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Spraggins v. Brown

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 30, 2019

DEBRINA SPRAGGINS, as parent and next friend of N.C., a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
NIKITA BROWN and the CHICAGO BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MARY M. ROWLAND UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case arises out of a physical altercation between fourth grade student N.C. and school teacher Nikita Brown. Plaintiff Debrina Spraggins, as parent and next friend of minor N.C., has sued the Chicago Board of Education (the Board) and teacher Nikita Brown seeking compensation for alleged violations of various constitutional and state law rights.

         Plaintiff's claims against Defendant Brown include a substantive due process claim and an excessive force claim, both in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Against the Board, Plaintiff claims willful and wanton failure to supervise under Illinois State law, and indemnification. Both Defendant Brown and Defendant Board have moved for summary judgment.

         For the reasons stated below, Defendant Brown's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 154, 196) is denied, and Defendant Board's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 157) is granted in part and denied in part.

         A. Background

         1. The March 2016 Incident

         While the parties dispute many of the specific details giving rise to this suit, the following core narrative is undisputed. On March 1, 2016, N.C. was a fourth grade, special needs student at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School, and Defendant Brown was his Special Education teacher. (Dkt. 153 at 2) Around 3:00pm that afternoon, N.C. 's cell phone went off. N.C. was aware that it was against school policy to have an audible cellphone in class, as he had violated this rule on several other occasions. (Dkt. 153 at 4) After the phone went off, Defendant Brown asked N.C. to relay his passcode so she could shut off the ringer. (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 20) N.C. refused. (Id.) Brown held the power button to turn off N.C. 's phone, prompting N.C. to swipe all the papers off Brown's desk. (Id.) Brown then asked the teaching aid to escort the other eight children out of the room. (Id.)

         Both parties acknowledge that after the other children exited the classroom, N.C. threw a plastic trashcan across the room. (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 20) It did not hit Brown. (Id.) In response, Brown grabbed N.C. around the neck, choked him for about five or six seconds, and shoved him backwards against a table. (Id. at 21) Brown then grabbed N.C. by his hoodie and dragged him, headfirst, by the hood of his hoodie out of the classroom and down two flights of stairs towards the principal's office. (Id.) As Brown approached the office, the assistant principal heard "loud shriek[s]" and saw Brown holding N.C. 's arm and one of N.C. 's shoes. (Id. at 22) N.C. was on his feet at this point. (Id.) The assistant principal proceeded to call 911. (Id.) Paramedics arrived and treated N.C., who was upset and crying. (Dkt. 179, Exh. 2 at 7-8) A school security guard traveled with N.C. in the ambulance. (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 22) By the time N.C. got to the hospital, he was calm and well behaved. (Dkt. 179, Exh. 2 at 8)

         The parties contest the extent of N.C. 's injuries. Plaintiff claims that when N.C. arrived at the assistant principal's office, he "was convulsing and frothing at the mouth on the floor of [the] office, was struggling to breath [sic]" and was barely conscious. (Dkt. 179, Exh. 2 at 7) The hospital records indicate marking and bruising on N.C. 's neck as well as soreness and tenderness on other parts of his body. (Id. at 8) Defendants claim that N.C. 's injuries included mere "transient soreness" and that he appeared fine when he got in the ambulance. (Dkt. 154 at 6)

         The parties also contest N.C. 's history of violence and behavioral issues, with Brown noting 55 documented incidents of violent outbursts (Dkt. 153 at 2), and N.C. 's mother claiming that he "never had any violent outbursts." (Dkt. 179, Exh. 2 at 3) The parties further contest whether N.C. had taken his psychotropic medication the day of the incident. Plaintiff claims N.C. took his medication (Id. at 3), while Brown claims it was clear he had not. (Dkt. 154 at 3)

         The day after the incident, the principal reported the encounter to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 24) The board first suspended Brown without pay, and later approved her termination. (Id. at 25) The board additionally placed a "do not hire" on Brown's file. (Id.)

         Brown was arrested and charged with several counts of aggravated battery in state court. (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 25) Brown eventually accepted a plea bargain for misdemeanor battery. (Id.)

         2. Brown's Prior Employment History

         Brown worked for the Board "off and on for twelve years." (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 6) She had been fired from two schools, but apparently had no formal disciplinary problems other than the incident with N.C. (Id.) Plaintiff's rely heavily on another physical altercation involving Brown and student, Q.S. Several months before the incident with N.C., another teacher observed Brown: "trying to get a misbehaving student, Q.S., to meet classroom expectations […] Brown had Q.S.'s arm in her hands and it appeared that Q.S. was wincing in pain because she was twisting his arm." (Id. at 12-13) Once the other teacher made eye contact with Brown, she released the student. (Id.) The other teacher detailed the encounter in an email to the principal. (Id.) That teacher, however, did not report the altercation to DCFS. (Id. at 15)

         Although Brown had no other history of formal discipline, records show that other teachers had difficulties "planning and communicating" with Brown. (Dkt. 178, Exh. 1 at 7) Several teachers complained that Brown was immature and unprofessional, and Brown verbally threatened other teachers in the past. (Id. at 8-13) Various email records indicate that the principal and assistant principal tried to address Brown's behavior through a series of emails and meetings. (Id. at 9-12) The Board also reminds the Court that in order to terminate Brown, it had to follow procedures in the Chicago Teacher's Union collective bargaining agreement. (Id. at 5) The Board eventually did so, reassigning Brown immediately after the incident and officially terminating Brown on May 3, 2016. (Id. at 25)

         B. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgement is proper where there is "no dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The party seeking summary judgment has the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the Court must construe all facts and reasonable interferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See CTL ex rel. Tre-batoski v. Ashland Sch. Dist., 743 F, 3d 524, 528 (7th Cir. 2014). On summary judgment "the court has one task and one ...


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