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FEDERAL COURT RULES THAT PLAINTIFF’S CLAIMS OF SEX DISCRIMINATION AGAINST A SCHOOL DISTRICT WERE SUFFICIENTLY PLED

John E. Hosa, Esq., jhosa@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5659

Colavecchia v. South Side Area Sch. Dist., No. 2:22-CV-01804-CCW, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70461 (W.D. Pa. April 21, 2023). The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania denied South Side Area School District’s (“Defendant’s”) Motion to Dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (“Motion”) regarding Nicole Colavecchia’s (“Plaintiff’s”) hostile work environment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and granted the Motion regarding Plaintiff’s constructive discharge claim under Title VII.

CASE BACKGROUND

Plaintiff worked as an instructor for Defendant. In September of 2020, Plaintiff began receiving sexually inappropriate comments from Robert Kavals, the Chief of Safety and Security for Defendant. According to Plaintiff, Mr. Kavals has a known history of inappropriate communications with female employees of Defendant. Over a period of roughly eight months, Mr. Kavals repeatedly made such comments to Plaintiff – which included his desire to have a sexual relationship with her – both in person and via text message despite Plaintiff asking him to stop. Plaintiff reported Mr. Kavals’ behavior to the principal, who referred the matter to the superintendent. Though the superintendent told Plaintiff that he was “handling” the situation on May 28, 2021, Plaintiff claimed that no investigation occurred until November of 2021 and no corrective action took place at any time. Plaintiff eventually resigned from her position on February 9, 2022 due to concerns for her safety at work. 

Plaintiff filed her initial Complaint on December 16, 2022, and later filed an Amended Complaint on February 16, 2023, in which she asserted the claims described above. Thereafter, Defendant filed its Motion on March 8, 2023. This Motion is the subject of the Court’s opinion.

COURT DISCUSSION

The Court began its discussion by establishing the legal standard for reviewing a motion to dismiss, stating that the Court must accept as true a complaint’s factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as long as it alleges sufficient facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of the claims.

To state a hostile work environment claim under Title VII, an employee must allege the following: (1) they suffered intentional discrimination on the basis of sex; (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected them; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in that position; and (5) there is respondeat superior liability.  Because sexual proposals from colleagues may constitute sex discrimination and Plaintiff alleged that Mr. Kavals’ comments included his desire to have a sexual relationship with her, the Court found that the first prong was satisfied. Further, the Court found that the second prong was satisfied since Mr. Kavals’ comments were severe and pervasive based on the frequency of the comments as alleged by Plaintiff. The remaining prongs were also found satisfactory with very little discussion. Therefore, the Court denied the Motion  regarding Plaintiff’s Title VII hostile work environment claim.

Next, the Court addressed the constructive discharge claim under Title VII. For such a claim to survive a motion to dismiss, an employee must allege that their employer knowingly permitted conditions of discrimination in employment so intolerable that a reasonable person subject to them would resign. However, because Plaintiff did not allege any discrimination from the time she reported Mr. Kavals’ behavior to the principal in May of 2021 until the time she resigned on February 9, 2022, the Court found that Plaintiff did not plausibly allege she was constructively discharged. Therefore, the Court granted the Motion with regard to Plaintiff’s constructive discharge claim under Title VII.


Finally, the Court addressed the hostile work environment claim under Title IX.  The elements of such a claim are essentially the same as a Title VII hostile work environment claim, with one exception: for a Title IX claim, a plaintiff must allege “deliberate indifference” on the part of the employer to known sexual harassment, instead of “respondeat superior liability.” Because Plaintiff alleged that she reported Mr. Kavals’ behavior to the principal and the superintendent, Mr. Kavals had a known history of inappropriate communications with female employees, and Defendant failed to take corrective action at any time, the Court found that Plaintiff plausibly alleged that Defendant acted with deliberate indifference. Therefore, the Motion was denied regarding Plaintiff’s Title IX hostile work environment claim.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

It is important to note that Colavecchia involves a motion to dismiss under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), in which a movant argues that a complaint must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. As stated above, a plaintiff may overcome a “12(b)(6) motion” by demonstrating that the alleged facts are sufficient to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of the claims. This standard is lower than the standard required for a plaintiff to ultimately prove their claims. In Colavecchia, Plaintiff defeated Defendant’s Motion, but that does not necessarily mean Plaintiff’s claims will be proven in court. Nevertheless, the Colavecchia ruling makes clear thatschool districts must promptly and diligently investigate any employee’s claim of sexual harassment/misconduct and must take corrective action as necessary to avoid potential hostile work environment claims.

For more information, contact John Hosa at (412) 594-5659 or click here for more information about John.

September 20, 2023

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