J.H. v. School Town of Munster, No. 12-69 (N.D.Ind. Feb. 3, 2016)
Abstract: A federal district court in Indiana has ruled that a former student stated a valid 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violation of his equal protection rights, a valid claim for violation of his Title IX rights, and a valid state law claim of negligence ( the state law negligence claim is beyond the scope of this article). However, it rejected his Title IX claims of gender stereotyping, “sex-plus,” and class year, and his Title IX and First Amendment retaliation claims.
The court concluded that the former student had alleged sufficient facts to withstand a motion for summary judgment by the school district and the school officials in their individual capacities on the equal protection claim. In regard to the school district, it concluded the student had alleged facts showing the school district could be held liable based upon the theory of municipal liability because the practice of hazing on the boys swim team was a well-settled practice or custom, and injury was cause by an individual with final decision making authority.
The court also found the individual defendants could be held liable for violating the student’s equal protection rights. It rejected their assertion of qualified immunity on the ground that the law was clearly established that the Equal Protection Clause applies to male and female students at the time the alleged hazing began.
The district court concluded that the same set of facts also sufficiently overlap to establish a gender discrimination claim under Title IX. However, it found that the Title IX claim could only be maintained against the school district and not individual defendants.
Facts/Issues: J.H., a student at Munster High School, was a member of the boys swim team his freshman and sophomore years. During that time, he was subjected to a number of hazing incidents involving physical and emotional mistreatment. Some of the hazing took place at off-campus parties and some at school, including in the locker room.
After J.H. told his mother about the hazing, she met with Coach Pavlovich to alert him to what was happening at the off-campus parties. She claims Pavlovich brushed off the incident by saying “[i]t’s probably best if we don’t do anything about it at this point. It happened a year ago. A lot of those kids are gone.” He also told Ms. Hunt that “there were a lot of traditions already in place when [I] took over this team.”
Not satisfied with this response, Ms. Hunt then met with Athletic Director Smith on February 3, 2011. They discussed the hair-dyeing parties and Smith asked if J.H. was planning on attending the next hair-dyeing party. Ms. Hunt responded that he was not. According to Ms. Hunt, when she referred to what happened at the February 2010 party as hazing, Smith said, the “boys don’t look at it as hazing. They look [at it] as initiation.” Ms. Hunt also asked Smith to get the word out to other parents and swimmers about what happens at the pre-sectional parties. When J.H. failed to attend the 2011 hair-dyeing party, his teammates were not happy and he was verbally threatened for not attending.
Still not feeling like she was getting any traction with school officials, Ms. Hunt then emailed Coach Pavlovich and Athletic Director Smith with an article about the dangers of hazing on February 9, 2011. But just five days later, J.H. was violently attacked in the boys locker room after practice. According to J.H., some boys grabbed him, lifted him up, and carried him over to another boy who was holding electric hair clippers. J.H. resisted and eventually the boys dropped him to the cement floor, on his back. J.H. was able to run away from the boys before they attacked him any further. There were no coaches in the locker room at the time of the incident, as was typical at that time because coaches were rarely in the locker room after practice. He did not tell his mother at the time of the incident.
J. H.’s mother subsequently met with Superintendent Pfister about hazing in the boys swimming program. When she told Pfister about what happened to J.H. at the February 2010 hair-dyeing party, his initial response was “[h]ey lady, your kid’s hair got cut” and that the school would not be getting involved because the incident occurred off campus.
Pfister did concede to Ms. Hunt that J.H. may have a valid complaint against the parents who hosted the party, but concluded that it wasn’t the school’s problem. Pfister did, however, order an investigation, but considered the matter closed once he learned it occurred off-campus. Both he and Tripenfeldas later admitted that some measure of discipline could have been taken.
Aside from the hair-dyeing incident, Tripenfeldas’ investigation didn’t reveal anything that he considered to be hazing. Tripenfeldas characterized what he discovered in the investigation as incidents of “pranks and horse play.” Because the hair-dyeing parties occurred off-campus, he and Pfister both considered the matter closed.
On May 23, 2011, Ms. Hunt submitted a formal written complaint regarding hazing on the boys swim team and met with Superintendent Pfister. That same day, J.H. told his mom that he was being verbally harassed and pushed around by some swim teammates. J.H.’s mom met with the dean of students about the issue, and he then interviewed J.H. alone. Although the dean at first seemed to think there wasn’t an issue to pursue, he later told Ms. Hunt that the issue had been addressed.
Communications between the school officials and J.H.’s mother really broke down after that point. Once Ms. Hunt learned what had happened to her son in the locker room in February 2011, she reported the incident to both the police and Tripenfeldas. She informed Tripenfeldas that she wanted to be present when he interviewed J.H. Tripenfeldas told her “we don’t have to do that.” After that she said she thought that she had a right to be there and that she had been consulting an attorney.
Tripenfeldas gave her the school attorney’s contact information and ended the discussion. It doesn’t appear there was much communication between Ms. Hunt and the school after that. In fact, when J.H. elected not to swim over the summer, his email address was removed from the team mailing list. J.H. decided not to return to swimming the following semester.
J.H. filed suit against the school district and various school officials in their individual and official capacities under § 1983 claiming discrimination based on gender under the Equal Protection Clause and Title IX; retaliation under the First Amendment; and a negligence claim under Indiana state law. Defendants now seek summary judgment on all claims.
Ruling/Rationale: The federal district court granted in part and denied in part the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Before discussing the merits of J.H.’s claims, it dismissed all claims against the individual defendants in their official capacities because such claims were redundant of the claims against the school district. The court said “a claim against a school official in his official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official’s office.”
The district court then took up discussion of the §1983 equal protection claim. According to the court, the essence of J.H.’s claim was that hazing was rampant in the boys swimming program, but not so in the girls swimming program. It stated that in order for J.H. to prove his equal protection claim, he “must offer evidence that demonstrates that (1) Munster acted with a discriminatory intent or deliberate indifference and (2) J.H. is a member of a protected class.”
The court found that J.H. easily satisfied the second prong, and, therefore, focused on whether the school district acted with discriminatory intent or deliberate indifference. It pointed out that school districts cannot be held liable under §1983 for the acts of employees or agents based on the theory of respondeat superior. However, they can be held liable based on the theory of municipal liability, if the plaintiff can show: “(1) an express policy that causes a constitutional deprivation when enforced; (2) a widespread practice that is so permanent and well-settled that it constitutes a custom or practice; or (3) an allegation that the constitutional injury was caused by a person with final policymaking authority.”
Based on the evidence presented by J.H., the court determined he was only arguing the second and third options. As to the second option, it found that J.H. was arguing that because school officials were willfully ignoring the hazing taking place on the boys team, it constituted a custom or practice. It said, “Such a policy of non-response — that is, ‘a deliberate refusal to respond to complaints of harassment’ — is actionable under the Equal Protection Clause.” The court pointed out that “J.H. must show that Munster engaged in a widespread practice of ignoring complaints of hazing from the boys’ swimming program, either intentionally or with deliberate indifference to the boys’ rights, simply because the complaints were coming from boys and not girls.”
The district court concluded that J.H. had presented sufficient evidence that would allow a jury to infer that the custom or practice of ignoring complaints of hazing existed at the school. In support of this conclusion, it laid out J.H.’s “laundry list of ways that the officials at the school ignored hazing in the boys program.” It found a reasonable jury could conclude from that list that school officials did not care if male swimmers were being harassed.
The court rejected the school district’s argument that there wasn’t enough evidence such a policy existed because there was a lack “information about what’s going on in the girls team to conclude there is any disparate treatment at play.” It pointed out that the school district had admitted it was unaware of any hazing on the girls team because of the absence of any complaints. As a result, the court said it believed that was “enough for the jury to at least infer that there was no hazing in the girl’s program.”
According to the district court:
[T]here is enough evidence for a reasonable jury to infer that Munster maintained a hazing-infested swim team for boys and not for girls because there was a widespread practice at Munster of ignoring hazing on the boys team. Munster can, and I’m sure will, present evidence aimed at rebutting that presumption at trial. And at that point, it’ll be up to the jury to decide what to do with it.
With regard to the equal protection claim against the school officials in their individual capacities, the court rejected their assertion of qualified immunity to the claim because it was clearly established that the Equal Protection Clause applies to male and female students at the time the alleged hazing began.
The district court next analyzed the gender discrimination claim under Title IX. While it conceded that the standard for proving discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause was not one in the same as that for Title IX, the court found “the proof required overlaps significantly.” It found that where school district policy “alone suffices to establish an intent to discriminate, the usual four elements of a Title IX [action] are not wholly in play.”
However, the court found it was still in question whether “a plaintiff still needs to demonstrate that the harassment is severe and pervasive enough to deprive the plaintiff of educational opportunities, or whether the ‘intent’ is enough to show actual knowledge and/or deliberate indifference.” It concluded that “J.H. has also shown those elements, so his claim can proceed under either paradigm.”
The district court determined that “the same evidence supporting that the custom or practice existed, identified at length above, also supports deliberate indifference since the custom or practice was deliberate indifference.” It also pointed out that because “the basis of the claim is the school’s own policy, they obviously had actual knowledge of it (and in any event, as the evidence above shows, they had actual knowledge of the specific acts of hazing by at least the winter and spring of 2011).”
The court found that the only question not addressed for Title IX purposes was “whether the actions were severe and pervasive enough to deprive J.H. of educational opportunities.” It found J.H. had presented sufficient evidence of that element for summary judgment purposes. It stated:
J.H. has presented evidence that because of Defendant’s inaction regarding hazing on the boy’s swim team, he was forced to quit the swim team and graduate early, and that his grades declined. He also suffered psychological effects such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, all requiring treatment. Evidence of this nature is generally found to be enough for showing sufficiently pervasive and severe discrimination.
As to the individual defendants, the court found that Title IX only applies to educational institutions, not individuals. It, therefore, dismissed the Title IX claim as to the individual defendants.
The court granted the defendants’ motion as to the Title IX claims of gender stereotyping, “sex-plus,” and class year, and his Title IX and First Amendment retaliation claims.
J.H. v. School Town of Munster, No. 12-69 (N.D.Ind. Feb. 3, 2016)
[Editor’s Note: Legal Clips summarized an article in the Eagle-Tribune reporting that a superior court judge had declined to strip suspensions from the school records of two freshmen disciplined in a hazing scandal involving Andover High School basketball players. In total, seven students were disciplined; two ringleaders were expelled; and five others were suspended from school and athletics. The punishments were handed down after it was revealed in November 2011 that two “newcomers” were forced to engage in one of three humiliating sexual tasks or risk severe beatings while the players were attending basketball camp in July. A school report said the hazing, which involved students eating cookies covered in semen, was video-recorded by a team captain using a Smartphone.]