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Hodges v. Glenholme School

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 13, 2016

THE GLENHOLME SCHOOL, et al., Defendants.


          STEFAN R. UNDERHILL, United States District Judge.

         On July 30, 2015, the plaintiff, Schelle Hodges, filed a complaint against the defendants, the Glenholme School, Claudia Nicholas, Stephen Nicholas, and John Does One, Two, and Three, alleging various claims arising from Mr. and Ms. Nicholas‘ alleged sexual assault of Hodges in 1981 and 1982. (doc. 1) In response to the defendants‘ motions to dismiss that complaint because of defects in service and the running of the statute of limitations, Hodges filed an amended complaint on October 16, 2015 adding the Devereux Foundation, Inc. as a defendant. (doc. 44) I denied the initial motions to dismiss without prejudice, and the identified defendants then moved to dismiss the amended complaint with prejudice under Rule 12(b)(6) and Rule 12(b)(5). (docs. 57, 58, and 60) I held a hearing on those motions on April 6, 2016.

         For the following reasons, I find persuasive the defendants‘ arguments that the complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim, and their motions are granted with prejudice; accordingly, the defendants‘ arguments that the complaint should be dismissed for ineffective service are not reached.

         I. Standard of Review

         A. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is designed "merely to assess the legal feasibility of a complaint, not to assay the weight of evidence which might be offered in support thereof." Ryder Energy Distribution Corp. v. Merrill Lynch Commodities, Inc., 748 F.2d 774, 779 (2d Cir. 1984) (quoting Geisler v. Petrocelli, 616 F.2d 636, 639 (2d Cir. 1980)).

         When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff, and decide whether it is plausible that plaintiff has a valid claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007); Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir. 1996).

         Under Twombly, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, " and assert a cause of action with enough heft to show entitlement to relief and "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." 550 U.S. at 555, 570; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 ("While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations."). The plausibility standard set forth in Twombly and Iqbal obligates the plaintiff to "provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief" through more than "labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quotation marks omitted). Plausibility at the pleading stage is nonetheless distinct from probability, and "a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of [the claims] is improbable, and . . . recovery is very remote and unlikely." Id. at 556 (quotation marks omitted).

         II. Background

         A. Substantive Facts

         Hodges was born on August 1, 1967. Rule 26(f) Rep‘t § V (doc. 33). She turned 48 on August 1, 2015.

         The following facts are as alleged in the amended complaint. In 1981 and 1982, Hodges was a full-time residential student at the Glenholme School, which was operated by the Devereux Foundation, a corporation incorporated and headquartered in Pennsylvania.[1] Am. Compl. at ¶ 13. Claudia Nicholas was a school nurse employed at the School during that period. Id. at ¶ 16. Hodges was repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted by Ms. Nicholas and her husband, Stephen Nicholas, and they threatened her to prevent her from telling anyone about the abuse. Id. at ¶¶ 20-23.

         In the meantime, staff at the School told Hodges she was "fortunate to have a special relationship" with Ms. Nicholas. Id. at ¶¶ 24, 25. School employees, including John Does Two and Three, knew or should have known that Ms. Nicholas was taking Hodges off-campus. Id. at ¶ 18. Hodges alleges that the other named defendants had knowledge that Ms. Nicholas posed a threat to minors as follows:

Prior to, during, and immediately after, the time Plaintiff was sexually abused . . . Defendants The Glenholme School, The Devereux Foundation, Inc., and Stephen Nicholas had information that Defendant Claudia Nicholas had entered into inappropriate relationships with others at The Glenholme School, that Defendant Claudia Nicholas engaged in conduct involving serious boundary violations and that Defendants The Glenholme School, The Devereux Foundation, Inc., and Stephen Nicholas knew Defendant Claudia Nicholas posed a danger to the minors attending The Glenholme School.

Id. at ¶ 28. Hodges asserts that information was "fraudulently concealed" from her and her parents. Id.

         While she was still enrolled at the School, Hodges "expressed confusion" to her mother regarding her "experiences at The Glenholme School." Id. at ¶ 25. Her mother called the School to discuss "issues Plaintiff reported." Id. School Administrators dismissed her concerns. Id. In the spring of 1982, while Hodges was home with her parents, Ms. Nicholas "came to the Plaintiff‘s parents‘ home in the middle of the night and tried to get the Plaintiff to leave the Plaintiff‘s parents‘ home with [her]. The Plaintiffs‘ parents told [Ms. Nicholas] to leave." Id. at 26. Hodges did not thereafter return to the School. Id.

         Hodges alleges that she "did not know she was a victim of sexual abuse." Id. at ¶ 27. She "was not able to understand until the spring of 2013 that [she] had been sexually abused as a child." Id. The discovery occurred during a conversation with a friend, who told Hodges that she was describing sexual abuse. Id.

         B. Procedural Facts

         Hodges filed her initial complaint on July 30, 2015. (doc. 1) The parties agree that, under Connecticut law, apart from any exceptions, the statute of limitations on Hodges‘ claims ran out on August 1, 2015, thirty years after she reached the age of majority. See Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 52-577d (setting statute of limitations for personal injury damages for sexual abuse to minors at thirty years after reaching the age of majority); 1-1d (setting 18 as the age of majority).

         The marshal serving the complaints received the summons and complaint against The Glenholme School and Mr. Nicholas on August 5, 2015.[2] (docs. 13, 24) The marshal attempted to serve The Glenholme School by serving a summons on Catherine A. Naum on August 6, 2015. (doc. 24) Stephen Nolan, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Devereux Foundation, asserts in an affidavit that Naum is a staff receptionist at the School, and is not an agent authorized to receive process for the School or the Foundation. Devereux Br., Ex. G. The marshal attempted to serve Mr. Nicholas by leaving a summons at his "usual place of abode" in Warren, Connecticut on August 6, 2015. (doc. 13) The marshal served Ms. Nicholas by leaving a summons for her at the same address on the same day. (doc. 14) Hodges does not allege that any of the defendants were aware of her complaint before they were served.

         The summons for the Devereux Foundation was received and served by the marshal on the Connecticut Secretary of State on October 19, 2015, following the addition of the Foundation as a defendant in the amended complaint. (doc. 53)

         III. Discussion

         In three largely identical motions, [3] the defendants raise three main arguments: (1) Hodges has failed to adequately plead fraudulent concealment that would justify tolling the statute of limitations; (2) the suit was not "commenced" before the statute of limitations had run, so the Connecticut accidental failure of suit statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-592(a), was not triggered; and (3) service of process on the School, the Foundation, and Mr. Nicholas was insufficient. Hodges properly concedes that Connecticut law deems an action has "commenced" for the purposes of the statute of limitations only after the service of the summons and complaint, and further concedes that the defendants were not properly served before the statute had run.[4]Because I determine that Hodges cannot toll the statute of limitations, I do not address the service of process issue.

         A. Fraudulent Concealment

         Hodges attempts to toll the applicable statutes of limitations pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-595, which states that if the defendant fraudulently concealed the existence of a cause of action, the action is then deemed to accrue from the time of discovery.

         To prove fraudulent concealment, plaintiffs must show:

(1) a defendant‘s actual awareness, rather than imputed knowledge, of the facts necessary to establish the plaintiffs‘ cause of action; (2) that defendant‘s intentional concealment of these facts from the plaintiffs; and (3) that defendant‘s concealment of the facts for the purpose of obtaining ...

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