Springs School District, which included Moreland Ridge Middle School and the Blue Springs Freshman Center. Ryker attended Moreland Ridge Middle School from 2010 through the spring of 2013, and then the Blue Springs Freshman Center from August 2013 until May 20, 2014 when he committed suicide at the age of 15.

         Ryker had diagnoses of major clinical depression and attention-deficit disorder; was receiving therapy for a speech impediment; and participated in special education courses through the School District for several years. The School District had created an Individual Education Plan for him due to his disabilities. In the two years leading up to Ryker's death, he was repeatedly bullied on the school campus and in the halls and classrooms due to his mental health conditions and speech impediment, among other things. He was called derogatory names and put in situations that were physically and psychologically dangerous.

         Ryker's best friend Ethan, some of Ryker's other friends, and many other students also experienced bullying at school in the form of repeated physical and verbal abuse and harassment at school by other students who targeted them due to speech differences, popularity, disabilities, clothes, intelligence, athleticism, financial status, appearance, mental health conditions, etc. For example, a student was bullied due to mental health problems by classmates at Moreland Ridge who hit him with basketballs during a gym class, and the bullying escalated when he began attending the Freshman Center, where he was pushed and punched and had books knocked out of his hand during passing periods. The student eventually received inpatient care at a psychiatric facility and later began receiving homebound services as a result of what he experienced at school. Bullying also affects bystanders and friends of the victims who witness it, because they often feel afraid and powerless to stop it.

         The Blue Springs School District had in place anti-bullying departmental rules, regulations, and policies, but the Blue Springs Defendants did not follow them. At no time during his schooling in the Blue Springs School District did any teacher or other staff member ever acknowledge to Ryker or his parents that bullying existed within the District, nor was Ryker ever given protection from his classmates' treatment of him. The Defendants treated bullying as teasing or kids being kids, or something that should be ignored by the victim, or ignored complaints of bullying unless they were provided with a name, place and time. The Defendants' approach to bullying led to a culture in which bullying was a right and victims felt powerless, and an environment that was not reasonably safe for all students. The Defendants' response to Ryker's problems with other students made Ryker feel hopeless, caused him to fear for his safety and well-being, and gave him and the students who were bullying him the false impression that he was the problem because he was different, and that the other students' behavior was acceptable. The Defendants' failure to remove Ryker's bullies from the school environment enabled the harassment and bullying to continue and served to encourage the bullying acts to continue to be directed toward Ryker on a repeated basis.

         Some of Ryker's friends attempted suicide, and in the 2013-2014 school year Ryker's best friend, Ethan, committed suicide, due to bullying at school. Students complained to the Blue Springs Defendants about the bullying that Ethan had experienced and the Defendants' failure to follow the District's anti-bullying rules, regulations, and policies, but the students' complaints were ignored or minimized. Parents also repeatedly reported acts of bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination to the Blue Springs School District after Ethan's death and prior to Ryker's death. Bullying increased during the 2013-2014 school year, due to the Defendants' failure to address it.

         Ryker attempted suicide after Ethan's death. Both before and after Ryker's attempt, he was told by more than one student on more than one occasion to “go ahead and kill yourself” or to kill himself like his best friend had, or was taunted in some other humiliating way. Doc. 1-2, pp. 17, 19-20, and 22. For example, the Thursday prior to his suicide attempt, three students approached him in the cafeteria and told him, “Kill yourself.” Id., p. 20. Ryker felt humiliated and did not want “to live because of the bullying and harassment he was experiencing from students, particularly the ones who were telling him to ‘go kill yourself.'” Id., p. 19. He was admitted to an inpatient treatment center after his suicide attempt and reported to staff that the source of his suicidal feelings stemmed from being bullied at school, including that he was told to kill himself. The treatment center told the school what Ryker had reported.

         Although the Blue Springs School District Defendants knew about Ryker's suicide attempt and knew it was because of bullying at school, they failed to properly or effectively respond “to the severe, pervasive, and persistent harassing conduct of students, in violation of” the District's rules against bullying, and had “actual knowledge” that their efforts “to remediate bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination were ineffective, but continued to use those same methods[, ]” id., pp. 20-21, paras. 111 and 114.

         Defendants' actions and inactions in addressing bullying at school directly caused or contributed to cause Ryker severe mental anguish and worsened his depression and suicidal thoughts, and Ryker committed suicide on May 20, 2014. The Blue Springs Defendants' treatment of bullying and complaints of bullying in the school, their response to Ethan's death, their response to complaints of bullying after Ethan's death, and their response to the bullying that Ryker experienced caused or contributed to cause Ryker to take his own life.

         The Blue Springs School District was also sued for wrongful death in 2009 following the suicide by hanging of another Blue Springs student, Brandon Myers. Brandon's parents claimed that Brandon committed suicide due to years of repeated bullying at school and the District's failure to take any action despite complaints. The District settled the case in 2012. As part of the 2012 settlement with Brandon's parents, the District promised or contracted with Brandon's parents to provide additional training to administrators regarding bullying, to hold an anti-bullying day each year, and to implement a suicide-prevention program throughout the District. The District either failed to provide the additional training or its administrators failed to follow the District's rules despite the training. The District also failed to timely hold its anti-bullying day and failed to launch a suicide prevention program. Id., pp. 26, paras. 141-42.

         Plaintiff's 16-Count petition contains the following Counts against the Blue Springs Defendants:

I. Violation of Ministerial Duties (Blue Springs Defendants)
II. Breach of Contract (Blue Springs School District)
III. Discrimination in Public Accommodations Under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 213.065 (Blue Springs Defendants)
IV. Wrongful Death-Negligence (Blue Springs School District)
V. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Blue Springs School District)
VI. Wrongful Death-Negligence (Defendants Kinder, Grover, Lyon, Knipmeyer, Breske, Walkenhorst, and Martin)
VII. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Defendants Kinder, Grover, Lyon, Knipmeyer, Breske, Walkenhorst, and Martin)
IX. Wrongful Death Under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Blue Springs School District)
X. Wrongful Death Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Deprivation of Federal Rights (Blue Springs Defendants)
XI. Wrongful Death Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, State-Created Danger (Blue Springs Defendants)
XII. Wrongful Death Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Supervisory Liability for Participation in and Encouragement of Misconduct by Subordinates (Defendants Kinder, Grover, Martin, and Lyon)
XIII. Wrongful Death Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Denial of Substantive Due Process Through Failure to Train and Supervise (Blue Springs School District)
XIV. 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Denial of Substantive Due Process Through Policy, Custom, and Practice of Failing to Respond to or Prevent Bullying in Its Schools (Blue Springs School District)
XVI. Aggravating Circumstances-Punitive Damages (Blue Springs Defendants)

         II. Discussion

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. The factual allegations of a complaint are assumed true and construed in favor of the plaintiff, “even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508 n.1 (2002)); Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327 (1989) (“Rule 12(b)(6) does not countenance ... dismissals based on a judge's disbelief of a complaint's factual allegations.”); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (stating that a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it appears “that a recovery is very remote and unlikely”). The issue is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiff is entitled to present evidence in support of his claim. Scheuer, 416 U.S. at 236. A viable complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. A complaint is plausible if its “factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). A complaint that offers labels, bare assertions, and “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” is insufficient to avoid dismissal. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

A. Count I, Violations of Ministerial Duties (Blue Springs Defendants); Count IV, Wrongful Death-Negligence (Blue Springs School District); Count V, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Blue Springs School District); Count VI, Wrongful Death-Negligence (Defendants Kinder, Grover, Lyon, Knipmeyer, Breske, Walkenhorst, and Martin); and Count VII, Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Defendants Kinder, Grover, Lyon, Knipmeyer, Breske, Walkenhorst, Martin, and White)

         Defendants state that Counts I, IV, V, VI, and VII fail to state a claim and do not contain sufficient factual allegations. Defendants list elements of claims of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Doc. 27, p. 14 of 26 (citing Gillis v. Principia Corp., 111 F.Supp.3d 978, 988 (E.D. Mo. 2015)). They then argue: “For example, Plaintiff fails to include facts establishing that the Defendants should have realized their conduct involved an unreasonable risk of causing the distress, among other things. Plaintiff offers conclusory allegations as to the elements of her claims, rather than factual support. The same holds true for the claim in Count ...


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