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S.M. v. Bloomfield School District

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 12, 2017

S.M., Plaintiff,
Bloomfield School District, et al., Defendants.


         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment against Defendant Benjamin Griffith. Doc. 21. In the Motion, Plaintiff contends that summary judgment should be entered against Defendant Griffith on Plaintiff's first and second causes of action arising under the Fourteenth Amendment. Doc. 20. Having reviewed the briefing and considered the relevant law, the Court will GRANT Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The facts leading to up to the alleged encounter between Defendant Griffith and Plaintiff are largely undisputed. At the time of the incident, Defendant Griffith was a teacher at Bloomfield High School. Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, Doc. 8 at ¶ 4; Defendant Griffith's Answer, Doc. 17 at ¶ 4. Plaintiff was a student at Bloomfield High School and was working on a computer in Defendant Griffith's classroom. Doc. 8 at ¶¶ 1, 164; Doc. 17 at ¶¶ 1, 164. At some point during class, Plaintiff connected a cell phone to the computer and began listening to music. Doc. 8 at ¶ 166; Doc. 37 at 3. The cell phone displayed an image of a woman which Defendant Griffith observed. Doc. 8 at ¶ 166; Doc. 37 at 3-4. Defendant Griffith approached Plaintiff and questioned her regarding the image. Doc. 8 at ¶ 166, Doc. 37 at 3-4. Plaintiff alleges that the image contained a picture of a woman in her bra and panties. Doc. 8 at ¶ 166. She alleges that when Defendant Griffith observed the image he accused her of looking at “girl porn.” Doc. 8 at ¶ 167. It is undisputed that Defendant Griffith then removed one of Plaintiff's earbuds, placed it in his ear, and began to dance. Doc. 8 at ¶ 170; Doc. 37 at 4. The parties dispute the manner, however, in which Defendant Griffith returned the ear bud once he was done listening to the music. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Griffith purposefully dropped the earbud down her shirt. Doc. 21 at 5. Defendant Griffith contends that he did not intentionally drop the earbud down Plaintiff's shirt but admits that is where it landed. Doc. 37 at 4. After returning the earbud, Defendant Griffith insisted on looking at Plaintiff's phone. Doc. 21 at 5; Doc. 37 at 4.

         The parties largely dispute what occurred next. Plaintiff alleges that she repeatedly refused to give Defendant Griffith her phone. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Griffith then reached for the phone, latched his finger onto Plaintiff's shirt, and pulled her shirt down while brushing his hand across her breasts. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Griffith then momentarily left but returned and pinched her below her ribs on her left side. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff alleges that she pulled away from Defendant Griffith which caused him to aggressively touch her body and breasts with his hands. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant continued to touch her despite her objections while asking if she was ticklish. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff further alleges that at some point Defendant Griffith placed the corner of a manila envelope down the front of Plaintiff's shirt and began questioning her regarding the color and design of her bra. Doc. 21 at 5. Plaintiff alleges that she repeatedly objected to showing Defendant Griffith her bra. Doc. 21 at 5-6. In response, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Griffith removed Plaintiff's hands from her keyboard and typed the word “asshole” on the screen. Doc. 21 at 6. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Griffith then began grabbing at Plaintiff's body again and threatened to pinch her breasts. Doc. 21 at 6. Plaintiff alleges that as she tried to leave the classroom, Defendant Griffith approached her with her back to a wall and asked why she was leaving. Doc. 21 at 6.

         Defendant Griffith, on the other hand, disputes that he intentionally grabbed Plaintiff's breast when he reached for her phone. Doc. 37 at 5. Defendant Griffith contends that he instead “inadvertently brushed one of [Plaintiff's] breasts with the back of his hand.” Doc. 37 at 5 (emphasis added). Defendant Griffith likewise generally denies Plaintiff's remaining allegations of additional contact. Furthermore, Defendant Griffith disputes that his guilty plea was “for having touched Plaintiff's breasts for his own sexual gratification” and that the plea automatically serves as an admission of the “myriad of [Plaintiff's] ‘undisputed' facts concerning the alleged incident.” Doc 37 at 7. In sum, while Defendant Griffith largely disputes Plaintiff's version of events, Defendant Griffith concedes that he reached for Plaintiff's phone but missed and in so doing inadvertently touched Plaintiff's breast. Doc. 37 at 5.

         Subsequent to the encounter, Defendant Griffith was arrested and ultimately pled guilty to criminal sexual contact of a minor pursuant to NMSA 1978, § 30-9-13(D)(2), which covers situations in which a school employee molests a student. Defendant Griffith was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment and is required to register as a sex offender.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), this Court must “grant summary judgment if 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). The movant bears the initial burden of “show[ing] that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). Once the movant meets this burden, Rule 56(c) requires the non-moving party to designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986).

         “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Thom v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by . . . citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). All material facts set forth in the motion and response which are not specifically controverted are deemed undisputed. D.N.M.LR-Civ. 56.1(b).

         When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court should keep in mind three principles. First, the court's role is not to weigh the evidence, but to whether a genuine issue exists as to material facts requiring a trial. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. Second, the court must resolve all reasonable inferences and doubts in favor of the non-moving party, and construe all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 550-55 (1999). Third, the court cannot decide any issues of credibility. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. “[T]o survive the . . . motion, [the nonmovant] need only present evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor.” Id. at 257.

         III. ANALYSIS

         As noted above, the parties largely dispute the material facts underlying the encounter between Defendant Griffith and Plaintiff. Generally, where there are disputed issues of material fact, the Court must deny summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Plaintiff contends, however, that, due to his guilty plea, Defendant Griffith should be either judicially estopped or collaterally estopped from disputing the underlying facts of the encounter. Accordingly, before reaching the merits of Plaintiff's Motion, the Court will determine whether Defendant Griffith should be estopped from denying Plaintiff's allegations. The Court concludes that judicial estoppel does apply to preclude Defendant from asserting that his touching of Plaintiff's breast was unintentional. Because the doctrine of collateral estoppel, if it applied, would not have any greater preclusive effect, the Court need not address the issue of collateral estoppel. Having determined that judicial estoppel applies, the Court next concludes that Defendant Griffith's intentional touching of Plaintiff's breast for his sexual gratification requires the entry of summary judgment in connection with Plaintiff's Due Process and Equal Protection claims.

         A. Judicial Estoppel

         Judicial estoppel “is a broad, discretionary remedy which courts may invoke to protect the integrity of the judicial process.” Spurlock v. Townes, Civ. No. 09-00786, Doc. 76 at 8 (D.N.M. May 26, 2010). While this doctrine is “probably not reducible to any general formulation, ” the gist of judicial estoppel holds that “where a party assumes a certain position in a legal proceeding, and succeeds in maintaining that position, he may not thereafter, simply because his interests have changed, assume a contrary position, especially if it be to the prejudice of the party who has acquiesced in the position formerly taken by him.” Johnson v. Lindon City Corp., 405 F.3d 1065, 1069 (10th Cir. 2005) (citing Davis v. Wakelee, 156 U.S. 680, 689 (1895)). Courts routinely analyze several factors in determining when judicial estoppel applies. “First, a party's later position must be clearly inconsistent with its earlier position.” Johnson, 405 F.3d at 1069 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). ‚ÄúSecond, whether the party has succeeded in persuading a court to accept that party's earlier position, so that judicial acceptance of an inconsistent position in a later proceeding would create the perception that either the ...

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