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Wagner v. Tuscarora School Dist.

January 20, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yvette Kane United States District Judge


Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff and Defendants. (Doc. Nos. 52 and 54.) The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that Defendants have demonstrated that no issues of material fact remain that warrant a trial. Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment, deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, and direct the Clerk of Court to enter judgment in favor of Defendants.*fn1

I. Procedural Background

In the Second Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 33), Plaintiff alleges that Defendants conspired to terminate his employment as a tenured band teacher and band director at James Buchanan High School in the Tuscarora School District. Specifically Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Beaumont, the Principal of James Buchanan High School, harbored a personal dislike for Plaintiff and that Defendant Board Members hired Defendant Stapleford as Superintendent on the condition he terminate Plaintiff. (Id. at 6, 9.) Plaintiff claims that Defendant Board Members met with Defendant Stapleford for the purpose of planning a course of action to suspend and/or terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Id. at 9.) Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants falsely accused him of receiving kickbacks and of sexually harassing students. (Id. at 10, 11-13.) Plaintiff alleges he was suspended without pay on August 12, 2003, and was allegedly told by Stapleford that "[he] had 24 hours to resign, or else he would be terminated." (Id. at 13.) Plaintiff claims he was suspended without notice or the opportunity to respond to the allegations against him. (Id.) In addition, Plaintiff alleges that Superintendent Stapleford and Principal Beaumont contacted local newspapers, which subsequently reported that Plaintiff was accused of sexually harassing students. (Id. at 14.)

Defendants subsequently moved to partially dismiss the claims against them for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. No. 35.) By Order dated September 21, 2005, the Court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part. (Doc. No. 45.) Following the Order, the following claims remained against the Defendants: procedural due process claims against Defendants Stapleford, the Tuscarora School District, and School Board (Counts I, II); a civil conspiracy claim against Defendants Beaumont, Stapleford, Jane Rice, Michael Rice, Geoffrey Spidel, Darla Tharp, and Keith Smith (Count III); a claim for defamation against Defendants Stapleford and Beaumont (Count IV); a claim of tortious interference with contractual relations against all individual Defendants (Count V); and a breach of contract claim against Defendant School District and the School Board (Count IV).

Plaintiff and Defendants have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment as to all of the claims.

II. Factual Background*fn2

Plaintiff was a band teacher and band director at James Buchanan High School in the Tuscarora School District ("District") for approximately twenty years. While employed in that capacity, Plaintiff was a member of a teacher's union, the Tuscarora Education Association, and the terms of his employment were governed by a collective bargaining agreement between the teacher's union and the District. The terms of the collective bargaining agreement provide, inter alia, that Plaintiff could only be terminated for just cause. Plaintiff also enjoyed tenure status and, accordingly, he could be terminated only for just cause pursuant to 24 P.S. § 11-1122 and § 11-1133. Prior to August 12, 2003, Plaintiff had never been suspended or subject to other disciplinary action and had received generally favorable reviews.

Defendant Dr. Thomas A. Stapleford assumed the position as Superintendent of the District on July 1, 2003. On his first day on the job, Defendant Stapleford met with Defendant Robert Beaumont, the principal of the School, and with Defendant Darla Tharp, the orchestra teacher at the School. During this meeting, Defendant Tharp formally complained to Defendant Stapleford that Defendant had sexually harassed her in the workplace on numerous occasions.

At some point during the summer of 2003, a student of the High School complained to Defendant Stapleford that Plaintiff had touched her inappropriately. The student's mother also complained to Defendant Stapleford about the matter.

As a result of the foregoing complaints against Plaintiff, along with additional information Defendant Stapleford had received regarding complaints from other students, Defendant Stapleford determined that the charges should be investigated and that Plaintiff should be suspended promptly from his teaching duties. Additionally, following consultation with the District's legal counsel, Dr. Stapleford concluded that the student's allegations that Plaintiff had touched her inappropriately must be provided to law enforcement authorities.

In August 2003, Defendant Stapleford contacted representatives of the Tuscarora Education Association to inform them about Defendant Tharp's allegations and about the student's complaint regarding Plaintiff's conduct, and to advise them that he would be meeting with Plaintiff to discuss disciplinary proceedings. These representatives were also asked to be present during Dr. Stapleford's planned meeting with Plaintiff to discuss the allegations and present Plaintiff with options regarding his continued employment. Defendant Stapleford attested that he believed the situation required delicacy, given the seriousness of the allegations, and because both Defendant Tharp and Plaintiff had rights that required protection.

On August 12, 2003, Defendant Stapleford's office contacted Plaintiff and directed that he report to Defendant Stapleford's office for a meeting. Plaintiff was not advised of Defendant Sharp's allegations prior to this communication, nor was he informed as to the nature of the meeting.

On August 12, 2003, Plaintiff reported to Defendant Stapleford's office, where he met with Defendant Stapleford and two representatives from the Tuscarora Education Association, Marcia Bender and LeeAnn Witter-Keefer. During this meeting, Defendant Stapleford informed Plaintiff that he had been accused by a District employee of sexual harassment and that the charges were serious. Defendant Stapleford also advised Plaintiff that he had received information that Plaintiff had allegedly touched multiple students in an inappropriate manner. Defendant Stapleford offered Plaintiff an opportunity to answer the charges, but would not provide Plaintiff with the names of his accusers. Plaintiff denied the charges generally and expressed shock. Defendant Stapleford informed Plaintiff that he could resign his position with the District or face termination. Defendant Stapleford also advised Plaintiff that if he did not resign he would be placed on administrative leave and that he should not report for work at the beginning of the school year, which was to commence shortly.

By letter dated August 14, 2003, Plaintiff's newly-retained counsel notified the District that Plaintiff would agree voluntarily to be placed on administrative leave pending the criminal investigation into the student's allegations that Plaintiff had touched her inappropriately. It appears from the evidence submitted by the parties that Plaintiff was thereafter immediately placed on administrative leave without pay, and that members of the School Board unanimously accepted this placement for the 2003-2004 school year during a meeting held on August 25, 2003. It is uncontested that Plaintiff was never restored to his position as an active teacher with the District. The record indicates that the District did not take further action against Plaintiff during the 2003-2004 school year because the Pennsylvania State Police was continuing to investigate the claims made against Plaintiff that he touched a student inappropriately. However, the record also contains evidence indicating that following Plaintiff's placement on administrative leave, the District discovered pornography on the computer in Plaintiff's school office, was investigating questions regarding financial irregularities relating to the high school band program, and that other students had come forward with statements regarding Plaintiff's alleged inappropriate behavior.*fn3

On November 7, 2003, Plaintiff, through his representatives with the Tuscarora Education Association, filed a grievance against the District. The grievance alleged that the School Board violated a number of provisions of District's collective bargaining agreement by failing to restore Plaintiff to his position as band director by October 27, 2003.*fn4 Plaintiff demanded money damages and reinstatement to his former position, among other relief. Although evidence in the record is limited, it appears that the parties were proceeding with arbitration proceedings through July 2004. In an undated letter, the arbitrator confirmed that the arbitration on Plaintiff's grievance scheduled for July 20, 2004 was being canceled pending continuing discussions between the parties and that the Tuscarora Education Association would bear the costs associated with canceling the arbitration. (Doc. No. 57, Ex. 6.)*fn5

On June 28, 2004, the District, through the School Board, issued Plaintiff a Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing that set forth grounds for terminating Plaintiff's employment, including, inter alia, sexual harassment of a co-worker, accessing pornographic material via a school computer, telling sexually suggestive and obscene jokes in the presence of students, inappropriately touching female students, and making inappropriate comments of a sexual nature about students. (Doc. No. 57, Ex. 4.) Plaintiff received the Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing on June 29, 2004 and was thereby notified that the School Board would hold a hearing on July 14, 2004 and that he had the right to request a hearing within ten days after receipt of the Statement of Charges and Notice of Hearing. Additionally, the Statement of Charges notified Plaintiff that if he did not request a hearing, orally or in writing, he would waive his rights to contest his dismissal. (Id.) Plaintiff did not request a hearing to contest his dismissal, nor did he seek to grieve the dismissal through the Tuscarora Education Association.

Subsequently, on August 9, 2004, the School Board unanimously passed a resolution that recited the charges against Plaintiff, noted that Plaintiff had received notice of the charges against him, and had failed to request a hearing as provided in the Statement of Charges or otherwise to grieve the charges through the teachers' union pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The resolution also states that Plaintiff had been pursuing a grievance against the District, but his representative had canceled the scheduled arbitration. In accordance with that resolution, Plaintiff was terminated from his employment with the District effective August 9, 2004.

III. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. A factual dispute is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis which would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the ...

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