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Stiles v. Grainger County Schools

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

March 23, 2015

Kelly Stiles and Kenny Fisher for and as parents and next friends of the minor child, D.S., Plaintiffs,
v.
Grainger County Schools, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

PAMELA L. REEVES, District Judge.

This is a school bullying case. During his seventh and part of his eight grade years at Rutledge Middle School, Dustin Stiles was involved in a number of altercations. Mr. Stiles and his mother claim that he was subjected to bullying, sexual harassment, and acts of violence from other students. When Mr. Stiles and his mother reported different incidents they believed to be bullying to the school, administrators watched security camera footage, interviewed Mr. Stiles and witnesses, took notes, and punished those other students who were found guilty of wrongdoing. Nearly all of the alleged incidents involved different students, as opposed to repeat problems with one or a small handful of offenders.

About halfway through his eighth grade year, Mr. Stiles got into a physical altercation in a bathroom with two other students (both of whom had never been involved in altercations with Mr. Stiles before). The school administrators investigated the incident and punished the two other students with in-school suspension. Mr. Stiles never went back to Rutledge Middle School; he transferred to a private school.

Mr. Stiles and his mother brought this lawsuit against the school, county, administrators, school board, members of the school board, police department, and police chief alleging numerous state and federal claims, including violations of Mr. Stiles's due process and equal protection rights and violations of Title IX. The defendants have filed motions for summary judgment, and for the reasons stated below, the defendants' motions will be granted. This case will be dismissed.

I.

Summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the burden of establishing that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Celotex Corp. v. Cattrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 n.2 (1986); Moore v. Philip Morris Co., Inc ., 8 F.3d 335, 339 (6th Cir. 1993). All facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. Ltd v. Zenith Radio Corp ., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Burchett v. Keifer, 301 F.3d 937, 942 (6th Cir. 2002). Courts may not resolve genuine disputes of fact in favor of the movant. Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014) (vacating lower court's grant of summary judgment for "fail[ing to] adhere to the axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor") (internal quotations and citations omitted).

Once the moving party presents evidence sufficient to support a motion under Rule 56, the nonmoving party is not entitled to a trial merely on the basis of allegations. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 317. To establish a genuine issue as to the existence of a particular element, the nonmoving party must point to evidence in the record upon which a reasonable finder of fact could find in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc ., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The genuine issue must also be material; that is, it must involve facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id .

The Court's function at the point of summary judgment is limited to determining whether sufficient evidence has been presented to make the issue of fact a proper question for the fact finder. Id . at 250. The Court does not weigh the evidence or determine the truth of the matter. Id . at 249. Nor does the Court search the record "to establish that it is bereft of a genuine issue of fact." Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co ., 886 F.2d 1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989). Thus, "the inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is a need for a trial - whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

II.

Despite Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)'s clear direction that pleadings should contain a short and plain statement of the claim, the plaintiffs' 70-page complaint is anything but. In fact, the first eleven pages are one continuous block quote on the psychology of bullying. The complaint is difficult to follow. Most of its allegations are made against the defendants collectively, making it unclear what specific wrongdoing each defendant is being accused of committing. The facts are also not in any sort of chronological order, instead jumping back and forth through time. The plaintiffs' response in opposition of summary judgment does not help at all; in fact, it appears to be a misguided attempt by the plaintiffs to so inundate the pleadings with facts (many of which are inadmissible or unsupported by the record), conclusory statements, allegations, and claims that the Court will give up sorting it all out and just assume there are material factual disputes sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Dustin Stiles is now a seventeen year-old junior at Jefferson County High School. Mr. Stiles is originally from St. Louis, Missouri; however, Mr. Stiles testified that family left the St. Louis area because his school was predominantly black. According to Mr. Stiles, "[b]eing one of the only white kids, [he] would have been a minority in the school up there, so [his family] moved... to avoid that trouble." [R. 109-5, Dustin Stiles Dep., Page ID 1000]. Apparently, the family planned to move to Gulf Shores because they had friends there, but they "got lost" on the way, stopped at a firehouse in the Bearden area to ask for directions, and one of the firefighters told them not to go to Gulf Shores, but to stay in Knoxville for the night. [ Id. at 1001-02]. They followed the firefighter's advice, liked Knoxville, and moved to town within the month. [ Id. at Page ID 1002-03]. That firefighter was Kenny Fisher, and he is now Ms. Stiles boyfriend.

After moving to Knoxville, Mr. Stiles completed fifth grade at Cedar Bluff elementary school. [ Id. at Page ID 1000]. Mr. Stiles then attended West Valley Middle School, where his alleged bullying troubles began. According to Mr. Stiles, "[t]here was one kid there[, ] [a]nd my mom didn't like it there, so she told me to go to Grainger County."[1] [ Id. at Page ID 1015]. Accordingly, Mr. Stiles transferred to the Grainger County School System in November 2009 where he enrolled in Joppa Elementary School and completed his sixth grade year.

The first of Mr. Stiles's claims relate to his time at Joppa. He contends he was bullied and harassed by some of the other students. The complaint further alleges that the plaintiffs brought this bullying to the attention of the administration who "failed to cure the problem or take reasonable action to protect [Dustin Stiles]." [R. 41, Amended Complaint, ¶ 79]. The only defendant in this case actually related to Joppa is Pam Roach, who was the principal of Joppa when Mr. Stiles was a student there. The only specific allegation relating to Ms. Roach is that Mr. Stiles's mother met with Pam Roach "who would not act to assist her, and would not discuss the bullying incidents with her." [ Id. at ¶ 113].

Mr. Stiles attended Rutledge Middle School for seventh grade the following year, where the bulk of the complaint's allegations take place. The complaint does not lay out the allegations in chronological order (or any apparent order at all), and it frequently refers to the defendants collectively despite the fact that all of the defendants could not have been involved in each allegation (i.e. they worked at a different school). This makes cataloging Mr. Stiles's various complaints difficult. Nevertheless, the sequence of events at Rutledge Middle School appears to be as follows:

• In August of Mr. Stiles's seventh grade year, one student pushed another student in the hallway, and that student fell into Mr. Stiles, whose lip was "busted" as a result. Ms. Stiles then came to the school's office to inform them that Mr. Stiles had had some problems in his sixth grade year that she wanted them to be aware of. The assistant principal, Lynn Jones told her that she would inform the teachers, and they would keep an eye out to make sure there weren't any more issues there. [R. 101-7, Lynn Jones Dep., Page ID 797-98];
• The following February, Mr. Stiles was involved in two separate incidents. In the first, he and another student, C.B., got into a verbal altercation. When C.B. touched the shoulder of Mr. Stiles's jacket, Mr. Stiles got up and pushed C.B. to the floor. [ Id. at 802]. The teacher sent both students to the assistant principal's office where they both received a warning. In the second incident, a student called Mr. Stiles a number of derogatory names, including "mother f***er" and "faggot, " and he "flipped" the hood on Mr. Stiles's jacket. Lynn Jones investigated the incident, interviewed other students to confirm that his happened, and punished the offending student with two days of in-school suspension. [ Id. at 24-25, 28-30].
• On March 1, 2011, C.B. (the same student from the February incident) allegedly punched Mr. Stiles in the ribs. The gym coach counseled Mr. Stiles and C.B. to cease that type of behavior.
• On May 11, 2011, after Mr. Stiles told another student he was going to "whip his butt, " a group of four students began shoving Mr. Stiles around from person to person. Principal Roger Blanken investigated the incident and punished three of the students with three days of in-school suspension. The fourth student got one day of in-school suspension based on his disciplinary record.
• The final incident of Mr. Stiles's seventh grade year occurred while playing a basketball game in the gym. A special needs student picked Mr. Stiles up and pushed him head first into another student. The special needs student was upset that he may have injured Mr. Stiles, and he helped Mr. Stiles get to the nurse. The student was not punished because assistant principal, Lynn Jones, determined that the student did not mean to hurt Mr. Stiles.
• The day after the incident with the special needs student, Ms. Stiles went to the Rutledge Police Department to complaint about her son's treatment at school. Mr. Stiles remained in the lobby while Ms. Stiles and one of her friends went back to speak with Kip Combs[2] and Police Chief Richard McGinnis. Ms. Stiles told them that she was not satisfied with the way the school was handling her complaints. McGinnis listened to their complaints, spoke with Ms. Stiles about helping her son build self-esteem, and gave Dustin Stiles his business card and personal cell phone number in case he ever needed his assistance.
• There were several incidents the following school year. In September 2011, at the beginning of Mr. Stiles's eighth grade year, while playing a game in the gym, Mr. Stiles fell over. Two students came over and one of them, either using his knee or his arms, pretended to conduct CPR on Mr. Stiles's chest. Kip Combs went to the school to investigate the event, watched the video recorded by the school's security camera, and determined that the students were horse playing, and that one of them had taken it a little too far. The students were warned to keep their hands to themselves.
• The week after the CPR incident, Ms. Stiles called Lynn Jones to complain that one of the students involved in that incident was harassing Mr. Stiles. McGinnis and school officials interviewed the students and Mr. Stiles who claimed that his mother had blown things out of proportion, that the student who was allegedly harassing him was simply unhappy with him for making such a big deal out of the CPR incident. [R. 101-7, Jones Dep., Page ID 847-50]. Mr. Stiles also informed Ms. Jones and Mr. McGinnis that the boy from the CPR incident had just been playing around, and that he had apologized. [ Id. at Page ID 849].
• On November 10, 2011, Ms. Stiles reported that a student had called Mr. Stiles a "faggot" and "threw him over a desk." When administrators investigated the complaint, a witness from the room did not remember any of that happening, and Mr. Stiles said he did not have have any problems with the student-that they were friends now.
• Finally, on January 17, 2012, there was a physical altercation in a bathroom where a witness reported that two students picked up, grabbed, and kicked Mr. Stiles. Kip Combs and Lynn Jones thoroughly investigated the incident and punished the perpetrators. One of them received eight days of in-school suspension. The second student, who had a more limited role and no prior offenses, received three days of in-school suspension. Following this incident, Dustin Stiles never returned to Rutledge Middle School. He transferred to Berean Christian Academy.

On January 5, 2013, the plaintiffs filed a complaint in this Court. They amended the complaint on October 14, ...


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