Federal judge denies MVHS request to dismiss sexual harassment lawsuit

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 3:30pm

    PORTLAND — A U.S. District Court judge has denied a motion filed by the attorney for Regional School Unit 40 to dismiss two counts of a lawsuit filed in December 2019, by a former Medomak Valley High School student who claimed she was sexually harassed by a former principal.

    The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, named former principal Andrew Cavanaugh, Medomak Valley High School, and social worker Chuck Nguyen as the defendants.

    The ruling was issued Oct. 29 by U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock, Jr.

    “The school district seeks to dismiss the Title IX claim on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to plead facts sufficient to show than an official with the authority to implement corrective measures had actual knowledge of the alleged harassment and acted with deliberate indifference toward her. It seeks to dismiss the § 1983 claim on the ground that the plaintiff fails to plead facts sufficient to show that any school district policy or failure to train caused her injuries,” the judge states in the ruling.

    “The Court concludes that the plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to survive dismissal on both counts,” the judge further said.

    According to the ruling, MSAD 40/RSU 40 had written policies and procedures detailing how to report possible sexual harassment “so there is an indication that there was some amount of training,” but the ruling questions “how much training is conducted and what is included.” The ruling also states there is not enough evidence to analyze the adequacy of the district’s training program, how many school officials received “deficient” training, or whether the “identified deficiency” in the training program is closely related the sexual harassment and discrimination charges, alleged by the victim.

    “The victim’s lack of access to details of MSAD 40/RSU 40’s training program beyond its written policies, the Court errs on the side of caution and denies the motion to dismiss the failure to train claim in hopes that discovery will further develop the level of training MSAD 40/RSU 40 provided and which interpretation of the sexual harassment policy controls,” the judge concluded.

    The Oct. 29 ruling to not dismiss the lawsuit follows the most recent motions filed in court by both parties in August and September.

    The attorney for Cavanaugh filed a motion Aug. 14 notifying the court of his intent to file a motion for summary judgment to the plaintiff’s claims and request a prefiling conference with the court, pursuant to the rules of the court.

    A full trial would be avoided if a summary judgment is granted. But, there must be undisputed facts and the law to make it clear that it would be impossible for one party to prevail if the case proceeded to trial.

    On September 11, an attorney for the former student filed a request that the court schedule an oral argument hearing concerning the former motions, filed separately by Nguyen, and the other defendants, Cavanaugh and MSAD 40. Those motions had been made to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim by the plaintiff. 

    The court granted the motion for the oral argument hearing which was scheduled at the mutual convenience of the court and parties.

    Previous motions were filed by both parties in response to an amended complaint and demand for a jury trial that was filed March 27 in U.S. District Court by the former student. It provided new details that alleged Waldoboro police and two assistant principals were also aware of the principal’s behavior.

    The school district put Cavanaugh on leave pending the results of the police investigation. He resigned his position as principal in December 2017, after serving in the role since 2015.

    On April 10, the attorneys for Nguyen filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint filed March 27. The complaint alleged the social worker failed to act upon inappropriate behavior by Cavanaugh.

    According to the motion, “the former student does not allege that Nguyen engaged in any inappropriate behavior, nor does she allege that he had any supervisory authority over Cavanaugh.”

    The attorneys for Nguyen want the dismissal of the amended complaint because they state he cannot be held liable for the plaintiff’s claims as a matter of law.

    On April 14, Cavanaugh’s attorneys responded to the amended complaint filed March 27. Cavanaugh is requesting a trial by jury on all counts of the lawsuit for reasons that include he is not legally responsible for any injuries or damages caused by the woman’s own conduct, he acted reasonably under the circumstances, and is immune from liability.

    RSU 40 filed a motion May 8 to dismiss counts one and two of the amended complaint which alleges claims to Title IX and Section 1983, respectively.

    When addressing Title IX in the complaint, defense attorneys stated in their motion that, “the school district can only act upon matters of which it is actually aware and here, even taking as true plaintiff’s allegations, nobody with supervisory authority over Cavanaugh, whose knowledge is not relevant for purposes of determining the school district’s liability under Title IX, had actual knowledge of Cavanaugh’s alleged behavior until fall of 2017.”

    The suit then contends that when the school district was made aware of Cavanaugh’s alleged behavior, he was immediately placed on leave before he resigned.

    The May 8 motion further addresses the plaintiff’s claims that relief may be granted under Section 1983.

    “The plaintiff alleges that her injuries were the direct and proximate result of the school district’s alleged failure to enforce sexual harassment laws or to train its employees, but the complaint does not plead facts sufficient to support this bare-bones assertion.”

    The attorneys for the former student filed a motion May 15 to deny Nguyen’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim.

    They said Nguyen should not be afforded immunity when he made a judgment call as to whether a school principal’s actions constituted abuse or harassment. They claim his arguments do not take into account that he not only made the judgment call, but actively defended Cavanaugh, even after his suspension, thereby encouraging the woman to continue the relationship.

    The lawsuit filed by the former student states that “Nguyen chose to specifically defend Cavanaugh’s actions. Nguyen advised the plaintiff that she was wrong for thinking there was something inappropriate about the way Cavanaugh was acting towards her, and instead encouraged her to continue the relationship by stating that Cavanaugh was trying to be ‘nice’ and a ‘father figure’ to her. Plaintiff’s complaints to Nguyen spanned several months, and each time he assured Plaintiff that the actions were normal. Given this, Nguyen was clearly aware of the fact that Plaintiff was uncomfortable with Cavanaugh’s actions. Rather than act within his duties, Nguyen chose to defend Cavanaugh’s actions.”

    The attorneys further contend that Nguyen’s actions had a direct result in harming the plaintiff and a reasonable person in his position would have realized that was outside the scope of his job duties.

    On May 18, both parties agreed to a motion of stay pending the court’s resolution of the motions to dismiss by the defendants, Nguyen and RSU 40.

    In the original lawsuit filed Dec. 27,  the former student alleges that during her junior and senior years, she was subjected to daily sexual harassment and discrimination by the former principal.

    Hewey said in her motion that, “the school district’s position on behavior of this nature is clear and undisputed: it has zero tolerance for it and, as alleged in the Complaint, it has a sexual harassment policy to combat it.”

    The school district claims that the woman has failed to state a claim upon which can be granted under Title IX because she has not shown that an official with the authority to implement corrective measures acted with deliberate indifference toward her.

    “However, the school district can only act upon matters of which it is actually aware and her, even taking as true Plaintiff’s allegations, nobody with supervisory authority, other than Defendant Cavanaugh, whose knowledge is not relevant for purposes of determining the School District’s liability under Title IX-knew about Cavanaugh’s alleged behavior until the fall of 2017, at which point RSU 40 immediately placed Cavanaugh on leave, after which he resigned,” Hewey further states.

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

    The attorney for former principal Andrew Cavanaugh, Douglas I. Louison, of Louison, Costello, Condon and Pfaff, LLP in Boston, Mass, filed a response Feb. 7, stating his client denies the claims made by the woman.

    In another response filed March 11, on behalf of the high school social worker Chuck Nguyen, Attorney John Wall III states that his client denied the woman told him about her allegations against Cavanaugh.

    The attorney for Cavanaugh said his client denies the allegations in the lawsuit and the “defendant acted objectively reasonably under the circumstances and, thus, is qualifiedly immune from liability.”

    The defense also argues that the statue of limitations has expired so the case should be dismissed and the former student has, “failed to state a claim for which relief may be granted.”

    They also contend that the injuries the woman claimed in the lawsuit, including severe emotional distress and social anxiety disorder, were caused by her own conduct and the defendant is not legally responsible.

    The lawsuit alleges that Cavanaugh began to pay special attention to the former student when she was 16 and made sexually based comments to her about her looks and clothing in front of other students and staff members at the high school.

    The former student, now 19, claims that Cavanaugh purchased personal hygiene items and gave them to her, again in front of other students and staff. She said that she reported the gifts to Nguyen and asked him whether this was normal and he assured her that there was nothing inappropriate about the gifts, according to the lawsuit.

    Some of the gifts included money which Cavanaugh allegedly gave the former student directly or left with a secretary at the school.

    The woman alleged that Cavanaugh began texting her on a frequent basis and between April 2017 and November 2017 there were approximately 5,000 text messages sent by the defendant. 

    The comments were mainly sexually explicit and inappropriate and were sent at all hours of the day, including during school hours, and as late as 2 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

    According to the lawsuit, as a result of Cavanaugh’s actions, the woman suffered severe emotional distress including social anxiety and other disorders. 

    The suit also states that the school district was negligent in their hiring, training and/or supervision of Cavanaugh and Nguyen and that the negligence was the proximate cause of the woman’s injuries. Additionally, the district had a duty, the suit said, to train and educate their employees about its sexual harassment policy and not crossing inappropriate boundaries with students and it recklessly and negligently failed to implement and enforce these policies.

    The woman is represented by attorneys Rachel Deschuytner, of Portland and Eric LeBlanc, of Cambridge, Mass. They have requested a jury trial on every claim in the lawsuit.

    The defendants are represented by Attorney Melissa Hewey, of Drummond Woodsum in Portland. Hewey could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Sarah Shepherd can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com