A federal judge from the Western District of Texas has dismissed the claim of a mother of a student-athlete, who made the novel claim that the school district violated Title IX and the Constitution when it required male student-athletes to engage in mat drills, leading to her son suffering a “severe concussion.”
Plaintiff Jessica Ryburn brought the claim on behalf of L.W., her minor son, who was previously a student-athlete at a middle school within defendant Giddings Independent School District.
On April 11, 2014, a coach and district employee directed L.W. to participate in mat drills. Two other coaches were present. Shortly before L.W. began the drill, another boy hit his head very hard during the exercise and was dazed by the impact. The mother claimed that after that happened, that boy did not receive a concussion assessment. Then it was L.W.’s turn. During the drill, her son fell off the mat and his head slammed into the tile floor. The impact caused L.W. to lose consciousness. After he regained consciousness, L.W. told the coaches that his vision was spinning. The coaches, allegedly, did not assess him for a concussion but instead allowed L.W. to sit out the class period while the mat drills continued. When the plaintiff learned of the injury, she took him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion and cerebral edema. The brain injury has allegedly caused a host of other health problems, including difficulty eating and sleeping, suffering from depression, anger, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and diminished cognitive capacity, among other problems.
The mother approached L.W.’s coach a week after his injuries. Allegedly, he dismissively told her L.W. “just got his bell rung real good,” and falsely claimed that L.W. had not lost consciousness. This response was typical of the district’s flippant attitude toward sports-related injuries, according to the plaintiff. Although the district’s Board of Trustees approved an Athletic Concussion Plan in 2011, that plan was allegedly difficult for students and parents to access on the district’s website or in the handbooks Additionally, the district’s Athletic Guide for the 2015-2016 school year provided little information regarding the proper handling of sports injuries and no information specific to concussions.
The failure to adequately make the information available has purportedly led to injuries other than L.W.’s. The plaintiff alleges that another student within the district suffered three concussions over the course of three football games in 2014 and 2015. In each instance, the student was encouraged to continue playing, she claims. After one concussion in 2015, the student was allegedly teased and, despite being disoriented and confused, was allowed to drive home.
In her lawsuit, the plaintiff asserted causes of action under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., and 42 U.S.C § 1983.
Specifically, she charged that the district, through subjecting male students to inherently dangerous exercises, deprived L.W. of an educational opportunity on the basis of his sex. The plaintiff further alleged that the district’s failure to properly implement concussion policies or to train its employees to handle concussions has caused various violations of L.W.’s constitutional rights. More specifically, she claimed deprivations of L.W.’s rights to bodily integrity, education, medical care, and equal protection.
The court first considered the Title IX states, which provide that male and female student-athletes receive equal treatment.
“The primary differential treatment alleged to be actionable in this case appears to be the use of mat drills among male athletes within the district,” which female athletes were not required to perform, according to the court.
“The Court does not find that this allegation supports an inference of impermissible discrimination under Title IX. That statute and its attendant regulations require ‘equal accommodation’ in athletic opportunities, but nothing in Title IX requires the available opportunities to be identical.”
The court elaborated, noting “if schools may lawfully provide different athletic opportunities to each sex, so long as it adequately accommodates their interests and abilities, it logically follows that they may permissibly implement an exercise program that is appropriate for the relevant sport. For example, a school that lawfully provides only a men’s football team because of a demonstrated disinterest among female students does not engage in impermissible gender discrimination by requiring only the male team members to practice throwing a football. A contrary holding—imposing liability on differences in particular exercises—would have the absurd result of allowing schools to provide different athletic offerings, while forbidding appropriate exercises unless both sexes are required to engage in them.
“Under this understanding, Plaintiff’s allegation that L.W. was required to engage in exercises that female students were not simply does not suffice to state a plausible claim of actionable discrimination under Title IX.”
Turning to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the court noted that to state such a claim, a plaintiff must (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Moore v. Willis Indep. Sch. Dist., 233 F.3d 871, 874 (5th Cir. 2000).
The plaintiff asserts that “the district has violated several of L.W.’s rights, including his Fourteenth Amendment rights to bodily integrity, education, and medical care, as well as his right to equal protection,” wrote the court. “The district asserts that many of these claimed rights have never been recognized in factually similar circumstances and that the plaintiff has failed to allege facts sufficient to support any intentional denial of equal protection. The district further argues that the facts do not plausibly suggest that it is responsible for any demonstrated violations.”
Early in its analysis, the court identified flaws in the mother’s argument, such as the claim that her son was treated differently than other student-athletes.
“Lacking allegations that L.W. was singled out for discriminatory treatment, or that male students were treated differently for a discriminatory purpose, the plaintiff has failed to state a valid equal protection claim under either a class-of-one or gender-based theory,” wrote the court.
Turning to her argument that L.W.’s right to bodily integrity was violated when he was injured during the mat drills, the court found the cited case law inapplicable, since the perpetrator in the cited case law was a district employee, while in the instant case it was another student-athlete.
“What (the plaintiff’s cited cases) have in common, and what is lacking here, is the infliction of bodily harm on students by teachers,” wrote the court. “In this case, the harm was caused by another student who had speared L.W. in the chest.”
While the plaintiff “attempts to escape application of the special-relationship doctrine by pointing to out-of-circuit precedent suggesting that the official’s facilitation or encouragement of a third party’s acts is enough to support liability under § 1983, (the plaintiff’s) own authority makes clear, however, that the state officer must have played a ‘principal role’ in the violation such that the violation would not have occurred without his or her participation. See, e.g., Harvey v. Plains Twp. Police Dep’t, 635 F.3d 606, 610 (3d Cir. 2011). Plaintiff’s complaint contains no allegations that the coach in this case affirmatively encouraged L.W.’s opponent to spear him with such force as to severely injure L.W. or otherwise facilitated the student’s act such that the coach could be said to have played a “principal role” in bringing about L.W.’s injury. See id.
Jessica Ryburn, as next friend of L.W. v. Giddings Independent School District; W.D. Tex.; 1:16-CV-879-RP, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141141; 8/31/17
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs: Donald G. Henslee, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Offices of Donald G. Henslee, Austin, TX; Martin J. Cirkiel, Cirkiel & Associates, P.C., Round Rock, TX. (for defendant) Kelley Lynn Kalchthaler, LEAD ATTORNEY, Walsh, Anderson, Gallegos, Green & Trevino, PC, Austin, TX; Todd Aaron Clark, LEAD ATTORNEY, Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle PC, Austin, TX.