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S.W. v. Rockwood R-Vi School District

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

November 30, 2017

S.W., a minor, by and through Next Friend, TAMMY WALSH, Plaintiff,
v.
ROCKWOOD R-VI SCHOOL DISTRICT, ERIC KNOST, LISA COUNTS, CHARLES CROUTHER, and JENNIFER STRAUSER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NOELLE C. COLLINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint[1]or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11). The Motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c)(1) (Doc. 18). For the following reasons, Defendants' to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint or, in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11) will be GRANTED, in part and DENIED, in part, and Plaintiff will be permitted to amend her Complaint.

         I. Background

         On April 5, 2017, Plaintiff S.W., by and through Next Friend, Tammy Walsh filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Missouri state law against Defendants Rockwood R-VI School District (the “District”), Eric Knost (“Knost”), the Superintendent of the District; Lisa Counts (“Counts”), the Assistant Superintendent of the District; Charles Crouther (“Crouther”), the Principal at Eureka High School (“EHS”); and Jennifer Strauser (“Strauser”), the Associate Principal at EHS (collectively “Defendants”) in St. Louis County Circuit Court (Doc. 4). Defendants removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri on May 10, 2017 (Doc. 1). Plaintiff fails to indicate whether she sues Knost, Counts, Crouther, or Strauser (collectively the “Individual Defendants”) in their official or individual capacities. Therefore, the Court will proceed as if the Individual Defendants were sued in their official capacities only. Artis v. Francis Howell N. Band Booster Ass'n, Inc., 161 F.3d 1178, 1182 (8th Cir. 1998) (finding that if a complaint fails to specifically name a public official in his or her individual capacity, it is presumed he or she is sued only in his official capacity). Plaintiff seeks money damages and an expungement of S.W.'s education records of the events at issue (Doc. 4 at ¶95).

         Plaintiff raises the following claims against the Individual Defendants: Counts I & II: Defamation (Defendant Strauser); Count III: False Light Invasion of Privacy (Defendants Crouther and Knost); Count IV: Prima Facie Tort (Defendants Knost and Counts); Count V: Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (All Individual Defendants); Counts VI & VII: Section 1983 violations for property interest in public education, property and liberty interests in his reputation, liberty interest in being free of arbitrary and capricious punishment, and procedural right to due process (All Individual Defendants); and Count VIII: Civil Conspiracy (All Individual Defendants). Plaintiff also raises a Section 1983 claim against the District (Count IX). Defendants now move to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment (Doc. 11).

         II. Legal Standard

         As a preliminary matter, the Court will treat Defendants' Motion as filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint and alternatively for summary judgment but seek to convert the motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment (Doc. 11). Plaintiff also requested that the Motion be treated as a Summary Judgment Motion (See Doc. 15). Further, as is the case here, “[i]f matters outside the pleadings ‘are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.'” Zean v. Fairview Health Servs., 858 F.3d 520, 526 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d)).

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists in the case and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The initial burden is placed on the moving party. City of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa v. Associated Elec. Co-op., Inc., 838 F.2d 268, 273 (8th Cir. 1988). If the record demonstrates that no genuine issue of fact is in dispute, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth affirmative evidence and specific facts showing a genuine dispute on that issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate in a particular case, the Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor. Benford v. Correctional Medical Services, No. 1:11CV121 JAR, 2012 WL 3871948, at *4 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 6, 2012) (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 331). The Court's function is not to weigh the evidence but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249). “Credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Id. (quoting Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011)).

         III. Relevant Undisputed Facts[2]

         On February 10, 2016, S.W. brought two gothic masks to school so that he and J.S. could wear them (Doc. 27 at ¶¶6, 13; Doc. 39 at ¶¶6, 13; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶1; Defs.' Ex. A at ¶8; Defs.' Ex. D at ¶9; Defs.' Ex. E at ¶9; Defs.' Ex. F).[3] S.W. wore the mask for a period of time while walking the school hallway before classes began (Doc. 27 at ¶13; Doc. 39 at ¶13; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶3). At one point, S.W. lowered his mask and spoke to at least one student (Doc. 27 at ¶7; Doc. 39 at ¶7; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶7). S.W. was not asked to remove the mask (Doc. 27 at ¶6; Doc. 39 at ¶6; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶¶4-5). The school administration and the police were contacted about the incident (Doc. 27 at ¶21; Doc. 39 at ¶21; Defs.' Ex. A at ¶8; Defs.' Ex. D at ¶4; Defs.' Ex. E at ¶¶2-3). S.W. spoke with police that night (Doc. 27 at ¶29; Doc. 39 at ¶29; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶25; Pl.'s Ex. H[4]).

         On February 11, 2016, S.W. and his parents met with Defendants Charles Crouther and Jennifer Strauser (Doc. 27 at ¶33; Doc. 39 at ¶33; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶26; Defts.' Ex. A at 2; Defs.' Ex. D at ¶¶6-7; Defs.'s Ex. E at ¶¶6-7). A representative from the Special School District appeared via telephone (Doc. 27 at ¶33; Doc. 39 at ¶33; Defs.' Ex. D at ¶7; Defs.' Ex. E at ¶7). During the meeting, Defendant Crouther advised S.W. of the allegations against him (Defs.' Ex. D at ¶¶8; Defs. Ex. E at ¶8). Specifically, Defendant Crouther indicated that the allegations against S.W. were that he wore the mask to school, had previously written the word “PREPARE” on his desk, and told other students he was going to “kill them all” (Defs. Ex. D at ¶6). S.W. denied that he said he was going to “kill them all” (Defs.' Ex. D at ¶9; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶31).

         Defendant Crouther suspended S.W. for ten school days (Defs.' Ex. D at ¶12). S.W. was provided with a previously prepared suspension notice describing the basis of the suspension (Doc. 27 at ¶33; Doc. 39 at ¶33; Defs.' Ex. D at ¶13; Pl.'s Ex. E). The text from the suspension notice was included in a Behavior Detail Report, a part of S.W.'s confidential education record (Defs.' Ex. D at ¶14-15; Pl.'s Ex. F). The text reads:

On Wednesday, February 10, before school in the hallway, [S.W.] and another student were wearing skull masks that [S.W.] provided. They covered the lower half of their faces and frightened many students. [S.W.] is seen on camera walking up and down the hallway, confronting students silently in a menacing manner. At one point, [S.W.], seated on the floor, pulled the mask down and told a group of boys he was going to “kill you all” and then put the mask back up on the lower part of his face.

(Defs.' Ex. J). The video has no sound (Doc. 27 at ¶35; Doc. 39 at ¶35; Pl.'s Ex. D at ¶29). A second meeting took place on February 17, 2016 (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶5). Present at the meeting were S.W., his parents, and Defendants Counts and Knost (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶5). During the meeting S.W. was interviewed (Defs.' Ex. M).

         On February 25, 2016, a hearing was held to determine whether a suspension beyond ten days was warranted (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶6). S.W. and his parents were accompanied by a lawyer (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶7). Also present at the hearing were the District's attorney, the 9th Grade Principal, Defendant Crouther, a special education administrator, and an attorney representing the Special School District (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶7). Administrators presented the findings from the District's investigation including statements from two witnesses who heard S.W. say that he was going to “kill them all” (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶8). S.W. denied saying that he was going to “kill them all” (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶9). Two students appeared to testify on S.W.'s behalf (Doc. 4 at ¶39; Doc. 27 at ¶39; Doc. 39 at ¶39; Pl.'s Ex. A at ¶35). The students were not allowed to testify (Doc. 27 at ¶39; Doc. 39 at ¶39; Pl.'s Ex. A at ¶35).

         The day after the hearing, Defendant Counts contacted S.W.'s mother via telephone and advised her that Defendant Knost had decided to extend S.W.'s suspension through the end of the school year (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶10). Defendant Counts further indicated that Defendant Knost would consider allowing S.W. to return to school sooner if S.W. provided an assessment from a private professional indicating that S.W. does not present a danger to others or himself (Defs.' Ex. L at ¶11). That same day, S.W.'s counsel sent an email to counsel for the District indicating that S.W. would be appealing the District's decision to extend S.W.'s suspension to the School Board (Defs.' Ex. O).

         On February 29, 2016, Plaintiff was informed by letter of S.W.'s extended suspension through the end of the school year (Defs.' Ex. N). The letter, signed by Defendants Counts and Knost, provided, “If, however, [S.W] completes an assessment with a private professional indicating that he does not present a danger to others or himself and is safe to return to school, we are willing to consider a written request for reducing the suspension” (Id.).

         On March 11, 2016, counsel for the District sent a letter to S.W.'s counsel confirming S.W.'s request for a hearing before the School board and setting the hearing on March 23, 2016 (Defs.' Ex. Q). The District's attorney indicates:

The District alleges that on February 10, 2016, [S.W.] engaged in threatening behavior and made threats to students by wearing a skull mask on school property in a frightening and menacing manner and by ...

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