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Smith v. School Board of The City of Chesapeake

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Norfolk Division

June 27, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss by defendants School Board of the City of Chesapeake, Naomi Dunbar, Dawn Cyr, Freddie Spellman, James Roberts, and Jeff Bunn (collectively "Defendants"), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), ECF No. 5, and a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint by plaintiffs Javonte Smith and Lavone Smith (collectively "Plaintiffs"), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2), ECF No. 23. After examining the briefs and the record, the Court determines that oral argument is unnecessary because the facts and legal contentions are adequately presented, and oral argument would not aid in the decisional process. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b); E.D. Va. Loc. R. 7 (J) . Thus, the Court DENIES Defendants' request for a hearing.

         For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is GRANTED and Plaintiffs' remaining state law claims are REMANDED to the Circuit Court for the City of Chesapeake.


         A. Factual Background

         On May 11, 2016, plaintiff Javonte Smith ("Javonte") (who was seventeen years old at the time) and other students were participating in a game known as "Sharks & Minnows" ("Game") during their physical education class at Indian River High School ("Indian River"), a public school operated by defendant School Board of the City of Chesapeake ("Board"). Compl. ¶¶ 2, 16, ECF No. 1-2. The Game was a version of tag that involved students acting as "sharks" chasing other students acting as "minnows" as they sprinted from one end of the basketball court in the gymnasium to the other. Id. ¶¶ 16-17. During the Game, Javonte acting as a "minnow" was sprinting to one end of the court to avoid being tagged by a student acting as a "shark." Id. ¶ 21. In an effort to slow and stop himself once he reached the end, Javonte extended his arms toward a wall of the gymnasium, ultimately making physical contact with the wall. Id. ¶¶ 21-22. The impact caused serious and permanent injuries to both of Javonte's wrists. Id. ¶¶ 21, 29, 31. In addition to the pain and suffering caused by the injuries, Plaintiffs allege that Javonte is now unable to perform occupational tasks that he could have otherwise performed and is, thus, permanently impaired in his earning capacity. Id. ¶ 31. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that Javonte's father, plaintiff Lavone Smith ("Lavone"), incurred and will continue to incur medical expenses on behalf of Javonte. Id. ¶ 14.

         Defendant Naomi Dunbar ("Dunbar"), the Principal of Indian River at the time of the incident, had direct and supervisory duties to protect the bodily integrity of the students, including Javonte, and to set and follow school policies. Id. ¶ 8. Defendants Dawn Cyr ("Cyr") (a physical education teacher at Indian River), Freddie Spellman ("Spellman") (Indian River's Athletic Director), James Roberts (the Superintendent of Chesapeake Schools), and C. Jeff Burm (the Chairman of the Chesapeake School Board) were also charged with protecting the bodily integrity of the students, including Javonte. Id. ¶ 9-12. On the day of the incident, Plaintiffs allege that Javonte was under the care, custody, and control of all of the Defendants. Id. ¶ 13. Prior to the incident, the Defendants had actual and/or constructive notice that the Game posed a risk of injury for students and that the Game had, in fact, led to student injuries in the past. Id. ¶ 17. Moreover, the Defendants knew or should have known that, on the day of the incident, the Game would have been more dangerous due to the number of students playing. Id. Despite Defendants' knowledge of the danger and the highly foreseeable risk of injury, and despite the fact that they had discussed banning the Game# none of the Defendants terminated the Game or banned it on the day of Javonte's accident, leading to the series of events described above. Id. 17, 20.

         B. Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants in the Circuit Court for the City of Chesapeake alleging that Defendants violated Javonte's fundamental right to bodily integrity. Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1. Defendants then removed the suit to this Court, asserting that federal jurisdiction was appropriate under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 because Plaintiffs' claim arises under federal law. Id. Defendants next filed the instant motion and the accompanying brief in support. Defs. Mot., ECF No. 5; Defs. Br., ECF No. 6. After the Court granted two motions for an extension of time, Orders Granting Mot. for Extension, ECF Nos. 17, 20, Plaintiffs filed a response, Pis. Resp., ECF No. 21. Defendants then replied. Defs. Reply, ECF No. 22.

         After Defendants filed their reply, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint, an accompanying brief in support, and a Proposed Amended Complaint. Pis. Mot. for Amended Compl., ECF No. 23; Pis. Br., ECF No. 24; Prop. Amend. Compl., ECF No. 25. Following Plaintiffs' request for leave to amend, Defendants filed a request for a hearing, Defs. Request, ECF No. 26, and a brief in opposition to Plaintiffs' motion for leave to amend, Defs. Br. in Opp., ECF No. 27. Having been fully briefed this matter is now ripe for review.


         The Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review permits dismissal when a complaint fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint fails to state a claim if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) . Though a complaint need not be detailed, the" [f ]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555; see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         A motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint without resolving factual disputes, and a district court "xmust accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint' and 'draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.'" Kensington Volunteer Fire Dep't v. Montgomery Cty., 684 F.3d 462, 467 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting E.I, du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011)). Although the truth of the facts alleged is presumed, district courts are not bound by the "legal conclusions drawn from the facts" and "need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000); see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. At 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must include 'more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation. "' Johnson v. Am. Towers, LLC, 781 F.3d 693, 709 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Section 1983 Claim

         1. Basis for the Section 1983 Claim

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff may pursue a private right of action if a person, acting under color of state law, deprives the plaintiff of rights secured by the United States Constitution or conferred by a law of the United States. Wahi v. Charleston Area Medical Center, Inc., 562 F.3d 599, 615 (4th Cir. 2009).

         Section 1983 states, in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress ....

42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs' § 1983 claim is brought pursuant to Javonte's right to bodily integrity, which has been recognized as a liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Meeker v. Edmundson, 415 F.3d 317, 323-24 (4th Cir. 2005). Plaintiffs argue that Javonte's constitutional right to bodily integrity was violated when Defendants allowed him and his classmates to play the Game because Defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk of injury.

         The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that a state shall not "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. This clause recognizes two distinct categories of rights - procedural rights and substantive rights. See, e.g., Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). While procedural due process simply guarantees fair procedures (typically notice and opportunity to be heard), Mora v. City of Gaithersburg, 519 F.3d 216, 230 (4th Cir. 2008), substantive due process protections guard against *state action so arbitrary and irrational, so unjustified by any circumstance or governmental interest, as to be literally incapable of avoidance by any pre-deprivation procedural protections or of adequate rectification by any post-deprivation state remedies." Rucker v. Harford Cnty., 946 F.2d 278, 281 (4th Cir. 1991). Plaintiffs' claim falls within the substantive due process category.

         "The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause protects a set of interests - life, liberty, and property - that are also protected by state tort law. Together with § 1983, then, there is some risk of the Clause supplanting state tort law in almost any suit alleging that a local official has caused harm." Waybright, 528 F.3d at 204. The Supreme Court has therefore taken a cautious approach to such claims. Id. In distinguishing between actions that rise to the level of a constitutional injury and those that are more akin to a state tort action, the Supreme Court has observed that the Clause, at its core, "combats 'arbitrary action' of government." Id. (quoting County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 845 (1998)). It does not apply to ordinary governmental neglect, bad policy or inaction, but rather "only the most egregious official conduct can be said to be arbitrary in the constitutional sense." Id. (citation omitted).

         This standard is high because "[i]n case after case, the Supreme Court has . . . spurned any approach to the Fourteenth Amendment that would make itxa font of tort law to be superimposed upon whatever systems may already be administered by the States.'" Id. (quoting Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 701 (1976))." [T] he due process guarantee does not entail a body of constitutional law imposing liability whenever someone cloaked with state authority causes harm," Lewis, 523 U.S. at 848, and therefore, the Due Process Clause should not be "interpreted to impose federal duties that are analogous to those traditionally imposed by state tort law." Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 128 (1992).

         As the Fourth Circuit noted in Waybright, two guiding principles can be gleaned from Supreme Court jurisprudence regarding the reach of the Due Process Clause. First, meritorious due process claims are those that "involv[e] a certain sense of constitutional magnitude." Waybright, 528 F.3d at 204. Since "applying the Clause to the ordinary run of governmental neglect, inaction, and bad policy would diminish it," the courts should apply the Due Process Clause to cases that involve "'only the most egregious official conduct.'" Id. (quoting Lewis, 523 U.S. at 846) . Second, the Fourth Circuit notes that every extension of the Due Process Clause necessarily implicates a "concern for the authority of state governments over areas traditionally assigned to state law." Id. at 205." [D]ecisions about how to allocate resources in state government * involve a host of policy choices that ...

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