Federal district court holds student stated valid claim for violation of substantive due process based on sexual relationship with guidance counselor, despite age

Doe v. Fournier, No. 11-30155 (D. Mass. Feb. 22, 2012)

Abstract: A federal district court in Massachusetts has ruled that a female student has stated a valid claim for violation of Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights based on the student’s sexual relationship with a school guidance counselor, even though the student was over the age of consent at the time of the relationship. It denied the joint motion to dismiss by the municipality, the school board and school district officials, and the motion to dismiss by the guidance counselor.

The court found the substantive due process claim valid based on sufficient allegations of actual knowledge of the discrimination and deliberate indifference to the discrimination. Relying on these same findings, the court also held that the student had stated a valid claim for violation of Title IX against the municipality and the school board.

Although a major portion of the opinion discusses the validity of the student’s claims under state law, this summary focuses solely on the federal claims.

Facts/Issues: Jane Doe, a student at Palmer High School (PHS), became involved in a sexual relationship with Patrick Van Amburgh, a guidance counselor and assistant football coach at PHS in 2008. Before this, in 2006, a police investigation reported that he had engaged in sex with a student. Van Amburgh denied the allegations, but admitted to failing to maintain proper boundaries with students and to using poor judgment.

Doe’s  complaint alleges that some or all of the defendants knew about the sexual allegations against Van Amburgh, but failed to perform a reasonable investigation. One law enforcement official noted that PHS officials wanted to “sweep the situation under the rug.” Doe claims that Van Amburgh did not change his behavior after the 2006 investigation.

Instead, she charges, he openly failed to maintain proper boundaries with students, bragged about having sexual relations with female students, and bragged about participating in a “contest” with another school employee to see who could have sex with the most female students. As part of the contest, Van Amburgh and the other employee allegedly collected the belts of the students they had sex with as proof.

When Van Amburgh began his sexual relationship with Doe in 2008, Doe was 17 and, thus, over the age of consent. When Doe’s mother learned of the relationship, she reported it to the superintendent and one of the Palmer School Committee (PSC) members. The superintendent placed Van Armburgh on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of the allegations.

After the investigation was completed, the superintendent notified Van Amburgh that he would be terminated for having sexual intercourse with a student, inappropriate interactions with other female students, misuse of work time (including sending thousands of text messages to female students), and visiting inappropriate web sites during school time. Van Amburgh submitted a letter of resignation the same day.

Doe subsequently filed suit in federal district court against the Town of Palmer (Town), PSC, the superintendent, the principal of PHS, and Van Amburgh. Doe’s federal claims allege that the defendants violated her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights because Van Amburgh’s sexual harassment deprived her of her right to bodily integrity, and that the Town and PSC violated her rights under Title IX. The Town, PSC, the superintendent, and principal filed a joint motion to dismiss both federal claims. Van Amburgh filed a separate motion to dismiss the due process claim.

Ruling/Rationale: The district denied the joint motion to dismiss and Van Amburgh’ separate motion to dismiss. Addressing the substantive due process claim, the court rejected the defendants’ argument that the consensual nature of the relationship negated Doe’s ability to maintain the claim. It first noted, “[s]ome decisional law supports the existence of a due process violation when a teacher engages in a consensual sexual relationship with a student.” The court next pointed out that even though Doe was over the age of a consent under Massachusetts law at the time of the “sexual harassment,” in Chancellor v. Pottsgrove Sch. Dist., 501 F. Supp. 2d 695(E.D. Pa. 2007), “the court found that a substantive due process violation was possible even where the student was over the age of consent.”

While acknowledge that caselaw was “sparse” regard this question, the district court was unwilling to dismiss the claim without allowing discovery “and to find thereby that consensual sexual relations with a student over the age of consent can never constitute a substantive due process violation. The inherent imbalance of power between a guidance counselor in a public school and a student may render opportunistic sexual predation sufficiently shocking, even with a ‘consenting’ student over sixteen, to form the basis of a substantive due process claim.”

As to Van Amburgh’s motion to dismiss, the court rejected his argument that even if his actions constituted a substantive due process violation, the claim should be dismissed because he was not acting under color of state law when he engaged in the relationship with Doe. It found, based on the principle that a wrongdoer is acting under color state law when he is clothed with the authority of state law, even if he is misusing his power, “even though Van Amburgh’s actions were not authorized — and even prohibited — by the school, a reasonable jury could nevertheless find that he was acting under the color of state law.”

The court stated: “It may be inferred from these allegations that Van Amburgh enjoyed the opportunity to harass Plaintiff and solicit sex from her by virtue of the authority he had as a high school guidance counselor and football coach.” It added that the fact that some of relations took place after school hours and off-campus did not alter the fact that Van Amburgh was “clothed with the authority of state law.”

In regard to whether the Town, PSC, and the school officials could be held liable for the alleged substantive due process violation, the district court concluded that the allegations showed sufficient actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and deliberate indifference to it to survive a motion to dismiss. It found the complaint was replete with examples of actual knowledge — from the 2006 police report, to Van Amburgh’s failure to maintain proper boundaries with students, to the superintendent’s testimony that he believed Van Amburgh was too “cozy” with students.

While acknowledging the defendants’ swift action when Doe’s mother complained, the court stressed that the allegations were “sufficient to show that school officials had actual notice of, but failed to investigate or stop Van Amburgh’s sexual harassment of students long before Plaintiff’s mother approached [the superintendent and the school committee member.]” It, therefore, concluded that Doe’s allegations were sufficient to show deliberate indifference for purposes of the motion to dismiss.

Lastly, the district court denied the Town and PSC’s motion to dismiss Doe’s Title IX claim: “For the reasons discussed earlier in the context of Plaintiff’s[due process claim], Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Defendants had actual knowledge of discrimination and were deliberately indifferent to that discrimination.”

Doe v. Fournier, No. 11-30155 (D. Mass. Feb. 22, 2012)

[Editor's Note: The district court acknowledged that the fact the student has reached the statutory age of consent does not negate the predatory aspects of the relationship because of the imbalance of the positions of a student versus a teacher or school staff member. The situation is not unlike that faced by employees being pushed into to a sexual relationship with a supervisor, the so-called quid pro quo relationship, under Title VII.

In December 2010, Legal Clips summarized an article in Education Week reporting that the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) had issued a study finding that schools in some cases have hired individuals with histories of sexual misconduct as teachers, coaches, janitors, and administrators, partly because of lax systems of background checks. The GAO documented 15 cases in which individuals guilty of past misconduct were hired or retained by schools. In 11 of those cases, the individuals in question had previously targeted children, and in six of them, the offenders used their new positions to abuse more children.]

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