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Koehler v. Juniata County School Dist.

April 17, 2008


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


Plaintiff Jaedon Koehler is a fifteen-year old non-verbal autistic student who is a qualified child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482. To provide him with a free appropriate education, he was instructed at a private school at the direction of and with close involvement by employees of his public school district. Plaintiff, by his father Scott Koehler, alleges that certain defendants violated the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, because they failed to provide him with an education appropriate to his abilities and disabilities. He alleges that certain defendants subjected him to physical punishment that violated his right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and state tort law.

The school district and its employees have answered Plaintiff's amended complaint and brought cross-claims against the private entities and employees. The private entities and employees have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's amended complaint and the cross-claims. The disposition of these motions follows.

I. Background

A. Facts

For purposes of this motion to dismiss, all facts stated in the amended complaint are accepted as true. The court will begin with a description of the parties, then recount the chronology of events leading to this litigation.

1. The Parties

Plaintiff Jaedon Koehler lives within the Juniata County School District. In addition to autism, he suffers from severe mental retardation, significant language delay, hearing loss, aggressive behavior, and seizure disorder, among other mental and physical challenges. Thus, he needs a great deal of assistance with daily living skills, behavior, gross and fine motor skills, speech and language, and all academic areas.

It is helpful to group the Defendants in this case by affiliation and describe their relationships. The court will refer to the "School District Defendants," which group includes the Juniata County School District ("School District"), Thomas Muir, Superintendent of the School District, and Dr. Elise Hazel, Director of Support Services for the School District.

Northwestern Human Services of Pennsylvania ("Northwestern"), is a non-profit health and human services corporation. Northwestern contracted with the School District to provide special education services for School District students with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, and mental retardation. The Juniata River Center for Human Services ("River Center") is "a program and/or subsidiary created by Defendant Northwestern . . . to provide mental health, mental retardation and educational support services in Hunting[d]on, Mifflin and Juniata Counties." (Am. Compl. ¶ 8.) The Derry Center Alternative Education School ("Derry Center") is "a facility owned and operated by Defendant Northwestern and/or Defendant River Center." (Id. ¶ 7.) The School District Defendants allege that the School District, Northwestern, and the River Center were subject to a Purchase of Service Agreement ("Agreement"). The Agreement governs the financial and legal relationship among those entities for the purpose of educating children at the Derry Center.

Lorna Hogeland served as the Director of the Derry Center and was the "Supervisor and/or 'Behavior Specialist' in charge of the educational services" rendered to Plaintiff. (Am. Compl. ¶ 9.) In this capacity, she was an "employee and/or agent" of Defendants Northwestern and the School District. (Id.) Karen Wert was also an employee or agent of "Northwestern and/or the School District" by serving in the role of "Autism Specialist." (Id. ¶ 10.) She "supervis[ed] and/or implement[ed] the educational services . . . rendered" to Plaintiff at the Derry Center. (Id.) John Calhoun was an Agency Director for the Derry Center. He "personally participated in, knew of and/or acquiesced" in the events giving rise to the amended complaint. (Id. ¶ 11.) Plaintiff avers that Hogeland, Wert, and Calhoun were "policymakers" for and agents of Northwestern, River Center, "and/or" the School District. Northwestern, the River Center, Hogeland, Wert, and Calhoun are, collectively, the "Northwestern Defendants." Hogeland, Wert, and Calhoun are referred to occasionally as the "Individual Northwestern Defendants." Muir, Hazel, Hogeland, Wert, and Calhoun are the "Individual Defendants."

Plaintiff avers that all of the individuals named, except Muir, "personally participated in, directed, knew of and/or acquiesced in" the activities that give rise to Plaintiff's cause of action. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5-6, 9-11.)

2. The Sequence of Events

In 2005, Plaintiff's family relocated to the School District. His father, Scott Koehler, provided the School District with information about Plaintiff, including his pertinent medical and psychological records and the Individualized Education Programs ("IEP") under which his education had progressed in previous school systems. Hazel, Hogeland, Wert, and Calhoun prepared an IEP for Plaintiff to be effective during the regular school year lasting from Fall 2005 to Summer 2006. They decided to place Plaintiff at the Derry Center for his education. Before Mr. Koehler agreed to the Derry Center placement, he toured the facility with representatives from the School District, Northwestern, and the River Center.

Mr. Koehler was satisfied that the Derry Center was appropriately equipped to address Plaintiff's educational and emotional needs. The IEP included arrangements for Plaintiff to receive instruction in a traditional classroom setting adjacent to a common area. The room, during Mr. Koehler's tour, was constructed of dry wall, had carpeting, was well-lit, colorful and appropriately equipped for an educational setting with a desk, toys, and other instructional aids. The majority of Plaintiff's instruction would occur in the room, but Mr. Koehler was assured that Plaintiff would also interact with other students during activities like lunch, arts and crafts, and recess.

Plaintiff began the 2005-2006 school year at the Derry Center. Soon after he began, however, Defendants*fn1 informed Mr. Koehler that Plaintiff appeared to be regressing cognitively, emotionally, and socially. He was acting out aggressively and urinating and defecating in his clothes. Mr. Koehler did not see these behaviors in Plaintiff at home.

On or about October 18, 2005, Dr. Beverly A. Hmel, a child psychologist, evaluated Plaintiff upon referral by the River Center. She reported that since Plaintiff began attending the Derry Center, his academic progress had deteriorated while his aggressive and self-abusive behavior escalated. She noted a concern for the safety of both Plaintiff and his fellow students and service providers. Dr. Hmel reported that the Derry Center was unable to provide the level of care that ensured his safety, mental health, and continued educational progress. She recommended that Plaintiff be placed in a residential facility where he could regain control of his destructive behavior and physical aggression toward others in a safe environment. Defendants, aware of Dr. Hmel's recommendations, continued Plaintiff's instruction at the Derry Center.

Mr. Koehler did not see a need for a residential facility because Plaintiff's behavior at home was not problematic. In November 2005, he invited Wert into his home so that she could observe Plaintiff's home behavior. While there, Wert "made a passing reference to Mr. Koehler that Defendants had been placing [Plaintiff] in a type of restrictive 'coverall,' which she purposefully did not fully or adequately describe, to prevent him from taking his clothes off." (Id. ¶ 41.) Mr. Koehler was shocked that any restraints had been used upon Plaintiff without his consent. Wert "proclaimed, in words or substance, that Defendants felt that in this case it would be 'far better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for [Mr. Koehler's] permission.'" (Id.) Mr. Koehler did nothing to investigate immediately after Wert's admission.

On or around December 1, 2005, Hogeland contacted Mr. Koehler to inform him that a teacher or aide at the Derry Center was injured while trying to restrain Plaintiff during an emotional outburst. She continued that she had already begun the process to have Plaintiff involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. Mr. Koehler informed Hogeland that he would be at the Derry Center in minutes to remove his son.

When he arrived, ten to fifteen minutes later, Mr. Koehler was outraged by what he found. "Defendants, without Mr. Koehler's knowledge or consent, unilaterally transformed [Plaintiff's] once carpeted, colorful, decorated, well-lit and furnished classroom" by "removing the carpeting, replacing and/or covering the walls with sheets of plywood, covering up the only window in that room and removing the desk and all other furnishing and instructional aids that were in that classroom when it was inspected and approved by Mr. Koehler." (Id. ¶ 45.) Plaintiff was locked in this room, after Defendants had raised the temperature therein. Plaintiff was not free to move about. He was restrained in a "thermally-insulated camouflage jumpsuit with the zipper pinned and duct taped shut to prevent him from escaping." (Id. ¶ 46.) Plaintiff was drenched in sweat and reeking of feces and urine. It took Mr. Koehler several minutes to free Plaintiff from the jumpsuit.

Even after he was released, Plaintiff remained withdrawn into himself. After "prolonged reassurances and prompting on Mr. Koehler's part" Plaintiff began to recover and make eye contact. Mr. Koehler removed Plaintiff from the Derry Center that day and did not return.

Mr. Koehler filed a due process complaint about the incident with the School District. During the subsequent investigation, Hogeland "admitted that Defendants Hazel and Wert had instructed her and other Derry Center staff members to restrain, isolate and lock [Plaintiff] in the plywood room in the insulated camouflage jumpsuit whenever he became aggressive." (Id. ¶ 49.) Wert, however, was rarely at the Derry Center to provide autism support for Plaintiff. The staff members in charge of Plaintiff's direct care were not "properly trained to provide educational instruction to autistic students." (Id. ¶ 50.)

Plaintiff avers that in light of the foregoing facts, he has suffered "a deprivation of his protected educational rights under the IDEA, Section 504 [of the Rehabilitation Act] and applicable governing regulations; a deprivation of his guaranteed substantive due process rights to be free from wrongful confinement, physical abuse/restraint, unjustified intrusions on personal liberty/security and arbitrary government action; severe emotional distress and trauma; educational and emotional set-backs and other injuries and damages." (Id. ¶ 53.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed his initial complaint on January 23, 2007, using 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as a vehicle for his IDEA and due process claims. (Doc. 1.) The Northwestern Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on April 19, 2007. (Doc. 13.) The School District Defendants answered the complaint and cross-claimed against the Northwestern Defendants on May 3, 2007. (Doc. 21.) Northwestern and the River Center moved to dismiss the cross-claim on June 6, 2007 (Doc. 31), as did Wert, Calhoun, and Hogeland (Doc. 33). On June 22, 2007, Plaintiff notified the court that A.W. v. Jersey City Public Schools, 486 F.3d 791 (3d Cir. 2007), foreclosed his ability to maintain his IDEA claims via § 1983. The court thus granted Plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint. All previous motions were deemed moot.

On July 19, 2007, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint with numerous causes of action.*fn2 (Doc. 48.) The School District Defendants answered the complaint and cross-claimed against the Northwestern Defendants on August 17, 2007. (Doc. 55.) Also on August 17, Northwestern and the River Center moved to dismiss the amended complaint (Doc. 56), as did Wert, Calhoun, and Hogeland (Doc. 57). On September 6, 2007, Wert, Calhoun, and Hogeland moved to dismiss the School District Defendants' cross-claim. (Doc. 72.) On September 13, 2007, Northwestern and the River Center did the same. (Doc. 77.) All motions are ripe and ready for disposition.

II. Legal Standard -- Motion to Dismiss

Among other requirements, a sound complaint must set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). This statement must "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, - U.S. -, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). "Fair notice" in Rule 8(a)(2) "depends on the type of case - some complaints will require at least some factual allegations to make out a showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008) (quotation omitted). "A situation may arise where, at some point, the factual detail in a complaint is so undeveloped that it does not provide a defendant the type of notice of claim which is contemplated by Rule 8." Id. A plaintiff must provide "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" to show entitlement to relief. Twombly, 127 1965; accord, e.g., Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231; Baraka ...

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