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Smith v. Central Dauphin School District

August 6, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Sylvia H. Rambo


Before the court is supplemental briefing from the parties on the issue of Monell liability for Defendant Central Dauphin School District ("School District"). The court ordered briefing on the issue after granting in part and denying in part Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 74.) The court presumes familiarity with that decision and will not repeat its contents. The question presented concerns the scope of the School District's potential liability for the adverse employment actions identified therein. The court concludes that the School District may be liable only for the actions of placing Plaintiff on medical leave and failing to hire her as an assistant coach in August 2003.

I. Background

Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges that the School District "retaliat[ed] against the plaintiff[,] engag[ed] in a policy and practice of misleading the plaintiff and others about matters of public concern . . . [and] unlawfully depriv[ed] her of income and opportunity and of the chance to work in a healthy environment as a way of driving her from her employment . . . ." (Doc. 2 ¶ 22.)

After extended discovery, Defendants moved for summary judgment on March 16, 2007. (Doc. 60.) This court concluded that the alleged adverse employment actions that could constitute retaliation are 1) placing Plaintiff on medical leave; 2) opting not to hire Plaintiff as an assistant coach; 3) withholding information about the environmental condition at Linglestown Junior High School ("LJHS"); and 4) assigning Plaintiff to teach unfamiliar classes and requiring her to be a floater at Central Dauphin High School ("CDHS"). (Doc. 74 at 32-33.) The record on summary judgment shows that the Central Dauphin School Board ("School Board") made the final decision to place Plaintiff on medical leave (id. at 12) and not to hire her as an assistant cross-country coach in August 2003 (id. at 17-18). No evidence has been adduced that the School Board participated in the alleged withholding of environmental information about LJHS by Superintendent Hasson or the decisions about her classroom and teaching assignments by Principal Mazzatesta.

The court did not previously evaluate the scope of the potential liability of Defendant Central Dauphin School District because the parties did not brief the issue. (Id. at 22 n.6.) Thus, the court ordered supplemental briefing on the issue of who or what entity was a policymaker for Defendant Central Dauphin School District for purposes of § 1983 liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). (Doc. 86 at 1.) Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, the issue is now ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard -- Summary Judgment

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(c); accord Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 231-32 (3d Cir. 2001). 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 that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. The court must resolve all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact in favor of the non-moving party. Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232.

Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the claims of the non-moving party, the non-moving party may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in its complaint. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Instead, it must "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. (internal quotations omitted); see also Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (citations omitted). Summary judgment should be granted where a party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "'Such affirmative evidence -- regardless of whether it is direct or circumstantial -- must amount to more than a scintilla, but may amount to less (in the evaluation of the court) than a preponderance.'" Saldana, 260 F.3d at 232 (quoting Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460-61 (3d Cir. 1989)).

III. Discussion

Under Monell and its progeny, it is well-settled that a municipality is a "person" for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Liability will attach to the municipality only when the municipality*fn1 itselfhas caused a constitutional violation. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). A municipality may act only through natural persons, however. City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 122 (1988). Hence, the first task in the Monell analysis, and a matter of law for the court, is to identify the natural person or entity comprised of natural persons authorized to act on behalf of the municipality such that the person's or entity's action may be imputed to the municipality itself. Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989). There are four adverse employment actions alleged to have violated Plaintiff's rights here. The court will review each to determine who or what entity acted and whether the School District may subsequently be held liable.

A. Medical Leave and Coaching

A municipality's properly-constituted legislative body is authorized to act for the municipality. Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 480 (1986). A single decision by such a body may subject the municipality to § 1983 liability. Id.; City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 252 (1981); Owen v. City of Independence, 445 U.S. 622, 627-29 (1980). The School Board is the legislative body for the School District, see 24 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 2-211, 5-508; thus, "proof that [it] . . . has intentionally deprived a plaintiff of a federally protected right necessarily establishes that the municipality acted culpably." Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 405 (1997). The record demonstrates that the School Board made the final decision as to Plaintiff's placement on medical leave and whether she would be hired as an assistant cross-country coach. Thus, if the jury determines that the School Board made these decisions in retaliation for Plaintiff's protected speech, the School District will be liable under ยง 1983. Plaintiff must show that a majority of the voting members ...

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