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Spring v. Allegany-Limestone Central School District

United States District Court, W.D. New York

December 19, 2017

KERI SPRING; EUGENE SPRING; JULIANNE SPRING; EUGENE SPRING and KERI SPRING on behalf of GREGORY SPRING; and KERI SPRING, as the duly appointed administrator of the ESTATE OF GREGORY SPRING, Plaintiffs,
v.
ALLEGANY-LIMESTONE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          DECISION AND

          WILLIAM M. SKRETNY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiffs commenced this action on June 17, 2014, asserting claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”); the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 701 (“Rehabilitation Act”); New York Civil Rights Law § 79-n; New York Estate Powers & Trusts Law (“EPTL”) § 5-4.1; and New York State common law. This Court granted a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint on September 30, 2015. Spring v. Allegany-Limestone Cent. Sch. Dist., 138 F.Supp.3d 282 (W.D.N.Y. 2015) (“Spring I”). Plaintiffs then moved to vacate the judgment and file a Second Amended Complaint, which this Court denied on November 4, 2015. (Docket No. 74.)

         Plaintiffs appealed that denial to the Second Circuit, which affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiffs' equal protection claims, substantive due process claims, retaliation claims, Monell liability claims, and state constitutional claims, but vacated this Court's denial of leave to amend the complaint related to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims and the order declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state statutory and common-law claims. See Spring v. Allegany-Limestone Cent. Sch. Dist., 655 F. App'x 25 (2d Cir. 2016) (“Spring II”). Consistent with that decision, Plaintiffs filed their Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) on August 31, 2016. (Docket No. 80.)

         Presently before this Court are motions from Defendants Allegany-Limestone Central School District, Jeff Black, Robert Decker, David Farrell, Karen Geelan, Eric Hemphill, Matthew Kahm, Christopher Kenyon, Jay King, Maggie Nuss, Kim Palmer, Phil Quinlan, Sue Schifley, Kevin Straub, the Board of Education of the Allegany-Limestone Central School District, John Wolfgang, Joe Zimmer, and Diane Lowry[1] (together, the “School Defendants”), Michael Easton, and Jacob Roewe, seeking dismissal of the SAC, as well as a Cross-Motion from Plaintiffs seeking leave to file a Proposed Third Amended Complaint (“TAC”). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion to file the TAC is granted in part. The motions of the School Defendants and Lowry are granted in part and denied in part. The motions of Easton and Roewe are denied.

         II. PLAINTIFFS' MOTION TO AMEND

         This Court first addresses Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion to Amend their Complaint. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure direct that courts “should freely give leave” to amend a complaint “when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). The Second Circuit has held that “[t]his permissive standard is consistent with [its] strong preference for resolving disputes on the merits.” Williams v. Citigroup Inc., 659 F.3d 208, 212-13 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). This liberality is tempered where a judgment has been entered, but that is not the case here. Therefore, although Plaintiffs have been given two previous opportunities to amend their pleadings-once as of right, and once by order of the Second Circuit-this Court finds that justice dictates a third opportunity. The motion to amend is granted, and this Court will consider the allegations of the TAC for purposes of the pending motions to dismiss.

         III. BACKGROUND

         This action arises from the tragic suicide of high school student Gregory Spring on June 17, 2013. As described in the TAC, Gregory[2] was a special education student who suffered from disabilities including Tourette's Syndrome, ADHD, and Callosum Dysgensis. (TAC at ¶¶ 32-33.) “Sufferers of DCC (Dysgenesis of the Corpus Collosum) often experience challenges with social interactions due to difficulty imagining potential consequences of behavior, being insensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others, and misunderstanding social cues (for example, being vulnerable to suggestion, gullible, and not recognizing emotions communicated by tone of voice).” (TAC at ¶ 33 (citing an “April 7, 2011 Psychoeducational Evaluation of the Defendant Allegany-Limestone Central School”).) Plaintiffs allege that these disabilities impacted Gregory's ability to speak, learn, read, concentrate, think, and communicate. Gregory's disabilities also presented in the form of motor and vocal tics, including “regular and frequent swallowing sounds, outbursts, involuntary knee slapping and eye blinking tics and compulsive cracking of his neck and wrists; repetitive utterance of foul language including the ‘F' word and repetitive questioning.” (Id.)

         Plaintiffs allege that, during middle school and high school, Gregory “was subjected to numerous acts of fear and intimidation including . . . teasing, taunting, bullying, name calling, violence, offensive touching, hitting, interference with relationships, and public and private humiliation-conduct motivated in whole or part by his disabilities.” (TAC at ¶ 41.) The name calling included “retard” and “dummy”, and his classmates also “mocked and mimicked his disability related tics . . . on a regular, daily, or near daily basis.” (Id.)

         Plaintiffs allege one incident in April 2012 when Gregory was disciplined and removed from the school's baseball team as a result of “horseplay” by Hamphill and Kenyon, who were both teachers and coaches. (TAC at ¶ 49.) In another incident, on November 8, 2012:

In response to unrelenting harassment and bullying by [fellow student] Defendant Michael Easton, Gregory Spring physically responded to Easton. Upon information and belief, Gregory Spring's conduct was a manifestation of his disability. Gregory Spring was immediately suspended and punished by Defendant [Assistant Principal] Straub for this incident. No manifestation hearing was provided or waived by Plaintiffs even though multiple students came forward to support Gregory's claim that said student engaged in acts of bullying toward him. Upon information and belief, Defendant Straub failed to discipline [Easton].

         (TAC at ¶¶ 21, 27, 42.) Plaintiffs allege that, following this incident, Easton, “with the aid, encouragement, sanction, and facilitation of the School District Defendants, on or about November, 2012 initiated criminal prosecution against Gregory Spring. Upon information and belief, Straub met with Easton and his parents, encouraged and facilitated the contact of law enforcement authorities to bring charges against Gregory Spring.” (TAC at ¶ 56.)

         Plaintiffs allege that, although Gregory's mother Keri “continuously and on occasions too numerous to mention sought the assistance of school officials, ” the bullying conduct was “minimized, dismissed and ignored by the school district's staff and officials, including the named Defendants.” (TAC at ¶ 56.) For example, after the November 2012 incident, Easton and fellow student Roewe escalated their harassment of Gregory, following him around school and finding him at his place of work, and “calling him ‘retard' and other disparaging names, mocking and mimicking his disability related tics, threatening to ‘kill' and ‘beat' him.” (Id.) Plaintiffs allege that Keri met with Straub on “no less than six . . . different occasions between January and June 2013” to complain regarding this escalation, but no action was taken. (Id.) Throughout these meetings, Plaintiffs allege that Keri and Gregory both made clear that the bullying conduct was due to Gregory's disabilities and referenced the mocking and mimicking of his disability-related tics. (Id.) At one such meeting in February or March 2013, Keri allegedly advised Straub that she was concerned that her son might harm himself and showed him copies of news articles dealing with bullying, including an article titled “Tormented to Death.” (Id.) At another meeting in March or April 2013, Gregory and Keri went together to see Straub and requested that the school intervene in the bullying. Straub allegedly refused, stating that Gregory was “just trying to get [Easton and Roewe] in trouble.” (Id.) This allegedly resulted in additional escalation, including “taunts by Defendant Roewe about how he and Easton were free to do anything against Gregory.” (Id.) Finally, at a meeting in April or May 2013, Keri allegedly brought a book about bullying called “Words Matter” to Straub and stated again that she was concerned that her son might harm himself. (Id.) Keri also allegedly told Straub that the school's failure to act was due to Gregory's disabilities. (Id.) After Gregory's death, Straub allegedly admitted that he failed to act when he should have, and expressed regret for his and the School's lack of response. (Id.)

         Plaintiffs allege that Keri also informed Wolfgang, Geelan, Straub, Kenyon, Schifley, and King of her concerns. (TAC at ¶ 45.) In the fall of 2012, Keri contacted Geelan, Straub, Schifley, and King in person, by phone, and by email to inform them of the bullying and harassment and to discuss the absence of an anti-bullying policy. (Id.) Board Members King, and Schifley allegedly told Keri that her concerns regarding the bullying would be brought to the attention to the full Board in Executive Session. (TAC at ¶ 47.) However, Plaintiffs allege that the Board did not take any protective or corrective action, including the adoption of an anti-bullying policy. (TAC at ¶ 46.) Plaintiff allege that this failure to act “was the product of discriminatory animus of School officials because of Gregory Spring's disabilities.” (TAC at ¶ 47.) Plaintiffs also allege that multiple “faculty members (Ms. Missel, Mr. Gilbert, Ms. Connie Spring, Mr. Austin, Defendants Lowry, Kenyon, Hemphill, etc.) spoke negatively about Gregory Spring calling him names such as ‘misfit', ‘troublemaker', ‘baby', etc. in the presence of faculty, staff and students.” (TAC at ¶ 47.)

         Plaintiffs allege that “[d]ue to Defendants' acts and omissions, including negligence, gross negligence, recklessness and/or deliberate indifference to disabilities, bullying, and discriminatory conduct against Gregory Spring, they caused him severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and self-loathing causing and/or contributing to his suicide on June 17, 2013.” (TAC at ¶ 54.) Two days after Gregory's suicide, on June 19, 2013, Lowry, a teacher's assistant, “authored and spoke statements and posted comments via internet and on-line pertaining to Gregory Spring and his death, falsely accusing him of misconduct and otherwise disparaging him and inflicting severe emotional distress upon the Plaintiffs herein.” (TAC at ¶¶ 22, 57.) The specific statements or contents of Lowry's comments are not described in the TAC. Plaintiffs allege, on information and belief, that Easton and Roewe also authored, made statements, and posted comments via internet and on-line pertaining to Gregory's death, stating: “HAHAHAHAHAHA HE DIED!!!!!! I HOPE HE IS IN HELLLLLLLLLL.” (TAC at ¶ 57.)

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Defendants move under Rule 12(b)(6), which allows dismissal of a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), this Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and make all reasonable inferences in a plaintiff's favor. ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (assumption of truth applies only to factual allegations and is inapplicable to legal conclusions).

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)); ATSI Commc'ns, Inc., 493 F.3d at 98. Although a plaintiff is not required to provide “specific facts”, the complaint must “give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests” in order to survive a motion to dismiss. See Boykin v. KeyCorp, 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008). “As the Court held in Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929, the pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         A. The Mandate Rule

         The Second Circuit's summary order affirmed dismissal of certain claims while vacating the dismissal of others. Both parties make arguments regarding the claims for which the Second Circuit affirmed dismissal. Plaintiffs argue that the dismissed claims should be reinstated based on the new allegations in the TAC; Defendants argue ...


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