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Weidow v. Scranton School Dist.

August 19, 2009

CORRINA WEIDOW AND KERRY BENTLER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SCRANTON SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss of Defendant Scranton School District ("SSD"). (Doc. 7.) SSD moves to dismiss Counts I, II, and IV of Plaintiffs' complaint as well as Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, SSD's motion will be denied as to Counts I and III, but granted as to Count IV and Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages.

BACKGROUND

The facts as alleged in Plaintiffs' Complaint are as follows. Plaintiff Corrina Weidow ("Weidow") was born on May 18, 1990, and remained a minor until her eighteenth birthday on May 18, 2008.*fn1 (Compl. ¶¶ 5, 12, Doc. 1.) Weidow enrolled in ninth grade at West Scranton High School ("West Scranton H.S."), part of SSD, in August of 2004, and at all relevant times before graduating from Scranton High School ("Scranton H.S.") on June 19, 2008, she lived within the SSD. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 12-13, 125.) In May of 2004, prior to entering high school, Weidow was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by Dr. Matthew Berger. (Id. ¶ 8.) Weidow is allegedly a "disabled" individual as defined by the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, but she is "otherwise qualified" to participate in normal school activities. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10.) Because of her disability, Weidow has difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others, and she has an intense fear of being touched. (Id. ¶ 9.)

Before the start of classes in August of 2004, Plaintiff Kerry Bentler ("Bentler"), Weidow's mother, notified Guidance Counselor Mary Suchowski and School Nurse Judy Gatelli at West Scranton H.S. that Weidow was bipolar. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 15.) SSD, however, did not identify or evaluate Weidow as a student who may be in need of special education and/or other accommodation pursuant to its obligations under § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). (Id. ¶ 16.) In November of 2004, Teacher Natalie Colosimo and another school nurse, Ms. Marichak, were informed that Weidow was found cutting herself with a razor in a school bathroom. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) Despite this evidence of mental disability, SSD did not identify or evaluate Weidow. (Id. ¶ 19.) In December of 2004, Maryann Herne, a student who was aware that Weidow was bipolar, wrote a note containing violent threats against Weidow and, on more than one occasion, confronted and taunted Weidow. (Id. ¶¶ 20-34.) Through these incidents, West Scranton H.S. Resource Officer Jeff Gilroy was told that Weidow was bipolar, and it is likely that Principal Kevin Rogan and Vice Principal Jessica Finnerty were also made aware that she was bipolar. (Id. ¶¶ 20-34.)

In late December of 2004, Bentler enrolled Weidow in a school outside of SSD because SSD failed to identify Weidow as a student with a disability or provide reasonable accommodations for her. (Id. ¶ 36.) However, in August of 2005, Bentler enrolled Weidow in Scranton H.S. (Id. ¶ 37.) Bentler informed Scranton H.S. Guidance Counselor Kristie McDowall that Weidow was bipolar, and that she had experienced problems at West Scranton H.S. and had a history of self-mutilation. (Id. ¶ 37.) Bentler also informed a Scranton H.S. school nurse that Weidow was bipolar and that nurse noted it on Weidow's medical information card. (Id.) Scranton H.S. placed Weidow and another bipolar student in an English-as-a-second-language class, even though both spoke English as their native language. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39.) During tenth grade, Weidow was harassed, threatened, and taunted by other students, who called her "bipolar" and a "psychotic bitch." (Id. ¶ 40.) Because this harassment caused Weidow to experience high anxiety and vomiting, she frequently stayed home. (Id. ¶ 41.) Bentler called Scranton H.S. Vice Principal Melissa Rose regularly to notify her that Weidow was being harassed because of her disability, but the taunts and threats allegedly continued unabated. (Id. ¶ 42.) In the fall semester of tenth grade, Head Guidance Counselor McNulty, Counselor McDowall, and Teacher Scotleski met to discuss changes in Weidow's bipolar medication, but SSD did not evaluate or identify Weidow as a student who may be in need of special education or other accommodation. (Id. ¶¶ 44-46.)

Also in the fall of tenth grade, Ms. Herne confronted Weidow at the entrance to Scranton H.S., where Herne took off her shirt and gestured to fight Weidow, saying to her friends, "that's the girl we're going to get." (Id. ¶ 47.) As a result of the stress and anxiety Weidow felt because of the taunting incidents, she began to experience insomnia and Dr. Berger prescribed a sedative to help her sleep. (Id. ¶ 50.) On February 16, 2006, Bentler called the Lackawanna County District Attorney's Office ("Lackawanna D.A.") because she did not think SSD was doing enough to respond to Weidow's complaints of harassment. (Id. ¶ 51.) Lackawanna D.A. representative Christine Adams, Weidow, Bentler, Vice Principal Rose, and Scranton H.S. Resource Officer John Burgette met to discuss these concerns on February 21, 2006. (Id. ¶ 52.) In the fourth quarter of tenth grade, Weidow and Bentler met with Vice Principal Rose and an art teacher, Ms. Gentile, and Bentler informed them that Weidow was bipolar. (Id. ¶ 61.) SSD did not identify or evaluate Weidow as a student who may be in need of special education or other accommodation. (Id. ¶ 62.)

When Weidow returned for eleventh grade on August 28, 2006, students continued to harass her by calling her names like "bipolar" and "psychotic bitch," putting threatening notes in her locker, and standing in front of her locker so she could not access it. (Id. ¶¶ 64-66.) On September 11, 2006, Weidow stopped going to school because she feared for her safety, and Bentler requested a homebound instructor. (Id. ¶ 70.) A homebound instructor, Laura Stefonetti ("Stefonetti"), was not assigned until the second quarter of the school year. (Id. ¶¶ 76-77.) Because of the delay, Weidow had to complete her first and second quarter assignments at the same time, causing her additional stress. To complete her Spanish assignments, Weidow had to teach herself because Stefonetti was not qualified to teach Spanish and SSD did not provide Weidow with a Spanish-speaking instructor for the course. (Id. ¶¶ 83-84.) Stefonetti was only able to get assignments from Weidow's art and math teachers, so she had to speak with Bill King, the Assistant to the Superintendent, to get her other assignments. (Id. ¶¶ 78-82.)

On February 27, 2007, Weidow attended Scranton H.S.'s annual semi-formal dance. (Id. ¶¶ 85-86.) At the dance, Weidow and her date were harassed by the same students whose harassment caused her to seek a homebound instructor. (Id. ¶ 86.) Because of the harassment, Weidow had a panic attack in which she threw up on the dance floor, dug her nails into her shoulders with enough force that she broke her skin, and had difficulty breathing. (Id. ¶ 87.) On February 28, 2007, Bentler called Scranton H.S. Principal Brian McGraw to tell him about the events at the dance. (Id. ¶¶ 65, 89.) SSD did not evaluate Weidow, offer her an accommodation so that she could attend school events without being harassed, or discipline the students who harassed her. (Id. ¶ 91.)

Weidow returned to Scranton H.S. for her senior year on August 27, 2007. (Id. ¶ 97.) Before the first day of school, Bentler called Head Counselor McNulty to tell her that Weidow would be attending classes again. (Id. ¶ 98.) McNulty did not evaluate Weidow. (Id. ¶ 99.) On the first day of classes, Weidow was harassed by a group of the same girls who had previously harassed her. (Id. ¶ 100.) These girls obstructed Weidow's path in the hallway, and at lunch, Sandy Schultz, a student who had been charged by the police with making terroristic threats against Weidow at a picnic on June 15, 2007, and who had been ordered by a Magistrate to stay away from Weidow, called her a "psychotic bitch." (Id. ¶¶ 96, 100, 102, 105.) After August 27, 2007, Weidow did not return to class because she feared for her safety. (Id. ¶ 104.) Bentler called Principal McGraw to report these incidents. (Id. ¶ 105.) McGraw did not refer Weidow for an evaluation, offer her an accommodation, or discipline the students who harassed her. (Id. ¶¶ 107-08.)

In September, Stefonetti was again assigned as Weidow's homebound instructor. (Id. ¶ 113.) In October, Weidow was assigned an art course that Head Counselor McNulty told her was a graduation requirement, but she was not provided with the necessary art assignments until November. (Id. ¶¶ 114-15.) Because of the difficulty of the assignments, Stefonetti's inability to help Weidow with them, and the delay in receiving them, Weidow's anxiety worsened. (Id. ¶ 116.) Subsequently, Dr. Berger diagnosed Weidow with anxiety disorder and prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for her. (Id. ¶ 117.) On December 6, 2007, despite her frequent assertions to the contrary, Head Counselor McNulty informed Bentler that the art class was not a graduation requirement, and told Stefonetti, "anyway, if she can't do the art, how is she going to handle art in college?" (Id. ¶¶ 118-19.) In addition, SSD did not send Weidow's transcripts to the colleges to which she applied, although it sent transcripts for the rest of the graduating class, or provide Weidow with information on senior year activities. (Id. ¶¶ 123-24.) Weidow graduated from Scranton H.S. on June 19, 2008. (Id. ¶ 125.)

Plaintiffs filed a four-count complaint against SSD on October 31, 2008. (Id. ¶¶ 127-50.) In Count I, raised pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12132 et seq., Weidow alleges SSD intentionally discriminated against her in its conduct or lack of conduct, including failing to identify, evaluate, and accommodate her. (Id. ¶¶ 127-32.) In Count II, also raised pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, Weidow alleges SSD intentionally discriminated against her by failing to investigate and effectively respond to the peer-on-peer harassment she suffered. (Id. ¶¶ 133-39.) In Count III, raised pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Weidow alleges she is a "class of one" and was treated differently than other similarly situated students in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Id. ¶¶ 140-45.) In Count IV, also raised pursuant to § 1983, Plaintiff Bentler alleges SSD's conduct deprived her of her fundamental liberty interest in caring for and guiding Weidow. (Id. ¶¶ 146-50.) Plaintiffs seek compensatory and punitive damages.

(Id. ¶ 150.)

SSD filed a motion to dismiss Counts I, III, and IV pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on February 9, 2009. (Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. 7) (hereinafter "Mot."). SSD filed a brief in support of its motion on February 24, 2009. (Def.'s Br. in Supp., Doc. 9) (hereinafter "Def.'s Br."). Weidow filed a brief in opposition to the motion on March 17, 2009. (Pls.' Br. in Opp'n, Doc. 12) (hereinafter "Pls.' Br."). SSD did not file a reply brief. SSD's motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

The Court has jurisdiction in this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.

LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), meaning enough factual allegations "'to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'" each necessary element, Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); see also Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (requiring a complaint to set forth information from which each element of a claim may be inferred). In light of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), the statement need only "'give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "[T]he factual detail in a complaint [must not be] so undeveloped that it does not provide a defendant [with] the type of notice of claim which is contemplated by Rule 8." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232; see also Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 499 F.3d 663, 667 (7th Cir. 2007).

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Id. The Court need not assume the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n.13 (3d Cir. 1998), or credit a complaint's "'bald assertions'" or "'legal conclusions,'" Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997)).

When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining whether a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of her claims. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

DISCUSSION

I. Count I -- ADA & Rehabilitation Act

A. Whether Plaintiff States a Claim

Count I of Plaintiffs' complaint raises a discrimination claim by Weidow under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. SSD first argues that Count I should be dismissed because Weidow fails to state a claim under either statute. (Def.'s Br. 6-9.) ...


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