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SMITH v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA

September 6, 2000

MARVIN A. SMITH
V.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA; SUPERINTENDENT DAVID HORNBECK; PHILADELPHIA BOARD OF EDUCATION; PRESIDENT FLOYD ALSTON; PHILADELPHIA FEDERATION OF TEACHERS LOCAL #3 BUILDING REPRESENTATIVE AVI BARR; AND ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL OF CARVER HIGH SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE STEVEN MILLER.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jan E. Dubois, Judge.

    MEMORANDUM

I. FACTS

Marvin A. Smith ("plaintiff") is the father of two children who in the fall of 1997 were enrolled at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science ("Carver"), a "magnet" public high school located at 17th and Norris Streets in North Philadelphia. See Complaint at ¶¶ 24, 36. Plaintiff was concerned that racism at Carver was affecting his children and other African-American students at the school. As a result, on January 1, 1998, he wrote a letter to Carver's Principal, Ella Travis, calling for certain changes to be made at Carver.*fn1 See Complaint at ¶¶ 37-38; Appendix, Exhibit A.

The focus of plaintiff's letter was his view that "the white/Jewish teachers" at Carver were racist and discriminated against African-American students, who constituted the majority of pupils at the school. The following excerpt is provided as representative of the letter's content:

Dear Mrs. Travis:

The white/Jewish teachers at [Carver] are generally guilty of the following offenses:
(1) Failing to motivate our African-American children to be the best they can be. Too many white/Jewish teachers have low expectations of our children. Racial Discrimination! Racism!
(2) Failing miserably to provide the kind of high quality, interesting and stimulating learning experiences which would assist students in being successful. Racism!
(3) Failing miserably to and honor the cultural and ethnic value of African-American History Month by assigning the majority African-American student body the task of reporting on the movie Shindler's List, instead of an African-American assignment. That was blatant disrespect and insensitivity! Racism!
(4) Failing miserably to recognize the majority African-American student body by allowing a teacher to tell African-American students that affirmative action should be eliminated! This is another blatant example of white/Jewish teachers misleading our children. Racism!
(5) Failing miserable to regularly and effectively inform the students of the many false representations of this racist country, and the many, many violations of its own [C]onstitution. Acute racial discrimination, rampant violations of its citizens' human rights are also issues neglected in the curricula and the classroom. Why aren't African-American students taught to protest, boycott, and demonstrate against these American atrocities?
We want these uncaring racist white/Jewish people to take their flawed and ineffective show back to the suburbs where they live! They are systematically destroying our children's spirit and killing their will. This racist system must be stopped by whatever means necessary and possible before additional generations of our children are lost.
Since these white/Jewish people have been our traditional enemy, why are they so eager to accept the "teaching positions" at schools where African-Americans are predominantly enrolled? They are not there because they love or care about our children! They are there because oppressors need to oppress! We must stop the oppressors and the oppression!
We — African-Americans — must control the educational institutions that are ours! If we fail to effectively control OUR INSTITUTIONS OF LEARNING we are surely doomed to continue our lives depending on white/Jewish people and following their directions. We must be the master of our fate and absolutely must be the captain of our soul!
I am amenable to meeting with you, at your earliest convenience, to discuss the contents [of] this letter,

MARVIN A. SMITH (signed)

In June, 1998, nearly six months after plaintiff wrote the letter, plaintiff was elected by a vote of parents of Carver students as president of Carver's Home and School Association. See Complaint at ¶ 40. At or about the same time, plaintiff was appointed to serve on the Advisory Panel at Carver; plaintiff does not specify in the Complaint his role on the Advisory Panel, when he was appointed to that position, or who made the appointment. See Complaint at ¶ 44.

Soon after plaintiff assumed these roles, he began advocating for the removal of certain Carver staff members. Plaintiff circulated petitions calling for the termination of selected administrators and teachers at the school, including defendant Steven Miller, Carver's Assistant Principal, and defendant Avi Barr, a teacher at Carver and the building representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Local #3. See Complaint at ¶ 41. One such petition, dated December 1, 1998, was written in the form of a letter. See supra note 1; Appendix, Exhibit B. Following is an excerpt from that document:

Dear Mrs. Travis:

We, the Parents, Guardians and Friends of students of Carver have regularly observed Steven Miller's acute inhospitality. He walks through Carver — where Our Precious Children are enrolled — and acts like Parents, Guardians and Friends of Carver are invisible. He simply ignores us! That is completely and absolutely unacceptable! Steven Miller is extremely uncomfortable around Parents, Guardians and Friends of Carver. He is hostile, mean spirited, and downright disrespectful of Parents, Guardians and Friends of students enrolled at Carver.
We, the Parents, Guardians and Friends of students enrolled at Carver also very strongly demand the termination, resignation or transfer of . . . Avi Barr. . . .
We, the Parents, Guardians and Friends of students enrolled at Carver demand that Steven Miller, the Carver [A]ssistant [P]rincipal, be terminated, transferred or asked to resign . . .

In or about December, 1998 the Philadelphia Board of Education, chaired by President Floyd Alston, unanimously passed a resolution condemning plaintiff and calling upon Carver's Home and School Association to remove him from his post as its president.*fn2 The Board's resolution, reproduced in its entirety, was as follows:

The Philadelphia Board of Education and Superintendent deplore and condemn the actions of Mr. Marvin Smith, President of the Home and School Association at George Washington Carver High School. Mr. Smith has chosen to express his concerns about Carver High School through a most inflammatory letter to the principal. This letter contained not only prejudicial statements but, was clearly racist and anti-Semitic. In both spirit and word it offends us personally, the entire School District community and all those we serve. In light of these facts, the Board calls upon the Home and School Council to act swiftly and appropriately by removing Mr. Smith as President of the Carver Home and School Association. Furthermore, the Board and the Superintendent are resolved that Mr. Smith shall have no official standing in the School District of Philadelphia from this point forward.

At or about the time this resolution was passed, plaintiff was removed from his position on Carver's Advisory Panel. See Complaint at ¶ 44. In addition, on December 9, 1998, Carver's Home and School Association sent a letter to Carver's parents informing them that they had removed plaintiff as its president. See Complaint at ¶ 46.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 11, 1998 plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1) demanding compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney's fees and costs in excess of $10 million. The Complaint asserts seven causes of action. The School District of Philadelphia, School District Superintendent David Hornbeck ("Hornbeck"), the Philadelphia Board of Education, Board President Floyd Alston ("Alston"), Avi Barr ("Barr"), and Steven Miller ("Miller") (collectively the "School District defendants") are named in all seven counts.*fn3 Plaintiff sues all non-institutional defendants in their individual and official capacities. See Complaint, at ¶¶ 1; 47-53.

On February 4, 1999 the School District defendants filed an Answer to plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 11). The Answer contained several affirmative defenses, including the defense of failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Also on February 4, 1999, the School District defendants filed a joint motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). The School District defendants argue in their motion that plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Plaintiff filed a response to the School District defendants' joint motion. It is this motion that is presently before the Court.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review in a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is identical to that for a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).*fn4 See Byrd v. Robison, et. al., 1997 WL 14495, at *3 n. 1 (Jan. 4 1997 E.D. Pa.) (citing Turbe v. Government of the Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991).

In considering such motions, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded material facts alleged by the non-moving party as well as all reasonable inferences that may be derived from those facts. See Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421 (1969) (applying standard in connection with Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6)); Bryson v. Brand Insulations, Inc., 621 F.2d 556, 559 (3d Cir. 1980) (applying standard in connection with Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c)). If, on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, matters outside the pleadings are presented to the Court and not excluded, the motion is treated as a motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and all parties are given an opportunity to present relevant evidence. See ALA v. CC AIR, Inc., 29 F.3d 855, 859 (3d Cir. 1994); Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A complaint should be dismissed if "it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations." Hishin v. King & Spaulding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984).

Plaintiff is proceeding pro se in this case. The Court is mindful of the instruction that it should broadly construe normal pleading requirements when handling pro se submissions. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (holding pro se complaint "to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers").

IV. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff contends that defendants Barr and Miller "leaked" his January 1, 1998 letter addressed to Principal Travis. See Complaint at ¶ 42. Thereafter, according to plaintiff, defendants Barr and Miller and others "began to pressure" defendants School District of Philadelphia and School District Superintendent David Hornbeck to "terminate[] plaintiff's appointment on [Carver's] Advisory Panel," and plaintiff was so terminated. See Complaint at ¶¶ 43, 44. Also according to plaintiff, defendants Philadelphia Board of Education and Board President Floyd Alston reacted to pressure and engaged in their own conspiracy to remove plaintiff from his post as president of Carver's Home and School Association, and plaintiff was so removed. See Complaint at ¶ 45.

Plaintiff alleges seven causes of action, summarized as follows: Count 1 — an unlawful conspiracy pursuant to § 1985 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871; Count 2 — intentional infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law; Count 3 — negligent infliction of emotional distress under Pennsylvania law; Count 4 — defamation of character under Pennsylvania law; Count 5 — deprivation of constitutional rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution; Count 6 — violations of § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871; and Count 7 — invasion of privacy under Pennsylvania law.

A. Counts 2, 3, 4 & 7 — Municipal Liability for State Law Claims

Plaintiff alleges several state law claims in Counts 2 (intentional infliction of emotional distress), 3 (negligent infliction of emotional distress), 4 (defamation of character) & 7 (invasion of privacy) against two municipal entities — the School District of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Board of Education. These claims for intentional torts against municipal entities are barred by Pennsylvania law. Plaintiff asserts the same state law claims against defendants Hornbeck, Alston, Barr and Miller in their official ...


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