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KC v. Mayo

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

August 6, 2019

KC, Plaintiff,
v.
MARK MAYO, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          BETH PHILLIPS, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Plaintiff brought this suit asserting claims arising from harassment and sexual misconduct directed at her by a teacher, Johnna Feazell, when Plaintiff was a student in Junior High and High School in the Marshfield R-1 School District, (“the District.”) The remaining defendants in the case are:

• The District;
• Mark Mayo, the District's Superintendent during the relevant time period;
• Jeffrey Curley, Principal at the Junior High until July 2013, at which point he became the Principal at the High School; and
• Doug Summers, Assistant Principal at the Junior High until July 2013 (when Curley left to go to the High School), at which point he became the Principal at the Junior High.

         Mayo has filed a Motion to for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 102.) The District, Curley, and Summers have filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 100.) For the following reasons, the motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has been permitted to proceed using a pseudonym, and the Court will refrain from identifying her or members of her family by name. Similarly, other individuals in this case were (and may still be) minors at the time of these events; in an abundance of caution, the Court will refrain from naming these individuals (or anyone else who might permit them to be identified).

         In Part A below, the Court will address the facts that are relevant under the legal standards applicable in this case. In Part B, the Court will highlight some of the factual allegations that have been presented that, for one reason or another, cannot be considered or are not relevant under the governing law. Some of these facts will also be mentioned in Part A. Finally, Part C will set forth the case's procedural posture. The Court will not provide citations for facts that have been agreed to by the parties. Finally, additional facts (particularly the content of school policies) will be set forth in Part II of this Order.

         A.

         As will be discussed in Part II, Defendants' knowledge is a critical element to Plaintiff's claims. Generally, to be liable Defendants must have knowledge of a substantial risk that Feazell would harm Plaintiff. In this Part I.A, the Court focuses on facts known to Defendants.

         Plaintiff attended eighth grade at the Junior High during the 2012-13 school year. Feazell was Plaintiff's English teacher and track coach that year and also coached Plaintiff's softball team (apparently, the high school team) the following summer (the summer before Plaintiff's freshman year of high school). Before that time, Plaintiff's mother had allowed Plaintiff to have several out-of-school interactions with Feazell. For instance, during the 2012-13 school year, Plaintiff's mother allowed Plaintiff to ride bikes with Feazell. After the school year was over in May, Plaintiff's mother gave her permission to go to Feazell's classroom to help her before or after softball practice. There was also an occasion that month when Plaintiff's mother let Plaintiff stay at Feazell's house while Plaintiff's mother went shopping in Springfield. Later in May of 2013, Plaintiff's mother allowed Plaintiff to go with Feazell to watch a softball game at the University of Missouri.

         In June 2013 (after the trip to the University of Missouri), Plaintiff's mother found two letters Feazell wrote to Plaintiff.[1] The letters are not dated and there is no way to determine which was written first. In one, Feazell begins by mentioning a “nice surprise” on her computer, references the fact that she is in some “distress, ” and advises that “I thought to ease the time today, if I wrote something each time, I would feel better, so, be prepared and as usual, destroy!” (Doc. 119-1, p. 1.)[2] Feazell then states that Plaintiff has “changed me as a person tremendously” and that she

can't think about how this year will end b/c I just don't want to lose this bond! I would honestly do anything for you just as if you were my daughter. (I don't know how many moms “take down” their daughters, but whatever!) When I say I love you to pieces it really is heartfelt. I feel the need to tell you as often as possible just b/c I want you to know at all moments, not just occasionally! It is said w/ genuiness [sic] each and every time!

(Doc. 119-1, pp. 1-2.) Feazell concludes the letter by thanking Plaintiff for being part of her life.

         In the other letter, Feazell says that Plaintiff is the closest she will ever be to having a daughter, that she “open[ed] my heart and soul and boldly bare[d] it emotionally” and that Plaintiff

[l]et me see a whole new side of love that . . . I didn't know existed! I can't express how my heart feels to have this bond w/ you! As I've said, I haven't, and never will again, have this w/ anyone! You are the one and only daughter I will ever NEED! You have completed me as a person, a mom, and have filled my soul w/ the utmost joy!

(Doc. 119-2.) The letter closes with Feazell saying “I love you unconditionally, immensely, and w/ all of my heart! Thank you, baby girl, for being my daughter.”

         Neither letter states that Feazell and Plaintiff were having a sexual relationship. Plaintiff's mother testified that the letters depicted something other than a “normal professional adult-student relationship” but that she did not know that anything else was going on. (Doc. 119-3, p. 4 (Mother's Dep., p. 33).) She also testified that she told Curley that the notes “were highly inappropriate, they had crossed a line that no teacher should ever cross, and they were disgusting, ” and that she “didn't want them ever alone together, I didn't want her in her classroom, I didn't want them alone on the softball field.” (Doc. 119-30, p. 2 (Mother's Dep., p. 28).) However, Plaintiff's mother did not testify that she thought the notes indicated that there was a physical relationship between Feazell and Plaintiff. Plaintiff's mother wanted restrictions placed on Feazell's contacts with Plaintiff. (E.g., Doc. 119-24, pp. 11, 20 (Mayo Dep., pp. 78-79, 139).) Curley testified that Plaintiff's mother was concerned “that Mrs. Feazell was overstepping her bounds, trying to - trying to be the mom.” (Doc. 119-25, p. 5 (Curley Dep., p. 37); see also Doc. 119-25, p. 4 (Curley Dep., p. 29).) Curley and Mayo interpreted the letters similarly, (e.g., Doc. 101-14, p. 3 (Curley Dep., p. 133); Doc. 103-3, p. 8 (Mayo Dep., p. 75)), or as reflective of a “mentor/mentee” relationship arising from Feazell's concerns about Plaintiff's home life. (E.g., Doc. 119-24, p. 19 (Mayo Dep., pp. 130-33).) There is no evidence that anyone - including Plaintiff's mother - thought that the letters suggested a romantic or physical relationship existed.

         Approximately two weeks later, [3] Plaintiff's mother returned to the school and talked to Curley. She showed him Plaintiff's phone, which had numerous text messages from Feazell. Plaintiff's mother complained that this was “completely across the line” and that the police needed be called, but Curley talked her out of doing so. (Doc. 119-30, pp. 5-6 (Mother's Dep., pp. 38-41).) The text messages are not in the Record and apparently do not exist; Plaintiff's mother testified that she no longer has the phone. (Doc. 119-30, p. 5 (Mother's Dep., p. 40).) However, nothing in the Record indicates that the texts demonstrated any sexual activity. In her briefing Plaintiff describes the texts as “harassing” and “more troubling in tone and content than” the letters, but Plaintiff's mother did not say that they described a physical/sexual relationship, instead explaining that the texts reflected Feazell's increasing anxiety over Plaintiff's failure to return her calls. (Doc. 109, pp. 40-41; Doc. 119-34, ¶¶ 6-7.) For his part, Curley testified that the texts were not similar in tone to the letters, were “general” and about softball, and the content was not alarming - but they did confirm that Feazell had been texting with Plaintiff. (Doc. 119-25, pp. 6-7 (Curley Dep., pp. 57-58).) As stated, the texts are not in the Record, and there is no competent evidence as to their contents.[4]

         On June 17, Curley, Feazell and a representative from the teacher's union met to discuss Plaintiff's mother's complaint, and a memo memorializing the meeting was written on June 18. The memo reflects that during the meeting Feazell provided additional communications between herself and (1) Plaintiff and (2) Plaintiff's parents. In addition, at some point Plaintiff provided Curley with “a letter describing her relationship with her mother, the dynamics of her home life and her positive relationship with Miss Feazell.” (Doc. 101-14, p. 4.) The memo makes the following directives to Feazell:

• Stop texting and writing letters to Plaintiff
• Only talk to Plaintiff about school-related issues
• If a need to discuss personal issues arose, then another adult must be present
• Curley or Summers are to be advised if there are any conversations unrelated to education or school

(Doc. 101-14, p. 4.)[5]

         Shortly after the next school year started (likely around September 11, 2013), a teacher at an elementary school in the District, (MM), was arranging for a sleepover at her house for her daughter and Plaintiff; MM's daughter and Plaintiff were in the same grade. Feazell contacted MM shortly after the arrangements were made, explained that she had learned about the plans, and “asked . . . if she could come by and pick [Plaintiff] up and hang out for a while.” (Doc. 119-31, p. 6 (MM Dep., pp. 47-48).) According to MM, Feazell “said that she's just trying to help [Plaintiff], that she had a rough home life and she was just worried about her and wanted to come get her and do something nice for her. And then she explained that she was fixing up a bedroom for her and wanted her to pick out paint colors.” (Doc. 119-31, p. 6 (MM Dep., p. 48).) Feazell also “claimed that [Plaintiff's] home life was horrible” because she “was being verbally and emotionally abused” but “there wasn't any way to prove it” and “she just wanted to do something nice for her.” (Doc. 119-31, p. 7 (MM Dep., pp. 49, 50).) Upon learning that Feazell did not have Plaintiff's parents' permission, MM told Feazell that she could not pick up Plaintiff. MM then reported this incident to a counselor, who advised her to talk to her principal at the elementary school, Michelle Mitchell. Mitchell suggested that MM talk to Summers - who by this time was the principal at the Junior High. MM told Summers about her conversations with Feazell and showed him the text messages that Feazell had sent, and Summers asked for permission to show the messages to Mayo. (Doc. 119-31, p. 15 (MM Dep., pp. 129-30).) At some point, MM also related these events to Curley (who by now was the principal at the High School). (Doc. 119-31, pp. 9, 16 (MM Dep., pp. 57, 133-34).)[6] Summers contacted Feazell, who initially denied contacting MM, but then explained that she just wanted to make sure that Plaintiff was alright and to “see how she was doing.” (Doc. 119-27, p. 4 (Summers Dep., pp. 66-67).)

         On October 9, 2013, Mayo wrote a Notice of Deficiency to Feazell, (“the Notice”). (Doc. 119-5.) One of the topics in the Notice relates to Feazell's continued communications with Plaintiff, including attempts to communicate with Plaintiff through another teacher, (MM), and acknowledges Feazell's representations that she was communicating with Plaintiff because she was concerned about her welfare at home. (See Doc. 119-24, p. 30 (Mayo Dep., p. 229).) The Notice stated that:

If the student has issues with parents and/or guardians they should be instructed to contact guidance counselors, DFS, or local law enforcement. If you feel that the student is the subject of abuse and neglect you should also contact the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect hotline. The student SHOULD NOT be advised not to obey the lawful directives of their parents/guardians.
[I]f you have reason to believe that [Plaintiff] is the subject of abuse and/or neglect by her parents, then you, as a mandatory reporter MUST contact DFS to make the hotline reports. . . . Please also know that if you truly feel that [Plaintiff] has been the subject of abuse and neglect we want you to please feel free to contact a counselor or any administrator and we will aid you in filing that report. If, however, there is no . . . evidence that would warrant an investigation, then you are directed to stay away from [Plaintiff] except to provide (1) instruction on academic matters; and/or, (2) coaching and instructional aid and support for participation in extracurricular activities wherein you are an assigned coach, sponsor, or supervisor of activities.

(Doc. 119-5.) The Notice also placed Feazell on probation for four months and warned that further violations would result in further disciplinary action (possibly including termination). (Doc. 119-5; Doc. 103-3, p. 22 (Mayo Dep. p. 226).)

         Feazell's personnel file included three letters, apparently written by Feazell and provided to students other than Plaintiff. None of them are dated, and there is no information about when they were put in her personnel file, or why; in fact, there is no other information about them whatsoever. All three letters suggest a greater degree of familiarity between the teacher and the student-recipient than would normally be expected. In one, Feazell asks the recipient for her softball schedule, and then says: “We can travel during the summer and the boys will love it! Who knows, I might be able to practice my tongue thing on a real ...


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