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Doe v. Dardanelle School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 27, 2019

Jane Doe, (originally named as John Doe individually and as a parent and next friend to Jane Doe, a minor) Plaintiff - Appellant
Dardanelle School District Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: April 18, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Little Rock

          Before COLLOTON, GRUENDER, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.


         Jane Doe appeals the district court's[1] grant of Dardanelle School District's ("Dardanelle") motion for summary judgment and its partial denial of her motion for leave to amend her complaint. We affirm.

         While Doe was a student at Dardanelle, she claims that another student, R.C., sexually assaulted her at least twice. The first incident took place in October 2014 during a kickball game. While running the bases, R.C. ran into Doe, who was standing on second base. Doe testified that R.C.'s upper arm "bump[ed]" her breast and that he called her a bitch. Doe said she did not know why R.C. called her a bitch but that she may have been "blocking his way" and that the comment may have been "out of frustration."

         The second incident took place in October 2015. Doe and R.C. were seated next to each other while watching a movie with the lights off in a home economics class. Doe testified that R.C. reached up her shorts and touched the outside of her "private parts." After Doe pushed him away, R.C. attempted to force Doe to touch his groin. Doe pulled her arm away, and R.C. "grabbed" Doe's breast over her shirt. Doe testified that nobody else at the table at which she and R.C. sat saw or heard what happened.

         Doe reported both incidents to Dardanelle administrators, who discussed them with R.C. Alleging that Dardanelle was deliberately indifferent, Doe filed a complaint under 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. ("Title IX") and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in May 2017. Doe later moved to amend the complaint, and the district court denied her motion in part. Dardanelle moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted its motion. Doe appeals both orders.

         We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, considering the facts "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Hiland Partners GP Holdings, LLC v. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA, 847 F.3d 594, 597 (8th Cir. 2017). A motion for summary judgment will be granted where "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The district court explained that Title IX and § 1983 have the same deliberate indifference standard and concluded that Dardanelle was not deliberately indifferent.[2]It reasoned that the first incident did not put Dardanelle on notice that R.C. might sexually assault Doe and that though Dardanelle might have taken more "prudent" steps after the second incident, it is not liable for "failing to take the most reasonable course of action or even for responding negligently." Doe v. Dardanelle School District, No. 4:17cv00359, 2018 WL 3795235, at *4 (E.D. Ark. Aug. 9, 2018). It additionally observed that even if Dardanelle were deliberately indifferent, the harassment was not "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" that it deprived Doe "of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school." Id. (quoting Davis, 526 U.S. at 650). The district court therefore granted Dardanelle's motion for summary judgment.

         "Deliberate indifference is a stringent standard of fault that cannot be predicated upon mere negligence." Doe v. Flaherty, 623 F.3d 577, 584 (8th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Under Title IX, Dardanelle is liable only if its "deliberate indifference effectively 'cause[d]' the discrimination." Davis, 526 U.S. at 642-43 (alteration in original). We "should refrain from second-guessing the disciplinary decisions made by school administrators." Id. at 648. Summary judgment is proper unless Dardanelle was "clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances." Id. at 648-49.

         First, Doe claims that Dardanelle was deliberately indifferent because it had "received at least one other report from a second student, T.R., complaining that R.C. had attempted to touch her inappropriately." R.C. said that he sometimes hit T.R. on the arm. Vice Principal Lynn Balloun discussed T.R.'s complaint with R.C., who promised that he would stop. The record does not indicate when T.R. made the complaint. Even if we assume the complaint came before the first incident with Doe as she claims, we cannot say that Dardanelle's response to the complaint "effectively caused" the first incident with Doe. See Davis, 526 U.S. at 642.

         Doe next argues that Dardanelle's "inaction in the face of" the first incident involving Doe "led to the second, more severe assault." But Dardanelle did take action after the first incident. Doe reported the first incident to a teacher and to Principal Marcia Lawrence. In response, Balloun and Counselor Cynthia Hutchins discussed the incident with R.C. Both Balloun and Hutchins "sternly" talked to R.C. "about proper behavior."

         While Balloun's notes from his discussion with R.C. after the first incident indicate that he believed R.C. had touched Doe several times, Doe testified in deposition and without reservation that R.C. had never touched her before the kickball incident. She also testified that, according to her memory of the 2014 school year, there was only one incident when R.C. touched her. Accepting Doe's statement is not a "failure to apply the proper summary judgment standard," as Doe contends. Rather, the unambiguous testimony of the only witness with firsthand knowledge demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute of fact. Cf. ...

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