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Gray v. Devils Lake Public Schools

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

May 22, 2018

DEVILS LAKE PUBLIC SCHOOLS; LAKE REGION SPECIAL EDUCATION; BARRY SUNDEEN, individually and as Director of Harmony House; LEE ANN JOHNSTON, STEVE HALLDORSON, JEFF FRITH, JASON HODOUS, and CORY MEYER, individually and as members of Devils Lake Public Schools School Board; CATHERINE MILLER, individually; RAMSEY COUNTY DISTRICT COURT; KARI AGOTNESS, State Attorney of Ramsey County; and WAYNE STENEHJEM, Attorney General of North Dakota, Defendants.




         Katherine Gray (“Gray”) brings this action against the Devils Lake Public Schools, Lake Region Special Education (“LSRE”), Barry Sundeen, individually and as Director of Harmony House, Lee Ann Johnston, Steve Halldorson, Jeff Frith, Jason Hodous, and Cory Meyer, individually and as members of Devils Lake Public Schools School Board, Catherine Miller[2] individually, the Ramsey County District Court (“RCDC”), Kari Agotness, State's Attorney of Ramsey County, and Wayne Stenehjem (“Stenehjem”), Attorney General for North Dakota, alleging retaliation under chapter 42 of the United States Code, sections 1983 and 1988, the Civil Rights Act, North Dakota Century Code, sections 50-25.1-09.1 and 34-01-20, and defamation. Gray also requests declaratory relief from a permanent injunction in Civil Case No. 36-2016-CV-00299, Devils Lake Public Schools v. Katherine Gray (the “injunction”), issued by the RCDC, as well as a writ striking down the injunction.

         RCDC and Stenehjem (collectively the “State Defendants”) move to dismiss the claims against them, arguing that the Court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case and should abstain from doing so because: (1) the State Defendants enjoy immunity from suit; and (2) Gray's claims against the State Defendants are a collateral attack on the injunction issued by the RCDC and should properly be reviewed by a state appellate court.

         A. Procedural History

         Gray filed her complaint on March 16, 2017, alleging a First Amendment retaliation claim (count I) against Defendants Sundeen, Johnston, Halldorson, Frith, Hodous, and Meyer; retaliation in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (count II) against Defendants Devils Lake Public Schools and LRSE; unlawful retaliation in violation of North Dakota Century Code § 50-25.1-09.1 (count III) against Defendants Devils Lake Public Schools and LRSE; unlawful retaliation in violation of North Dakota Century Code § 34-01-20 (count IV) against Defendants Devils Lake Public Schools and LRSE; defamation (count V) against Defendants Devils Lake Public Schools, LRSE, and Miller; a declaratory action for violations of the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (count VI) for the injunction issued by the RCDC; and a petition for a writ under the All-Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651 (count VII) for the injunction issued by the RCDC. Compl., ECF No. 1. RCDC and Stenehjem moved to dismiss counts VI and VII on May 2, 2017, and all parties have fully briefed the issues. Defs.' Mot. Dismiss (“Defs. Mot.”), ECF No. 9; Defs.' Mem. Law Supp. Mot. Dismiss (“Defs.' Mem.”), ECF No. 10; Pl.'s Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Dismiss (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), ECF No. 13; Defs.' Reply Pl.'s Opp'n (“Defs.' Reply”), ECF No. 19. On January 22, 2018, the parties filed a stipulation waiving the scheduled oral argument and proposed that this Court decide the case based on the related documents filed with the Court. Joint Stipulation, ECF No. 44. This Court adopted the stipulation. See ECF No. 49.

         B. Facts Alleged

         Gray is a social worker who began working as a full-time Direct Care Provider at Harmony House. Compl. ¶¶ 15-16. Harmony House is a residential and boarding care facility for at-risk youths in Devils Lake, North Dakota. Id. at ¶ 4. It is jointly operated by the Devils Lake Public Schools and the LRSE. Id. at ¶ 5. Gray also worked as a substitute teacher at the Devils Lake Public Schools. Id. at ¶ 17. Gray alleges that during her employment at Harmony House, she “maintained satisfactory performance and developed a good rapport with the children in her care.” Id. at ¶ 18.

         David Kosmatka (“Kosmatka”) was an employee of Harmony House during Gray's employment. Id. at ¶ 20. Gray alleges that Kosmatka frequently abused and threatened the children at Harmony House, particularly the Native American children. Id. at ¶¶ 21-26. Gray alerted her direct supervisor, Barry Sundeen (“Sundeen”), on several occasions between 2015 and early 2016, that she believed that Kosmatka had been engaging in inappropriate behavior with some of the children at Harmony House. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 35. She also informed him that Harmony House did not offer any spiritual support for the resident Native American children at the boarding home. Id. at ¶ 36. Gray claims that Sundeen promised that he would speak to Kosmatka, but he never did and Kosmatka's inappropriate behavior continued. Id. at ¶¶ 28, 30-33, 37.

         Sometime around the fall of 2015, Gray made a report with the Sweetwater Elementary School regarding a first-grade teacher who she believed had been abusive toward one of the students. Id. at ¶ 38. Gray alleged that the teacher had “physically turned a child's chair around, forced his hands in his lap, and then used two hands to force his head up, jerking his neck.” Id. She also claimed that the teacher verbally abused another special needs student. Id. Gray claimed that the Sweetwater Elementary School did not address any of her reports of abuse, and that the teacher continued to engage in abusive behavior towards the students. Id. at ¶ 39. After the reports were filed, Gray left her teaching position at the Sweetwater Elementary School. Id. at ¶ 40.

         On May 2, 2016, Gray alleges, she saw Kosmatka call a child at Harmony House “fat” twice, and he then “grabbed and squeezed [the child's] stomach with both hands and shook him.” Id. at ¶ 41. Kosmatka acknowledged that he acted inappropriately, but stated that he had known the child for a while and could do what he wanted. Id. at ¶ 42. Gray did not report the incident to Sundeen because she believed Kosmatka would do it himself. Id. at ¶ 43.

         On May 11, 2016, Gray received an email from Sundeen instructing her to “report any interactions between staff and students that [you] believe is inappropriate to [Sundeen] or Danielle.” Id. at ¶ 45. Following a staff meeting on May 12, 2016, Gray described the May 2 incident to Sundeen. Id. at ¶ 46.

         That same day, Gray filed a formal complaint against Kosmatka and Sundeen with the North Dakota Department of Human Services and the Board of Social Work Examiners. Id. at ¶ 47. In her formal complaint, Gray alleged that Kosmatka physically and verbally abused the children and lacked sensitivity towards the Native American children at Harmony House. Id. at ¶ 48. Gray also alleged that Sundeen had made several derogatory remarks about the residents and failed to address Kosmatka's conduct when it was brought to his attention and instead covered up the incidents. Id. at ¶ 49.

         Sometime around mid-May of 2016, Sundeen transferred Gray to the night shift, from 9 P.M. to 9 A.M. Id. at ¶ 51. According to Gray, it is normal practice at the Harmony House to transition employees into the night shift gradually, but her transition had been effective immediately. Id. On May 31, 2016, Gray suffered multiple tibia fractures and was on medical leave from June 1 to June 15 of 2016. Id. at ¶ 52. She returned to work in a wheelchair and continued to work the night shift. Due to her recent injury, Gray alleges, it became difficult for her to work the night shift, and she so informed Sundeen. Id. at ¶ 53.

         On June 23, 2016, Gray attended a full day of work-related training, and then went to Harmony House to work the night shift. Id. at ¶ 54. That same night, Gray informed Sundeen that she would be testifying at the Ramsey County Department of Human Services about her complaint the next morning, June 24. Id. at ¶ 55. On June 27, 2016, Sundeen fired Gray. Id. at ¶ 58. Sundeen did not provide an explanation other than that Gray's “employment with Harmony House [was] not working out.” Id. at ¶ 59.

         On August 21, 2016, Gray once again reported Kosmatka for child abuse, but this time to the Devils Lake Police Department and the Devils Lake School Board, after she learned that Kosmatka had inappropriately touched a child at Harmony House. Id. at ¶¶ 62-63. She proceeded to contact the child and the child's representative directly and told them that the police wanted to speak to the child regarding the incident. Id. at ¶ 64. Between August 21 through September of 2016, Gray and the child continued to communicate regarding the abuse. Id. at ΒΆΒΆ 64, 65, 67. Gray received a letter from the Devils Lake Public Schools on August 25, 2017, advising her that she could not communicate with the children at Harmony House or include their names in documents not authorized by Harmony House, and warned her that if she ...

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