Third Circuit Court says school district not responsible for high school student's assault

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jul 11, 2016

PHILADELPHIA – Recently, a panel of judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a trial court ruling stating a local school district did not create a dangerous condition by ceasing its issued ID card policy, allegedly resulting in a student’s assault.

On July 7, judges Julio M. Fuentes, Cheryl Ann Krause and Marjorie O. Rendell rendered a decision in favor of Chester Upland School District and against Alphonzo King, who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of his son and the victim in the assault, Alphonzo Green.

“During the 2012-2013 school year, plaintiff was a ninth grade student at Chester High School, which is operated by defendant Chester Upland School District. At some point during the school year, the school decided to not issue identification cards to students, in contrast to previous years,” Fuentes explained. 

“Additionally, the school’s principal and staff allowed visitors to enter the school without identifying or registering themselves or obtaining a visitor’s pass.”

King argued the rescinding of this policy allowed a trespasser, posing as a student, to gain access to the Chester High School grounds. This security breach took place on what the lawsuit colloquially referred to as “National Fight Day”, and the trespasser in question assaulted several students while on school grounds, including Green.

“The attack on plaintiff was recorded and uploaded to the Internet. As a result of this attack and the subsequent display on the Internet, plaintiff suffered physical injuries and emotional distress. Plaintiff eventually transferred to another school,” Fuentes stated.

King filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Green (then, a minor), charging the school district enabled a dangerous condition when it rescinded the ID card policy and violated Green’s substantive due process as a result, under the state-created danger theory of liability – which the school district responded to with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

Ultimately, the District Court ruled in favor of the school district, not believing the school was liable for the actions of the trespasser.

“The District Court held that Plaintiff’s substantive due process claim under the state-created danger theory did not sufficiently allege an affirmative act on the part of the School District. Accordingly, the District Court dismissed Plaintiff’s claim with prejudice, explaining that any attempt to amend the complaint a third time would be futile,” Fuentes said.

King appealed, on the basis that the District Court “erred in its application of the state-created danger test” and “in not allowing him an opportunity to amend his complaint.”

“To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law engaged in conduct that violated a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States,” Fuentes said. “Here, plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim invokes the substantive component of the Due Process Clause, which ‘protects individual liberty against certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.”

Fuentes explained four criteria had to be satisfied in order to prove liability under the state-created danger theory: “(1) The harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) The state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) A relationship existed between the state and the plaintiff such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the state actor’s acts; and (4) The state actor affirmatively used his/her authority in a way that created a danger to the plaintiff or that rendered the plaintiff more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.”

“The District Court focused on the final ‘affirmative act’ element and concluded that the School District’s decision not to issue student ID cards was not affirmative conduct. We agree,” Fuentes said. “Moreover, plaintiff fails to show how the attack on him was a ‘fairly direct’ result of the school district’s decision. Plaintiff cannot plausibly allege that the school’s failure to issue student ID cards was the ‘catalyst’ for the trespasser attack on plaintiff; Rather, plaintiff seemed to be a ‘tragic victim of random criminal conduct rather than of school officials’ deliberate, callous decisions.”

As a result of these reasons, Fuentes and his colleagues decided the state-created danger theory claims must fail, and also rejected King’s argument to further amend his complaint.

“The heart of plaintiff’s substantive due process claim – that that the decision to cease issuing student ID cards placed Plaintiff in a dangerous situation – could not be cured by additional facts. Plaintiff’s claim fails as a matter of law,” Fuentes said.

The plaintiff is represented by Donald Burns Jr. and Mu’min F. Islam of MFI Law Group, in Philadelphia.

The defendant is represented by John F. Kennedy of Grace & Kennedy, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-1545

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-03685

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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