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Graham v. City of Manassas School Board

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

July 1, 2019

THOMAS GRAHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF MANASSAS SCHOOL BOARD, d/b/a Manassas City Public Schools, et al, Defendants. ALAN LANIER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF MANASSAS SCHOOL BOARD, d/b/a Manassas City Public Schools, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Leonie M. Brinkema United States District Judge

         In the mid-1990s, Thomas Graham ("Graham") and Alan Lanier ("Lanier"), plaintiffs in these consolidated civil actions, were the victims of child sexual abuse at the hands of Steffon Rodney Christian ("Christian"), a former employee of Baldwin Elementary School ("Baldwin Elementary"). Christian was arrested in 2011 and ultimately pleaded guilty to 22 counts of sex crimes against minors, including crimes against plaintiffs. Graham and Lanier, now adults, have sued Christian as well as the City of Manassas School Board (the "School Board") and Alice H. Howard ("Howard"), who was Baldwin Elementary's principal at the time (collectively, "defendants"), alleging federal claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as state law claims of gross negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         Before the Court are the School Board's and Howard's motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[1] For the reasons that follow, the School Board's motions will be granted in their entirety; Howard's motions will be granted in part and denied in part; and all counts of plaintiffs' complaints except for the gross negligence claims against Howard will be dismissed.

         I.

         A.[2]

         Christian began working at Baldwin Elementary in 1981. He started as a kindergarten instructional assistant and, in 1987, switched to library secretary. He also coached the boys' basketball team and ran the school safety patrol program. Christian used these positions to develop inappropriately close relationships with male Baldwin Elementary students. He gave them gifts and money and supplied them with pornography. He occasionally spent time with students outside school grounds and after school hours, on golf outings and at his home. Christian's efforts to cultivate connections with male students were designed to "groom" them for sexual abuse, and ultimately he forced many of them to engage in various sexual acts with him, both at school and in his home.

         Graham was a student at Baldwin Elementary from 1992 to 1995, for fourth through sixth grade. When he started fourth grade, he heard from an older sixth-grade student that Christian was a "child molester." Graham had never heard the term before, and the comment did not prevent him from becoming close with Christian. Their relationship began when Christian helped Graham recover his stolen bicycle. By the time Graham was in fifth grade, Christian began sexually abusing him in the video room and equipment closet that was attached to Chistian's office in the library. That abuse continued throughout the summer after Graham graduated from Baldwin Elementary in 1995. Once, when Graham was in ninth grade, he was molested by Christian at Christian's home.

         Lanier was a student at Baldwin Elementary from 1990 to 1993, also for fourth through sixth grade. Christian began grooming Lanier in fourth grade, asking him to join the boys' basketball team and safety patrol. When Lanier was in fifth grade, Christian began asking him about sex, pornography, and other inappropriate topics. Christian spent a substantial amount of time with Lanier, playing sports and helping him with homework. Unlike in Graham's case, Christian's sexual abuse of Lanier did not begin until Lanier had graduated from Baldwin Elementary. In 1995, when Lanier was in eighth grade, Christian brought Lanier to his home and forced Lanier to perform sex acts. That summer, he abused Lanier several times in his Baldwin Elementary office. The abuse continued until 1999, when Lanier was in high school. In an effort to cover his crimes, Christian bribed Lanier to stay quiet and threatened him with violence if he told anyone what was happening.

         Despite Christian's efforts to hide his misconduct, there were signs that something was amiss. It was a matter of public knowledge that Christian had close relationships with many boys enrolled at Baldwin Elementary and often spent time with them at school and beyond school grounds. Graham's mother told Howard, Baldwin Elementary's principal at the time, that she felt Christian's relationships with boys were troubling. Lanier's mother had a similar conversation with Howard. A school administrator publicly expressed concerns about Christian, and a third-grade teacher observed that Christian's relationships with male students were inappropriately close. In 1996, someone contacted the local police department to urge an investigation into whether Christian was abusing male students. The police reached out to Howard to gather evidence related to these allegations, but Howard was allegedly "hostile" to such efforts, and no charges were filed at that time.

         In late 2011, Christian was arrested and charged with four counts of sexually abusing one male student at Baldwin Elementary in the mid-1990s. This arrest encouraged other victims, including the plaintiffs, to come forward with their allegations of having been sexually abused. In June 2012, Christian pleaded guilty to 22 criminal charges, which included charges of sodomy and aggravated sexual battery involving Graham and Lanier. He remains incarcerated in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections.

         Both plaintiffs, who turned 18 in the late 1990s or early 2000s, [3] have suffered long-term injuries as a result of Christian's abuse. Lanier's severe psychological distress stemming from the abuse has resulted in nightmares, an inability to trust others or form meaningful romantic relationships, and a dependency on alcohol. He also suffers from extreme anxiety and has been suicidal. Graham had been unable to concentrate or behave in class, and as a result he failed ninth grade. His academic problems continued and, in 2004, he dropped out of college due to psychological distress. He has struggled with guilt, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and he too has difficulty trusting others or forming romantic relationships. In August 2017, both Graham and Lanier saw Dr. Brian Zimnitsky ("Dr. Zimnitsky"), who informed them about the "causal connection" between the sexual abuse they suffered at Christian's hands and the "psychiatric injuries" they have experienced.

         B.

         On February 8, 2019, nearly seven years after Christian was convicted and sentenced, Graham and Lanier filed these civil actions. Each plaintiffs eight-count complaint names Christian, the School Board, [4] and Howard[5] as defendants. Counts I through IV assert federal law claims against the School Board and Howard. Specifically, Count I alleges discrimination or exclusion from participation in educational activities in violation of Title IX. Counts II through IV allege three theories of liability under § 1983 for deprivation of plaintiffs' constitutional rights to be free from sexual assault[6]: failure to train (Count II), supervisory liability (Count III), and state-created danger (Count IV). Count V, also asserted against the School Board and Howard, alleges gross negligence in violation of Virginia law. Finally, Counts VI through VIII are state law claims alleging that all three defendants are liable for battery (Count VI), assault (Count VII), and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VIII).

         In response to defendants' motions to dismiss, plaintiffs concede that several of these claims should not go forward. First, because Christian is incarcerated and thus deemed to be incapacitated under state law, see Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-9(A), [7] plaintiffs have voluntarily dismissed him from this civil action. Second, plaintiffs have consented to dismissal, against Howard only, of Counts I, VI, VII, and VIII.[8] Plaintiffs' concessions leave Count I (Title IX, against the School Board); Counts II, III, and IV (ยง 1983, against the School Board and Howard); Count V (gross negligence, against the School Board and ...


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