Judge won't dismiss lawsuit filed by former William Allen High student's lawsuit over alleged beating

By Nicholas Malfitano | May 1, 2015

PHILADELPHIA – A Lehigh man’s lawsuit against four former fellow students he claimed beat him so severely it left him with both physical and mental injuries has survived a motion filed by the Allentown School District to dismiss claims against it of knowing and not reporting or acting on prior assaults made by the individuals who allegedly attacked the plaintiff.

Onesimus Gayemen first initiated litigation in the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas in January 2014, charging students Shawndell Cannon, Gregory Goodin, Jacob Fernandez and Jahmeen Quick with assault, battery, concert of action, civil conspiracy, alternative liability, outrageous conduct causing severe emotional distress and false imprisonment, while also leveling a charge of failure to protect bodily integrity against the Allentown School District.

Allentown School District removed the case to U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in March 2014.

Gayemen alleges on March 21, 2011, he was walking on the campus of William Allen High School between the main building and gym and was approached by the four individual defendants. Gayemen claimed the defendants detained him and then teamed to assault him, breaking his jaw in the process.

Gayemen further claimed a charge of liability for the Allentown School District, saying it “violated his constitutional right to bodily integrity because the School District knew about past violent assaults committed by individual students, including the other four defendants, and concealed these past assaults in order to avoid public scrutiny, which directly led to the attack against plaintiff.”

Allentown School District filed a motion to dismiss all charges against it in April 2014, which the Eastern District Court granted in October – with the opportunity for Gayemen to amend the section of his complaint directed against the district.

Gayemen filed an amended complaint to that effect in November, alleging more failures on the part of the Allentown School District to report and act on the past violent assaults committed by the defendants, amounting to a “state-created danger” theory of liability. Once again, the Allentown School District filed a motion to dismiss the claims against it in December.

The matter came before Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr., who released an opinion on the case on April 16 and elaborated on the “state-created danger” theory of liability proposed by Gayemen.

“Under this doctrine, ‘liability may attach where the state acts to create or enhance a danger that deprives the plaintiff of his or her Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process,’” Leeson stated.

Leeson explained to successfully prove an environment of state-created danger, one must show “(1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant’s acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and (4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.”

Leeson found Gayemen’s amended complaint cured what the court perceived as “deficiencies” of his original complaint in this regard.

These included listing himself as “a member of a discrete class of persons” through his membership in the William Allen High School student body and alleging a former district security officer, Michael Witt, was instructed by the school administration to report assault incidents directly to them and not to the police.

With such new information present in the amended complaint, Leeson felt those clarifications satisfied the third and fourth criteria points of the state-created danger theory.

Though denying the motion, Leeson also acknowledged the court was making no finding on whether or not the district concealed incidents of assault, only that the allegations coincide with the state-created danger theory criteria and past precedent.

“Moreover, in view of this precedent, this Court notes the observation of the Court in Doe v. Allentown School District that, ‘as this case proceeds through discovery, [Plaintiff’s] counsel must focus on discovering what actions [Defendant] took, rather than on what actions [it] failed to take, if [he] intend[s] [his] claims in Count [Eight] to survive a motion for summary judgment,” Leeson said.

The plaintiff is seeking damages for “medical expenses; lost wages; mental anguish and pain and suffering; compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial; interest; directing payment of counsel fees and costs; and further relief as the Court may deem.”

The plaintiff is represented by Michael J. Brooks, of The Law Offices of Michael J. Brooks, in Doylestown.

The Allentown School District is represented by John E. Freund, III of King, Spry, Herman, Freund & Faul, LLC, in Bethlehem. Court records show Cannon, Goodin, Fernandez and Quick have no legal representation and had default judgments entered against them by the court in November.

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 5:14-cv-01518

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