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Harrington v. City of Attleboro

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 18, 2018

NOELLE-MARIE HARRINGTON, by her mother and next friend, CORRINE HARRINGTON,, Plaintiffs,


          Denise J. Casper United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Noelle-Marie Harrington (“Noelle”), by her mother and next friend Corrine Harrington (“Corrine”), has filed this lawsuit against Defendants City of Attleboro (“Attleboro”), Richard George (“George”), principal of Brennan Middle School, Douglas Satran (“Satran”), principal of Brennan Middle School, Patricia Knox (“Knox”), an assistant principal of Brennan Middle School, Mark Donnelly (“Donnelly”), an assistant principal of Brennan Middle School, Jeffrey Newman (“Newman”), principal of Attleboro High School, and Elizabeth York (“York”), an assistant principal of Attleboro High School. Plaintiff's remaining claim alleges a violation of Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 against Attleboro (Count I). D. 8. Attleboro has moved for summary judgment. D. 54. For the reasons stated below, the Court DENIES the motion for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Court grants summary judgment where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the undisputed facts demonstrate that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A fact is material if it carries with it the potential to affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law.” Santiago-Ramos v. Centennial P.R. Wireless Corp., 217 F.3d 46, 52 (1st Cir. 2000) (quoting Sanchez v. Alvarado, 101 F.3d 223, 227 (1st Cir. 1996)). The movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Carmona v. Toledo, 215 F.3d 124, 132 (1st Cir. 2000); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant meets its burden, the non-moving party may not rest on the allegations or denials in her pleadings, Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986), but “must, with respect to each issue on which she would bear the burden of proof at trial, demonstrate that a trier of fact could reasonably resolve that issue in her favor.” Borges ex rel. S.M.B.W. v. Serrano- Isern, 605 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2010). “As a general rule, that requires the production of evidence that is ‘significant[ly] probative.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249) (alteration in original). The Court “view[s] the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing reasonable inferences in his favor.” Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20, 25 (1st Cir. 2009).

         III. Factual Background

         The following material facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Noelle attended Brennan Middle School in Attleboro (“BMS”) for sixth through eighth grades. D. 62, ¶ 33.[1] Noelle is 5'11” and weighs over 200 pounds, making her one of the biggest students in her class. D. 62, ¶ 34. In seventh grade, Noelle began telling certain friends that she “like[d] girls.” D. 62, ¶ 35. Noelle attests that her sexual preference became well-known by her classmates at that time. D. 62, ¶ 36.

         A. Seventh Grade

         In seventh grade, two brothers in Noelle's class (“Chris H. and Cam H.”) asked her out on a date. D. 62, ¶¶ 37-41. When she declined, explaining that she did not like boys, they called her a “dyke” and “fag.” Id. The parties dispute whether Noelle reported this and other harassment. Attleboro state that Noelle never reported the incidents, and Plaintiff offers deposition testimony by Knox, as well as Noelle's testimony that she told a teacher, who told her to ignore it, and that this and other events were known to George, Satran, Knox, Donnelly and other individuals at BMS. D. 62, ¶¶ 43, 51, 53, 62, 65.

         Noelle faced verbal and physical harassment by another boy in seventh grade (“Tommy C.”), who on multiple instances punched and tripped her. D. 62, ¶¶ 44-45, 54-55, 61-64, 66-67. Noelle testified that on at least one of these instances, Tommy C. punched her after she refused his “sarcastic” requests that she date him, calling her a “dyke” when she declined. D. 62, ¶ 45. Knox investigated one of these punching incidents, first meeting with Noelle and Corinne, and after Tommy C. denied the allegations, referring the dispute to the school psychologist for peer-to-peer mediation. D. 62, ¶¶ 46-50. Noelle was also referred to the school psychologist for similar peer-to-peer mediation when Tommy C. twisted her arm, possibly breaking it, and then in ninth grade when they were again placed in the same class, poked her during class and resumed his verbal harassment. D. 62, ¶¶ 82-84. Knox also investigated an allegation that Tommy C. had tripped Noelle, causing her to break or otherwise injure her wrist, though the nature and extent of the injury is in dispute. D. 62, ¶¶ 56-59. While BMS administrators said that evidence of such an injury would have resulted in a serious response, D. 62, ¶ 59, documents showing that Noelle had either broken or severely sprained her wrist, requiring a cast, were a part of Noelle's school records, D. 62, ¶¶ 58-60. Knox later investigated another allegation that Tommy C. pushed Noelle down the stairs, but testified that when other school administrators did not know anything about the event, the investigation did not proceed further or result in any punishment. D. 62, ¶ 69. Plaintiff offers Noelle's testimony that she told the school nurse on at least one occasion about the tripping, as well as Knox's testimony and nursing records showing that Noelle had told the school nurse the source of her injuries. D. 62, ¶¶ 65, 68.

         Corinne met with Knox several times to discuss the bullying, who told Corinne that she would handle the incidents but could not provide particular details on disciplinary outcomes for privacy reasons. D. 62, ¶ 79. The BMS teachers knew bullying is not allowed generally and Corinne was told they would “keep an eye out if they saw anything.” D. 62, ¶ 80.

         Noelle asked her seventh-grade teachers to change her seat assignment to keep her away from Tommy C., explaining that he was harassing her. D. 62, ¶ 71. Some of Noelle's teachers changed her seating, but others refused. D. 62, ¶ 72. Despite being spoken to by BMS administrators, Corinne testified that Tommy C. continued to harass Noelle verbally, though no subsequent event was witnessed by any teachers. D. 62, ¶ 81. BMS ultimately changed Noelle's schedule so that Tommy C. was no longer in the same class as her. D. 62, ¶ 86. Plaintiff offers Knox's testimony that Tommy C. was never disciplined. D. 62, ¶ 88.

         B. Eighth Grade

         The next school year, BMS did not place Noelle in the same class as Tommy C. D. 62, ¶ 90. However, on at least two instances in eighth grade, Corinne reported verbal harassment, including Noelle again being called “dyke, ” “faggot” and other similar terms. D. 62, ¶ 92. Donnelly, who was responsible for discipline for the eighth grade at BMS, did not have any interactions with Noelle beyond filing a petition related to her poor school attendance and appearing in juvenile court in support of that petition. D. 62, ¶ 93.

         In Attleboro, at the end of each school year, there is a transition meeting between BMS and Attleboro High School (“AHS”) officials to discuss the transition from middle school to high school, and to pass on information about particular students' disciplinary or behavioral issues of concern to administrators. D. 62, ¶¶ 95-96. It is disputed whether Noelle and her alleged harassers were discussed at the transition meeting, and Plaintiff points to the testimony of several school officials, including Donnelly, Knox and others, that there was neither a discussion of Noelle and her alleged abusers nor a transfer of administrative records relating to Noelle's harassment. D. 62, ¶ 96.

         C. Ninth Grade

         Noelle joined the Gay-Straight Alliance club when she started at AHS. D. 62, ¶ 101. Noelle did not experience any harassment during her first semester at AHS, but in February of ninth grade, Noelle was placed in the same class as Tommy C., which had not happened since partway through seventh grade. D. 62, ¶¶ 104-06. Over the course of approximately one week, Tommy C. poked Noelle during class and whispered the same slurs at her, including “dyke, fag, whore, slut, bitch” and adding that “the world would be better off without [Noelle].” D. 62, ¶¶ 105-06. The classroom teacher moved Tommy C.'s seat to a different location in the classroom, after which he did not make any other harassing statements or acts. D. 62, ¶ 107. York instructed him not to bother, touch, or comment on Noelle. D. 62, ¶ 108.[2]

         York assembled a team of administrators to respond to any future issues raised by Noelle or Corinne. D. 62, ¶ 115. The parties dispute the impact of this team on the harassment, and Plaintiff offers the testimony of Noelle's dean, Ann Montagano (“Montagano”), that many incidents of harassment endured by Noelle were not appropriately brought to her attention, and the testimony of Lamore, the school psychologist, who did not see Noelle at all in high school ...

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