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G.V.R. v. Espanola Public Schools

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

September 14, 2018

G.V.R., by and through his parents and next friends, M.V.R. and S.R., Plaintiff,
v.
THE ESPAÑOLA PUBLIC SCHOOLS; PETER ENGLER, in his individual capacity; ANDREW VALDEZ, aka JOHN ANDREW VALDEZ, In his individual capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Andrew Valdez's Motion to Dismiss and for Qualified Immunity, filed on May 14, 2018 (Doc. 16), Defendants Board of Education of the Española Public School District and Peter Engler's Motion to Dismiss and for Qualified Immunity, filed on April 13, 2018 (Doc. 6), Plaintiff's requests for limited discovery, to convert the motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment, and to amend his complaint, filed on May 11, 2018, as part of his Response (Doc. 15) to the School Defendants' motion to dismiss, and Plaintiff's Opposed Motion to Dismiss Counts III and IV, filed on June 15, 2018 (Doc. 33). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73(b), the parties have consented to me serving as the presiding judge and entering final judgment. See Docs. 10-13.

         Having considered the record, submissions of counsel, and relevant law, the Court finds Defendant Valdez's motion to dismiss (Doc. 16) should be denied, Defendants Española Public School District and Peter Engler's motion to dismiss (Doc. 6) should be granted in part, Plaintiff's requests for discovery, to convert his response to a motion for summary judgment, and to amend his complaint (Doc. 15) should be denied, and Plaintiff's motion to dismiss (Doc. 33) should be denied.

         I. Procedural Background

         This case arises from alleged physical abuse that G.V.R. (“Plaintiff”), a minor child, suffered at the hands of Defendant Valdez, who was employed as a music teacher at Plaintiff's elementary school. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Valdez violated his substantive due process rights, and that Defendants Board of Education of the Española Public School District (“EPSD” or “Board”) and Engler (collectively, the “School Defendants”) failed to adequately screen, train, and supervise Defendant Valdez, which led to Plaintiff's injuries and deprivations of his constitutional and statutory rights.

         Plaintiff filed his original complaint in the First Judicial District Court, State of New Mexico, County of Rio Arriba, on November 16, 2017. See Doc. 1-A. Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint on January 12, 2018. See Doc. 1-B, First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). The School Defendants properly removed the case to this Court on April 6, 2018. See Doc. 1.

         Plaintiff alleges the following counts against the Defendants: (1) in Counts I-III, Plaintiff alleges that all three Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) in Count IV, Plaintiff alleges that EPSD violated his rights under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681-88; and (3) in Count V, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants EPSD and Engler violated his rights under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“NMTCA”), N.M. Stat. Ann. 1978 § 41-4-6. See FAC ¶¶ 132-78.

         II. Plaintiffs Allegations in the First Amended Complaint

         The November 18, 2015 Incident

         In the fall of 2015, Plaintiff was a third grade student at Troy E. Quintana “Sombrillo” Elementary School (“Sombrillo Elementary”). FAC ¶¶ 4, 45. On November 18, 2015, Plaintiff and his classmates attended Defendant Valdez's music class. Id. ¶ 47. During class, Plaintiff put his feet on a chair to show off his new shoes. Id. ¶¶ 48-49. “Defendant Valdez yelled at [Plaintiff] to put his ‘fucking feet down.'” Id. ¶ 50. Plaintiff complied, but later put his feet back on the chair. Id. ¶ 51. Defendant Valdez yelled, “I fucking told you to take your feet off the chair.” Id. ¶ 52. Defendant Valdez then “picked up the chair [Plaintiff] had his feet on and slammed it down on the floor. [He] then punched [Plaintiff] in his right shoulder three times with a closed fist.” Id. ¶¶ 53-54. Defendant Valdez kicked a second student in the shin, pulled a third student to the ground by the hair, and shouted at the class “that they were ‘stupid' and to ‘shut up,' as well as yelled profanity at the students.” Id. ¶¶ 55-56.

         Plaintiffs regular teacher, Ms. Valencia, eventually came to retrieve her students from the music classroom. Id. ¶ 58. “Ms. Valencia told the class that Defendant Valdez said that they were very bad and [he] did not want any of them to return to his classroom.” Id. ¶ 59. Plaintiff then told Ms. Valencia what Mr. Valdez did. Id. ¶ 60. Ms. Valencia reported the incident to Defendant Engler, the principal of Sombrillo Elementary, and asked if she should contact the students' parents. Id. ¶¶ 4, 61, 63. Defendant Engler advised Ms. Valencia that he would take care of the situation, and she was not to contact parents. Id. ¶¶ 62-63.

         Later that afternoon, Defendant Valdez reported to Defendant Engler “and told him that he had ‘lost it' and had ‘lost control' of the class. He also stated that he wished to drop that class.” Id. ¶ 64. Defendant Engler did not contact the police or Plaintiff's parents on November 18, 2015. Id. ¶¶ 65-66.

         When Plaintiff got home from school that day, “his older sister saw that he had blood on his clothes and that he had soiled himself. [He] also began throwing up.” Id. ¶ 67. When his parents arrived home that night, they took Plaintiff to the hospital because he “was acting strangely and was unable to walk.” Id. ¶ 70. “The hospital treated [him] for his shoulder pain” and diagnosed him “with vertigo from the stress he had endured that day.” Id. ¶ 71. “The physician also [said] that the encopresis and enuresis were . . . due to stress.” Id. ¶ 72. “Hospital staff contacted police and State Police Patrolman Mario Herrera arrived at the hospital and took a report.” Id. ¶ 73.

         “On November 19, 2015, Defendant Engler collected written statements from each of the children from [Plaintiff's] class, including the three children”[1] allegedly battered by Defendant Valdez. Id. ¶ 75. Also on November 19, 2015, Plaintiff's parents and Patrolman Herrera met with Defendant Engler of their own accord - Defendant Engler had not contacted them. Id. ¶¶ 78-79. “Defendant Engler stated that [the school] had not contacted the parents of the students assaulted by Defendant Valdez because he had wanted to investigate first, there was a lot going on, and he did not have time to contact them.” Id. ¶ 80. “Defendant Engler confirmed that [Plaintiff's] story was true and relayed the confirming statements of the other students.” Id. ¶ 81.

         When EPSD's Human Resources Director interviewed him, Defendant Valdez admitted to grabbing the chair Plaintiff had his feet on and setting it down “hard, ” “slapping” Plaintiff with the back of his hand, and yelling at students. Id. ¶¶ 83-86. EPSD terminated Defendant Valdez's employment on November 23, 2015. Id. ¶ 89. The New Mexico Public Education Department (“PED”) and Defendant Valdez later “agreed to a suspension of his teaching license for two years, which was deferred on” certain agreed conditions. Id. ¶ 90. As part of the agreement, Defendant Valdez admitted that “he engaged in inappropriate contact with three students and used inflammatory and derogatory language with students . . . .” Id. ¶ 91 (quotation marks omitted).

         Defendant Valdez was also criminally indicted for three counts of child abuse in violation of N.M. Stat. Ann. 1978 § 30-6-1D(2) for his actions on November 18, 2015. Id. ¶ 92. Defendant Valdez ultimately pleaded guilty to three counts of battery and received a sentence of six months of jail for each count, which the court suspended on the condition of 18 months of supervised probation. Id. ¶¶ 94, 96.

         Plaintiff continued to suffer physical and emotional effects from the physical assault, including pain and numbness, bruising, feeling his shoulder “pop” in and out of place, decreased mobility, torn tendons in his shoulder, problems sleeping, sleepwalking, continued episodes of enuresis and encopresis, a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and a fear of school. Id. ¶¶ 97-118. Plaintiff was homeschooled for a time because of his fear of school and later switched to another school because he did not want to attend school in Española. Id. ¶¶ 105, 107. Plaintiff also attended physical therapy due to the problems with his shoulder, as well as counseling for his emotional trauma. Id. ¶¶ 99, 119.

         Defendant Valdez's Background

         Prior to 2015, Defendant Valdez had at least three brushes with law enforcement for criminal conduct. First, in 2008, the New Mexico State Police investigated Defendant Valdez for criminal sexual contact. Id. ¶ 12. According to Plaintiff's retelling of the police report, Defendant Valdez went to a woman's residence to pick up wood she was giving away. Id. ¶ 13. Although the woman “told him she did not wish to have sex, ” Defendant Valdez allegedly “pull[ed] up her shirt[, ] pulled down her bra[, ]” and “ran his hand up her thigh.” Id. ¶¶ 14-15. “Defendant Valdez told police their contact was consensual and he left because she had lied about her age. No. charges were ultimately filed against Defendant Valdez for these allegations.” Id. ¶¶ 17-18.

         In 2011, the New Mexico State Police investigated Defendant Valdez after his four-year-old granddaughter told her mother (and later a Safehouse interviewer) that he had touched her vaginal area. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. No. charges were ever filed against Defendant Valdez based upon this report. Id. ¶ 21. EPSD employed Defendant Valdez in 2011 as a music teacher. Id. ¶ 22.

         “In 2012, Defendant Valdez was arrested and charged with” three crimes: battery; resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer; and use of telephone to harass. Id. ¶ 23. It was alleged that on September 23, 2012, Defendant Valdez entered a Mini Mart, grabbed one cashier's groin area, and touched a second cashier's breast. Id. ¶¶ 24-25. He later allegedly called one of the cashiers and made inappropriate, harassing statements. Id. ¶ 26. Defendant Valdez then resisted orders from officers who went to his residence. Id. ¶ 27. All charges related to this incident were dismissed in 2013, after Valdez entered into an agreement for a conditional discharge with supervised probation. Id. ¶¶ 28-29. EPSD hired Defendant Valdez sometime after this incident to teach music at Sombrillo Elementary.[2] Id. ¶ 31.

         In 2014, Defendant Valdez allegedly “physically battered a female student at Sombrillo Elementary . . . .” Id. ¶ 33. Plaintiff further alleges that about one month before the November 2015 incident at issue in this lawsuit, “Defendant Valdez physical battered Plaintiff . . . by pulling up his underwear.” Id. ¶ 34.

         Sombrillo Elementary Staff and Policy

         A second Sombrillo Elementary teacher has also been charged with abuse of his students in the past: in 2012, teacher Jimmy Montoya was charged with criminal sexual contact of nine minor students at Sombrillo Elementary. Id. ¶ 37. “There is evidence that one of the students disclosed an instance of inappropriate contact to another teacher, who did not report it.” Id. ¶ 38. Plaintiff alleges that EPSD hired Mr. Montoya “despite numerous prior allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment of students by him in Santa Rosa and Socorro, New Mexico, which resulted in the one-year suspension of his license in 1999.” Id. ¶ 40.

         Plaintiff also asserts that around the time of the incident at issue here, Sombrillo Elementary teachers “were behaving angrily towards their students by getting in their faces and screaming at them.” Id. ¶ 43. Finally, Plaintiff alleges, “Defendant Engler had a policy . . . that teachers at Sombrillo Elementary School were not allowed to contact parents directly.” Id. ¶ 42.

         III. Legal Standard

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court “must accept all the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint as true and must construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” In re Gold Res. Corp. Sec. Litig., 776 F.3d 1103, 1108 (10th Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted). “To survive a motion to dismiss, ” the complaint does not need to contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but it “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Plausibility does not equate to probability, but there must be “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         IV. Analysis

         A. The Court will not dismiss Plaintiff's claim against Defendant Valdez under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         In Count I, Plaintiff brings a claim against Defendant Valdez pursuant to Section 1983 for violations of his substantive due process right to bodily integrity. See FAC ¶¶ 121-31. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Valdez's actions on November 18, 2015, were egregious, outrageous, and shocking to the conscience. Id. ¶¶ 126, 128. Section 1983 of Title 42 “provides that a person acting under color of state law who ‘subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured.'” Scott v. Mid-Del Sch. Bd. of Educ., 724 Fed.Appx. 650, 653 (10th Cir. 2018) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983).

         “An individual defendant sued under § 1983 ‘may raise a defense of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from damages actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of clearly established law.'” Id. (citing T.D. v. Patton, 868 F.3d 1209, 1220 (10th Cir. 2017) (ellipsis, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted), cert. denied (U.S. Mar. 5, 2018) (No. 17-1021)). To overcome a qualified immunity defense, “the plaintiff carries a two-part burden to show: (1) that the defendant's actions violated a federal constitutional or statutory right, and, if so, (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's unlawful conduct.” T.D., 868 F.3d at 1220 (quotation omitted). “To meet this heavy burden the ‘plaintiff may show clearly established law by pointing to either a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision, or the weight of authority from other courts, existing at the time of the alleged violation.'” Scott, 724 Fed.Appx. at 653 (quoting T.D., 868 F.3d at 1220 (internal citation omitted)). “Although there need not be a case directly on point, [a state actor] cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right's contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in his shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Id. (quoting T.D., 868 F.3d at 1220 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)).

         1. The Court will use the Fourteenth Amendment “shocks-the- conscience” standard to analyze Plaintiff's claim.

         “The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits ‘executive abuse of power . . . which shocks the conscience.'” Muskrat v. Deer Creek Pub. Sch., 715 F.3d 775, 786-87 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846 (1998)). The Tenth Circuit has held

that a form of the shocks-the-conscience test applies to school-inflicted corporal punishment:
[T]he substantive due process inquiry in school corporal punishment cases must be whether the force applied caused injury so severe, was so disproportionate to the need presented, and was so inspired by malice or sadism rather than a merely careless or unwise excess of zeal that it amounted to a brutal ...

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