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Doe v. Logan County Board of Education

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 4, 2019

JANE DOE, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
LOGAN COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Defendant Below, Respondent

          Submitted: March 12, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Logan County The Honorable Joshua Butcher, Judge Civil Action No. 16-C-195

          Steven S. Wolfe, Esq. J. Christopher White, Esq. Wolfe, White & Associates Logan, West Virginia Counsel for Petitioner

          Duane J. Rugger II, Esq. Jacob D. Layne, Esq. Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC Charleston, West Virginia Counsel for Respondent

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1."Appellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo." Syl. Pt. 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc., 194 W.Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995).

         2."'The trial court, in appraising the sufficiency of a complaint on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, should not dismiss the complaint unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.' Syl. Pt. 3, Chapman v. Kane Transfer Company, W.Va., 236 S.E.2d 207 (1977)[, ] quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)." Syl., John W. Lodge Distrib. Co., Inc. v. Texaco, Inc., 161 W.Va. 603, 245 S.E.2d 157 (1978).

         3."On appeal of a dismissal based on granting a motion pursuant to West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the allegations of the complaint must be taken as true." Syl. Pt. 1, Wiggins v. Eastern Associated Coal Corp., 178 W.Va. 63, 357 S.E.2d 745 (1987).

          OPINION

          HUTCHISON, JUSTICE

         The petitioner "Jane Doe, "[1] plaintiff below, appeals the Order Granting Defendants' Motion to Dismiss entered by the Circuit Court of Logan County on January 3, 2018. In that order, the circuit court dismissed all counts in Jane Doe's civil action against the respondent Logan County Board of Education ("Board"), a co-defendant below. On appeal, Jane Doe argues that the circuit court erroneously dismissed her negligence claims based upon the court's conclusion that she had failed to plead sufficient facts in her Complaint to state a claim for relief. She also contends that the circuit court failed to address her claim regarding breach of fiduciary duty. The Board argues in support of the circuit court's dismissal order.

         After considering the parties' written and oral arguments, as well as the record on appeal and the applicable law, we find that the circuit court erroneously dismissed two counts in Jane Doe's Complaint that asserted the Board and its employees were negligent. However, we find no merit to her contention that the circuit court failed to consider a fiduciary duty claim. Furthermore, Jane Doe has not appealed the other rulings in the circuit court's dismissal order. Accordingly, we reverse, in part, and affirm, in part, the circuit court's dismissal order, and remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         According to the Complaint, Jane Doe was a seventeen-year-old high school student attending a vocational center operated by the Board during the 2014-2015 school year. Jane Doe took a carpentry class at the vocational center taught by the Board's employee, John Thomas Cain ("Cain"). The Complaint alleges escalating sexual behavior that this teacher inflicted upon her during the school year, including remarking during class that her appearance was "sexy," repeatedly displaying photos of his genitalia to her, repeatedly requesting nude photos of her, following her into the bathroom in his classroom, and pulling up her shirt to expose her breasts. Jane Doe asserted that in January or February 2015, Cain forced her to perform oral sex on him. She contended that in March or April 2015, Cain digitally penetrated her vagina while holding his other hand over her mouth, only stopping when another student walked by. Cain's acts of misconduct occurred in the classroom, and Jane Doe asserted that other students questioned her about what had occurred. Jane Doe further alleged that when she halted Cain's sexual advancements, he threatened her with physical violence.[2]

         Jane Doe's lawsuit names both Cain and the Board as defendants. The instant appeal only concerns claims brought against the Board.[3] The Complaint's claims against the Board may be categorized into two groups: claims asserting vicarious liability for Cain's sexual misconduct against this student because the Board was Cain's employer; and claims alleging the Board is directly liable because it and its other employees (employees other than Cain) were negligent in hiring, retaining, supervising, monitoring, and/or training Cain. For this latter category, Jane Doe asserted the following negligence in Count Three of her Complaint:

14.Upon information and belief, the Defendant Board was negligent in several aspects, including but not limited to the following facts:
a. failing to properly interview, evaluate and screen Defendant Cain prior to hiring; and
b. failing to properly supervise and monitor Defendant Cain.
15.Defendant Board had an affirmative duty to properly investigate the background of its employees prior to providing employment. Defendant Board breached said duty by negligently hiring Defendant Cain thereby directly introducing a sexual predator to countless children and students, including but not limited to Jane Doe.
16.As a direct and proximate result of the Defendant's aforesaid actions, Jane Doe has suffered and will continue to suffer damages in an amount to be proven at trial.

         Count Six of the Complaint alleged the following negligence:

27. Teachers and administrators employed by Defendant Board were negligent in several aspects, including, but not limited to the following affirmative acts:
a. multiple educators observed Defendant Cain interact with Jane Doe in ways that were contrary to acceptable school standards, but none even initiated a discussion with an administrator, reported suspicious conduct to an administrator, or even made an anonymous report that the relationship between Jane Doe and Defendant Cain should be investigated.
b. Defendant Cain received improper, deficient, and negligent training about interactions with students, contributing to his casual seduction of Jane Doe to whom he and the Defendant Board had a ...

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