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Ashley Puchalski Thomas

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School District and Principal Not Liable Despite Gym Teacher’s Inappropriate Photos of Student

Ashley J. Puchalski, Esq. apuchalski@tuckerlaw.com, (412) 594-5509

Shaefer v. Chorba, No. 3:23-0019, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 170844, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Sep. 25, 2023). A Pennsylvania federal court dismissed a former student’s § 1983 claim against a school
district and principal arising from a teacher’s taking inappropriate photos of the student due to lack of knowledge or reason to know of the teacher’s misconduct.

Appeal Summary and Factual Background

Plaintiff, Julie Shaefer (‘Shaefer”), was a student at Valley View School District (“District”) High School from August 2013 to June 2017. In 2021, after Shaefer had graduated from the District, Lackawanna County Detectives notified Shaefer that Jamie Chorba (“Chorba”), her former high school gym and health teacher, had downloaded photographs of her from social media dating back to 2013; had multiple photos of her buttocks that he took in the high school gymnasium on more than one occasion; and created photographs of her face morphed onto the nude body of a different female engaging in sexual acts with nude bodies of a male which has Chorba’s faced morphed onto it.

Shaefer was not aware of these photos until after she had graduated from the District. The images were found in conjunction with numerous other photographs of students and other minors, as well as inappropriate photographs and videos that Chorba had taken of himself on school property, which led to the teacher misconduct legal case. Ultimately, Chorba plead guilty to sexual exploitation of children, along with other crimes involving inappropriate behaviors with children.

Allegation

Shaefer’s claims against the School District and Mendicino alleged, inter alia, a violation of the constitutional right to bodily integrity pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must show that the defendant “acting under the color of state law, deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.” Additionally, to demonstrate that her substantive due process rights were violated, Shaefer was required to establish that the particular interest at issue is protected by the substantive due process clause, and that the government’s deprivation of that protected interest “shocks the conscience.”

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized that individuals have a constitutional liberty interest in personal bodily integrity that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Court explained that when applying a standard as nebulous as “shocks the conscience,” courts typically look to precedent. The Court noted that in the majority of cases in which it was found that official conduct and administrator’s responses “shocked the conscience,” serious sexual battery, sexual molestation, sexual assault, or other direct sexual harassment by a district employee was involved. Accordingly, the Court felt that this case was distinguishable because Shaefer alleged no sexual interactions with Chorba.

Regarding her state-created danger claim, Shaefer alleged that the District’s failure to act created the danger to which she was subjected by Chorba.

Discussion

Shaefer alleged that District administration previously had received complaints about Chorba’s inappropriate behavior with female students, including the use of his cellular telephone to take pictures of some of the female students and standing inappropriately close to them during stretching in the physical education classes.

However, the District did not have a specific student rights policy or procedure in place prohibiting this type of conduct. Additionally, Shaefer alleged that the District had a policy or custom of ignoring signs of inappropriate actions by teachers and failed to investigate situations where inappropriate conduct by a teacher was suggested, suspected, or evident. Because no investigation had taken place into the complaints made by students and their parents about Chorba, the inappropriate and illegal behavior continued. Shaefer asserted that if the District had a policy in place to protect minor students from such conduct and did not ignore the warning signs of inappropriate behavior, her constitutional rights to bodily integrity would have been protected.

Shaefer filed a complaint against the District and the District’s high school principal, Chris Mendicino (“Mendicino”). Specifically, she asserted Section 1983 claims against Valley View for violations of constitutional rights arising from a custom or policy, failure to supervise, failure to train, and state-created danger; an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment; a Title IX claim for sexual harassment; and a negligence claim under the sexual abuse exception to immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act,  42 Pa.C.S. §8541. The District filed a motion to dismiss all of Shaefer’s claims. The court granted the District’s motion concluding that the complaint did not allege sufficient facts to state cognizable claims.

There are four elements to a state-created danger claim:

  1. the harm caused was foreseeable and fairly direct
  2. a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience
  3. a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions
  4. a state actor affirmatively used its authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.

Court Decision

The Court determined that Shaefer failed to show that the District affirmatively used its authority in a way that created the danger and that Shaefer’s allegation that the District failed to take action in this circumstance was not enough to show a violation of her constitutional rights.

The Court also found that Shaefer could not succeed in her Title IX sexual harassment claim against Defendants because the District had no knowledge or reason to know of Chorba’s conduct. Accordingly, the Court dismissed all claims against the District and Mendicino.

Practical Advice

The Shaefer v. Chorba case demonstrates that school districts are not categorically liable for employee misconduct toward students. Instead, school district liability requires either affirmative acts creating or exacerbating dangers for victims of improper conduct or inaction that leads to such inappropriate conduct, such as a failure to adequately train employees to identify, report, or investigate alleged inappropriate conduct or deliberate indifference to known or alleged misconduct.

For more information, contact Ashley Puchalski at (412) 594-5509 or at apuchalski@tuckerlaw.com.

December 20, 2023

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