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Purvis v. Board of Education of Hall High School District 502

January 12, 2009

GINA PURVIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF HALL HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 502, DANIEL OEST, PATRICIA LUNN, GARY VICINI, THE CITY OF SPRING VALLEY, ILLINOIS, AND DOUGLAS BERNABEI, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

ORDER

Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment by the Board of Education of Hall High School, Patricia Lunn, Daniel Oest, and Gary Vicini (the "Hall Defendants"). For the reasons set forth below, the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [#201] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

JURISDICTION

This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's § 1983 claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

BACKGROUND

As the Court has previously stated on more than one occasion, this litigation arises out of an unfortunate series of events. The Plaintiff, Gina Purvis ("Purvis"), was a tenured Biology teacher at Hall High School ("Hall") in Spring Valley, Illinois. The tale begins back in the Spring of 2004 when Purvis and Mickey Ribas ("Ribas"), who was then her 15-year-old student, became the subject of rumors that there was a sexual relationship between them. When questioned by Hall Principal Patricia Lunn ("Lunn"), both Purvis and Ribas denied the rumors.

As the rumors continued into the Fall, Lunn and Daniel Oest ("Oest"), Hall's Superintendent, determined that Oest and Gary Vicini ("Vicini"), Hall's Dean of Students and head football and track coach, should investigate. This would sound like a good plan, except for the fact that Oest was not informed that Purvis had previously reported Vicini to Lunn for his alleged sexual harassment of a female student the year before. From this, it would not be difficult to infer that Vicini may not have been the most objective investigator for this particular assignment.

On November 10, 2004, Oest and Vicini met with Ribas. Ribas twice denied having any sexual relationship with Purvis. During the criminal trial, Ribas testified that in response to his denials on November 10, 2004, Vicini told him that he would be in trouble if he didn't say the story was true and threatened him with expulsion or jail if he persisted in denying the existence of a sexual relationship with Purvis. Ribas changed his story and told them that he had sex with Purvis on several occasions. Oest then called Chief Douglas Bernabei ("Bernabei") of the Spring Valley Police Department to report the allegations of sexual abuse against Purvis. Bernabei met with Ribas that afternoon and notified DCFS of the allegations of sexual abuse.

Beginning on November 10, 2004, Purvis was investigated for sexual assault against Ribas. She was indicted by a grand jury and arrested on December 15, 2004. Purvis was initially suspended by the School Board with pay pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings. On April 6, 2005, the School Board issued a letter advising Purvis that they would hold a hearing on April 18, 2005, to determine whether to take action to terminate her employment. Purvis' attorney notified the School Board that they would not attend the hearing, and on April 21, 2005, Purvis was provided with a bill of particulars covering the reasons and causes for her dismissal. A formal hearing was scheduled on the termination charges, but on December 20, 2005, Purvis and the school district reached a settlement whereby she agreed to voluntarily resign her employment in exchange for the sum of $43,000.

Bernabei continued his investigation right up until the trial, serving as the de facto investigator for the police department, prosecutor, and grand jury. On October 31, 2005, at the conclusion of a six-day bench trial, Purvis was acquitted of all charges.

Purvis brings this suit against the Spring Valley Defendants and the Hall Defendants, alleging: (1) the Hall Defendants deprived her of her rights to due process and equal protection; (2) the Hall Board of Education negligently retained, trained, and supervised Oest, Lunn, and Vicini; and (3) the Spring Valley Defendants deprived her of her rights to due process and equal protection. The Hall Defendants have now moved for summary judgment on Counts I and II of the Complaint. The matter is now fully briefed, and this Order follows.

DISCUSSION

Summary judgment should be granted where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party has the responsibility of informing the Court of portions of the record or affidavits that demonstrate the absence of a triable issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party may meet its burden of showing an absence of disputed material facts by demonstrating "that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Id. at 325. Any doubt as to the existence of a genuine issue for trial is resolved against the moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139, 1142 (7th Cir. 1988).

If the moving party meets its burden, the non-moving party then has the burden of presenting specific facts to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and produce evidence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. Nevertheless, this Court must "view the record and all inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the [non-moving party]." Holland v. Jefferson Nat. Life Ins. Co., 883 F.2d 1307, 1312 (7th Cir. 1989). Summary judgment will be denied where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Hedberg v. Indiana Bell Tel. Co., 47 F.3d 928, 931 (7th Cir. 1995).

Section 1983 imposes liability where a defendant acts under color of a state law and the defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's rights under the Constitution or laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To establish a cause of action under § 1983, the plaintiff must allege (1) that the defendant has deprived her of a federal right, and (2) that the defendant acted under color of state law. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). There is no dispute that the Hall Defendants were acting in their capacity as state actors in conducting the interview/initial investigation in this case and therefore the only remaining issue is whether Purvis has adequately presented proof of a deprivation of a constitutional right.

The Hall Defendants move for summary judgment on multiple grounds: (1) there is no evidence of willful violations of her due process rights in her criminal case by school officials; (2) Purvis was afforded due process in her administrative hearings; (3) there was no violation of her equal protection rights; (4) Oest, Lunn, and Vicini are protected by qualified immunity; (5) Purvis has no claim against the Board under Monell v. Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978); and (6) there is no evidence to support a claim that teachers and administrators at Hall were negligently trained. Each argument will be addressed in turn.

I. Due Process Rights in Criminal Defense

The Hall Defendants contend that there is no evidence that they willfully violated Purvis' due process rights in connection with her criminal case. Purvis admits that she believes that she had a fair criminal trial. She has identified her most loyal supporters as her family and former students Rachel Zeibell ("Zeibell"), Kristen Naumann ("Naumann"), and Ashley Denis ("Denis"), as well as fellow Hall employee Kelly Bartolucci ("Bartolucci"). She concedes that Zeibell, Naumann, Denis, and Bartolucci all testified during her criminal trial and will testify for her again in this case if necessary. That being said, Purvis stated in her deposition that she was told that her supporters were being harassed at school, that the administration was doing nothing about it, and that supporters were told that they could get suspended if they talked about the case. However, her awareness appears to be based on testimony that she heard during the criminal trial, and she admits that she has no personal awareness of any of these things.

In her deposition, Purvis admits: (1) she has never been told that anyone was instructed not to support her defense; (2) she is not aware of any teachers or students who had information in support of her case but refused to help; (3) she is not aware of anyone who was told to withhold information about her case or assist with her defense; (4) she has no personal knowledge of Oest, Lunn, or Vicini obstructing her lawyer's investigation; (5) she has no personal knowledge of whether student witnesses were told not to talk to the police or that they would be punished if they supported her; (6) she has no knowledge that any of her witnesses were harassed, intimidated, or threatened by Oest, Lunn, or Vicini; (7) she is not aware of anyone being told they would be punished or expelled if they supported her; (8) she does not have any knowledge that Oest, Vicini, or Lunn contacted her witnesses to negatively influence her case; and (9) her answers would be the same with respect to the conduct of the School Board. (Purvis Dep. at 610-19, 625-27, 655-56) Rather, her testimony indicates that her knowledge is based on hearing testimony during the criminal trial that students were told that they should not continue to talk about the case one way or the other, negative or positive, at school or they could be suspended, and that kids were getting harassed at school but nothing was being done about it.

Id., at 619-21, 626. When the actual testimony of these students is reviewed, it would appear that Purvis' broad allegations have taken this information somewhat out of context.

Zeibell testified in her deposition that she spoke with Purvis' counsel more than five times through the time of trial and that the school officials never prevented her from talking to him or punished her for doing so. (Zeibell Dep., at 142) She made notes of her recollections and sent them to Purvis' attorneys to help with her defense and was not punished for doing so. Id., at 144-45. Zeibell interpreted a conversation in Lunn's office where she was told that she could talk to Bernabei and the State's Attorney but no one else as a threat, but she did not listen to them. Id., at 147-48. Zeibell later clarified that she was told by Lunn that she could be kicked out of school for harassing another student (i.e., Ribas); she was not told that she could be kicked out of school for cooperating with Purvis' attorneys. Id., at 402-03.

Bartolucci works as a kitchen supervisor at Hall. She was not prevented by the Hall Defendants from speaking with Purvis' counsel or her investigator or punished for doing so. (Bartolucci Dep., at 13) At one point, she was supposed to attend a meeting with Purvis' investigator, and Lunn told her that she didn't have to go, but she went anyway after talking to Purvis' attorney. Id., at 13-14. She was not prevented from or punished in any way for attending this meeting and did not fear that she would have any issues from the school because she listened to Purvis' attorney. Id., at 14-15. Batrolucci complained to Vicini that she did not want her daughter to be harassed by Ribas, and Vicini told her that he would handle it. Id., at 34-35. A few weeks later, Ribas made a comment to her daughter's boyfriend to the effect of "tell your girlfriend to shut up, or that bitch to shut up," and they went back to Vicini, who again said that he would handle it in front of Lunn. Id., at 35-37. After she approached Vicini a third time to complain that Ribas' conduct had not stopped, Vicini came back to her and said that it the conduct continued then steps would be taken. Id., at 39-40. There is no indication in the record that Ribas' conduct did not stop after this.

Bartolucci's daughter, Karli, was a student at Hall. She spoke with Purvis' attorneys prior to the trial and was never told by the school that she could not meet with the defense team or that she would be punished or expelled for doing so. (Karli Batrolucci Dep., at 73, 76-77) The Hall Defendants never threatened her or stopped her from supporting Purvis or telling the truth to the police. Id., at 76-77. They did not punish her, threaten to punish her, or intimidate her about her feelings and support for Purvis. Id. She was not obstructed from bringing forward any evidence that she had to help Purvis' defense, and Lunn never threatened her with any kind of civil or criminal action if she supported Purvis. Id. Karli had a confrontation with Ribas in the classroom where she told him to stop talking about Purvis, and Ribas responded with a "threatening gesture like she better shut her mouth." Id., at 118-20. Both she and Ribas were sent to Vicini's office. Id., at 97. She does not know what Vicini said to Ribas, but Vicini told her that Ribas had complained that she was antagonizing/harassing him and said that the two of them "just needed to stay away from each other and not say anything" or talk about the trial. Id.

Denis testified in her deposition that no teachers or administrative staff at Hall ever spoke to her about Purvis' case and that no one ever threatened her or told her that she couldn't testify in support of Purvis. (Denis Dep., at 139) By then, she had graduated and was no longer at Hall. Id. The school district never told her that she couldn't talk to the police; she did talk to the police and told them the truth. Id., at 142-43.

In her deposition, Naumann stated that she complained to Vicini that other students were harassing her in Spring 2005 by saying things to her in the hallways, and Vicini told her that he would speak with them or take care of the issue. (Nauman Dep., at 104) When she didn't feel like anything was being done about the situation, she and Zeibell went to Oest to complain. Id., at 114-15. Oest listened to their complaints, but she doesn't know if he said that he was going to take any action. Id., at 146. Naumann then related that after she was discussing the case in school and standing up for what she believed in by defending what was said to her by others, she was told that her actions had been construed as harassment and that she could be suspended for harassing Ribas. Id., at 108-11. She doesn't recall speaking to Lunn or Vicini at any other time about this subject matter and was never specifically threatened with any punishment in that meeting. Id., at 111. She was told that the administration did not want kids talking about the case in school. Id. She was never told that she could not support Purvis or testify on her behalf and was not stopped from talking to either the police or Purvis' attorneys. Id., at 112. There was nothing she wanted to say in support of Purvis' defense that she was stopped from doing by school officials, including Oest, Vicini, and Lunn. Id.

Purvis points to the fact that after she was charged, Oest had a meeting with Hall staff in the library and told them that she had been charged and that if they were approached or contacted, they may refer them to him. He later advised the staff that if they chose to speak, they should understand that they were speaking as individuals and not as representatives of the school district. (Oest Dep., at 92-94) Oest told Lunn and Vicini that they were not obligated to speak with defense counsel or investigators outside of police authorities and could refer them to the school district's attorneys. Id., at 111. Vicini testified that he was instructed by Oest to refer Purvis' investigators to the school's lawyers. (Vicini Dep., at 195) Oest further recalls advising the staff that they were not obligated to speak with anyone and if they were not comfortable speaking with someone, they did not have to but could refer them to him. (Oest Dep., at 112)

Purvis cites a report to Bernabei by Assistant Chief Sangston indicating that he had been flagged down by Denis' father and told about an incident at school in which Ribas had allegedly strangled his son. (Bernabei Dep., at 282-83) Rick Denis stated that the matter was being handled by the school and that he did not want the police to do anything about it. Id. However, Purvis leaves this assertion hanging in mid-air and does not make any attempt to follow it up with a citation to evidence that the school did nothing to reprimand Ribas or stop the perceived harassment. Without this additional information, this evidence is simply not probative of her position and in fact, supports the inference that the school was addressing claims of witness harassment.

While Purvis has elicited testimony suggesting that school officials may not have responded as aggressively as one would hope in controlling a potentially hostile environment in the school, even when all reasonable inferences are drawn in her favor, she has not set forth evidence sufficient to create an issue of fact as to whether the Hall Defendants improperly interfered with her witnesses. She has at most shown that the Hall Defendants directed everyone (whether a Purvis supporter or a Ribas supporter) to refrain from discussing the situation at school and informed employees that it was their decision if they wanted to talk to investigators/defense team or refer questions to Hall's attorney. This is a far cry from precluding or ...


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