'Emotional distress' claim against Bristol S.D. dismissed; discrimination claim can proceed

By Jon Campisi | Sep 16, 2013

A former African American student will be allowed to pursue claims that a suburban Philadelphia school district discriminated against him when they falsely accused him of cheating and then subjected him to harsher punishment than two white students who actually did cheat in school.

U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a partial victory to Trevon Stokley in the plaintiff’s federal case against the Bristol Borough School District, but the jurist simultaneously granted a motion by the defendant to toss Stokley’s intention infliction of emotional distress claim.

Stokley is suing over a May 2011 incident in which a computer teacher accused the plaintiff of cheating while Stokley was enrolled at Bristol High School.

Two white students had been caught cheating in the computer applications class, and the instructor suspected Stokley had been cheating as well, the lawsuit states.

The teacher ended up retroactively changing the grade on Stokley’s assignment, the complaint says, and the plaintiff claims that that same teacher had changed many of Stokely’s previous grades on similar suspicions.

The crux of the complaint against the school district is that the same teacher who accused Stokley of cheating in class treated two white students less harshly than the plaintiff over similar cheating allegations.

The complaint says that when Stokley’s mother met with the teacher and a guidance counselor about the situation, the dean of students told the woman that her son had also cheated on his final English exam, despite the fact that the English teacher never levied such allegations.

In his complaint, Stokley, who was a high school senior at the time of the computer class incident, claims that he was forbidden from attending his graduation ceremony and forced to attend summer school.

The complaint accuses the school district of violating federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race.

The suit also contained a state law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, with the plaintiff claiming he suffered “extreme emotional distress” as a result of the allegations against him and subsequent denial of attending his graduation.

The school district didn’t seek to dismiss the federal discrimination claim at this juncture of the litigation.

Rather it only sought in its motion to dismiss the emotional distress claim, with district lawyers arguing that the complaint failed to satisfy the elements necessary to bring such a claim.

Under Pennsylvania law, Judge Pratter noted, a plaintiff alleging such a claim must show that a defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, intentional or reckless and caused severe emotional distress.

Stokley counter-argued that the claim had merit, since, in his view, subjecting black students to harsher disciplines than white students, particularly for an offense the black student didn’t commit, is “patently outrageous.”

The judge wrote that as “reprehensible as deliberate discrimination can be,” courts in the district have repeatedly found that racial discrimination alone doesn’t meet the “extreme and outrageous conduct” standard necessary to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Pratter noted, has ruled that to make out such a claim, it would not be enough that a defendant acted with intent that is “tortious or even criminal, or that [the defendant] has intended to inflict emotional distress, or even that his conduct has been characterized by ‘malice,’ or a degree of aggravation that would entitle the plaintiff to punitive damages for another tort,” the judge’s memorandum states.

Pratter cited an opinion in another case, that of Forbes v. Rhode Island Bhd. Of Correctional Officers, which stated that, “Although racial discrimination is completely unacceptable in our society, … the plaintiff must prove that the conduct is outrageous in character, and not just in motive.”

Pratter wrote that discrimination cases that include an accompanying state law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress are allowed to proceed only if they involve “much more egregious conduct than even that which is alleged here, most often involving assault or threats of assault.”

“Because, setting aside the outrageousness of the alleged motive in this case, Mr. Stokley’s allegations regarding Defendants’ conduct do not rise to the level of physicality (or its equivalent, such as, for example, deliberately announcing racially motivated untruths for public consumption and attendant public ridicule and the like) and, hence, outrageousness necessary to sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the Court will dismiss this tort claim,” the judge wrote.

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