(CN) - A federal judge has vacated a $325,000 award to a student who took issue with her high school history teacher's unorthodox methods, which included showing gruesome photos of women murdered by Charles Manson.
M. Young, as she is identified in court records, sued
the Pleasant Valley School District and her former teacher Bruce Smith Jr. in 2007, claiming that she suffered retaliation after complaining Smith "showed photographs of naked murdered and dismembered females during his history class, as well as asked female students about what they were wearing during a pillow fight (i.e. panties), discussed push-up bras, and that he skipped college classes to 'bang the cheerleader.'"
The Brodheadsville, Pa.-based district ultimately suspended the popular history teacher without pay and "unleashed a series of truly unfortunate and troubling consequences that derailed [the student's] previously happy and successful high school career," according to a summary of the case by Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane.
The highly publicized litigation brought "notoriety" and an "angry backlash" to Young "so profoundly, that she left her junior year of high school and the extracurricular activities she once enjoyed in favor of home schooling for the remainder of the school year," according to the court.
When the case went to trial in August 2011, a jury ordered the district to pay Young $200,000, and ordered Smith to pay his former student $125,000.
Smith and the district in turn moved for a new trial and judgment as a matter of law.
Kane set the verdict aside and ordered a new trial last week, despite noting that the parties have endured "five years of lengthy discovery and the most contentious, voluminous, and vitriolic motions practice ever seen by this court."
"Though the parties' submissions contain an extraordinary amount of personal sniping that exceeds even the most spirited style of advocacy, when the rhetoric is separated from the legal challenges to the jury's verdict as outlined by defendant ... the unavoidable conclusion is that the law dictates that this verdict be set aside," Kane wrote.
Young had claimed that Smith targeted her by showing of a "whistle-blower" film on the Pentagon Papers, and that the district failed to properly support her or protect her from classmate harassment while other students held a pro-Smith rally on the school campus.
But Kane said that the district and Smith showed that Young's First Amendment retaliation claims were defective.
Finding that Young may have engaged in protected First Amendment conduct by complaining about a teacher, however, the court refused to grant the school district judgment as a matter of law.
Ultimately a new trial is warranted because the jury inconsistently found the district liable but let Principal John Gress off the hook, despite his role as "the only relevant policymaker," according to the 62-page decision.
Smith must still face individual liability on hostile school environment claims, Kane ruled, but she found that the evidence does not support the jury finding that he created a sexually hostile educational environment.
Several of Smith's questionable classroom materials can be said to have a pedagogical purpose, according to the court, which found that images of women murdered by Charles Manson, or of Nazi book burning, have historical value.
But some of Smith's alleged comments - such as telling the class that he would skip class in college to bang the cheerleader - patently lack any educational value.
"Many of the examples of a hostile educational environment cited by plaintiff, appearing alone, may support a hostile educational environment in some contexts," Kane wrote. "However, the totality of the allegations, even viewed out of context and in a light most favorable to plaintiff, do not reasonably support a finding that the environment was 'permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,' such that it changed the terms and conditions of plaintiff's education. The court is sensitive to the fact that this conduct did not take place among adults in a workplace, but by an adult to students in a public school classroom. However, at the same time, the court is wary of the chilling effect of subjecting legitimate - or even borderline - decisions regarding curriculum to routine federal judicial review. Twentieth Century History is a subject that is fraught with complex, and at times uncomfortable, questions of race, religion, violence, and also sex and sexuality. It may be possible to teach the subject having purged the curriculum of issues which some students and their families find 'inappropriate' or inconsistent with their religious or moral beliefs, but the question presented here is not whether this court or the jury approves of the material in question, but whether the materials and comments about them rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
"The court agrees with plaintiff that at times defendant Smith did exercise poor judgment. ... The court agrees that defendant Smith's conduct would have justified disciplinary action from the school district. Even if viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff, however, the evidence presented cannot be said to constitute a sexually hostile environment for plaintiff. The alleged incidents were sporadic. Plaintiff was never singled out."
Kane also said that Young relied on "very limited evidence" to connect the $25,000 award of compensatory damages to the sexually hostile educational environment Smith allegedly created.
"Plaintiff herself testified that she experienced only brief revulsion upon having seen the images," the decision state. "There is no indication that the images caused any lasting damage, resulted in nightmares or sleeplessness, or caused any damage beyond some immediate discomfort."
There is also no basis for the punitive damages award of $100,000 against Smith.
"No evidence has been introduced that defendant Smith ever directed any offending conduct specifically at plaintiff, that defendant Smith acted with an intent to harm, or that defendant Smith ever engaged in any offending conduct in his classroom after the complaints were made," Kane wrote.
"In short, plaintiff has shown that defendant Smith made pedagogical choices that some, and perhaps most, teachers would not have made," she added. "Plaintiff has also put forth evidence that would support a finding that defendant Smith made statements susceptible of being misconstrued. But a thorough review of the record reveals no evidence that defendant Smith acted recklessly, callously, intentionally, or maliciously in creating a sexually hostile educational environment. At worst, Defendant Smith's conduct would support a finding that he was careless. This is insufficient as a matter of law to support an award of punitive damages."
Likewise, Pleasant Valley should not have to pay $200,000 for Young's alleged emotional distress, the judge found.
"The court cannot agree ... that evidence was introduced linking [Young's] distress to the conduct of defendant Pleasant Valley," Kane wrote. Rather, the distress appears to stem from the reaction of third parties to plaintiff filing her lawsuit. ... Moreover, in light of plaintiff's obvious academic success, the court finds no basis for concluding that plaintiff suffered any compensable harm to her education as a result of defendant Pleasant Valley's conduct."
The court said a new trial is also warranted because of misconduct by Young's attorney.
"Having observed counsel's behavior before the jury over the course of a five-day trial, coupled with a jury verdict that was internally inconsistent and provided for an award of damages far in excess of what the evidence called for, the Court has no doubt that counsel's conduct was both improper and prejudicial," Kane wrote.
"The court is mindful of the significant personal difficulty that plaintiff has endured as a result of the events of 2007 in this litigation," Kane concluded. "The court does not doubt her sincerity in raising objections to some of what defendant Smith taught in his classroom. Sympathy alone, however, cannot form the basis of judgment."