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Wayne Bell v. Pennsbury School District and Gary M. Campbell

January 31, 2011

WAYNE BELL, PLAINTIFF
v.
PENNSBURY SCHOOL DISTRICT AND GARY M. CAMPBELL, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stengel, J.

MEMORANDUM

The plaintiff in this case, Wayne Bell, filed suit on behalf of his son, Blayre, after Blayre was removed from the rolls of the Pennsbury School District for not being a resident of the District. Mr. Bell asserts that, in removing Blayre, the School District and School District attendance officer Gary Campbell violated the equal protection clause and the substantive and procedural due process components of the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment, and for the reasons set forth below, I will grant the motion in its entirety and enter judgment in favor of the defendants, the Pennsbury School District and Gary M. Campbell.

I. BACKGROUND*fn1

Wayne Bell ("Mr. Bell") and Linda Carmona-Bell ("Mrs. Bell") are the parents of Blayre Bell ("Blayre"). They live in separate homes but remain married. There has never been a court order addressing the custody of Blayre. Mrs. Bell's home is in the Bristol Township School District, and Mr. Bell's is in the Pennsbury School District ("School District"). Blayre Bell has lived with his mother in her Bristol Township home for his "whole life" and, though he has the option of staying with either parent, he sleeps at his mother's home more often than he sleeps at his father's home. Blayre Bell Dep. 5:2-3, 8:23-10:14. In June of 2008, Mr. Bell enrolled Blayre in the Pennsbury School District for the 2008-2009 school year. Although Mr. Bell did not have the appropriate proof of residence forms when he registered Blayre, the School District enrolled Blayre nonetheless. Because Mr. Bell did not have all required forms when he registered Blayre, Blayre was placed on a watch list for students who were suspected of not being residents of the District. Attendance officer Gary Campbell began investigating whether Blayre was a resident about a month after classes began in the fall of 2008, and determined that Blayre was living at Mrs. Bell's home in Bristol Township.*fn2

Campbell sent a certified letter to Mrs. Bell on November 6, 2008, informing her that Blayre would be dropped from the rolls of the District effective November 14, 2008. She received the letter on Saturday, November 15, and then left a message for Campbell that he would have to call Mr. Bell regarding Blayre's position in the School District. Campbell called Mr. Bell on Monday, November 17, 2008 and told him that he had observed Blayre going to and from Mrs. Bell's over a two week period. He also allegedly told Mr. Bell that Blayre was easy to spot because he could "see his Afro a mile away." Compl. ¶ 17. Blayre is African American.

Blayre attended school on November 17 and November 18, 2008. On November 17, he was invited to and attended a meeting with Campbell and Assistant High School Principal Dan File. He was told that he had been observed going to and from his mother's home and was asked questions about where he was living at the time. See Blayre Bell Dep. 7:14-22. He did not deny during that meeting that he lived with his mother. On November 18, 2008, Mr. Bell was invited to and attended a meeting with Campbell and Sherwood Taylor, another school official. Mr. Bell was told at that meeting that he needed custody papers for Blayre to be properly registered in the Pennsbury School District. Mr. Bell got up and walked out of that meeting after a few minutes. Mr. Bell did not dispute that Blayre was living with his mother during the November 17 phone call or the November 18 meeting. Mr. Bell testified that during the November 17, 2008 phone call, no one asked him anything about Blayre's residence or gave him a chance to explain the circumstances of Blayre's residency, other than to tell him that Blayre was going to be removed from the School District. He testified that, during the November 18 meeting, he did not have the chance to explain Blayre's residency and that Campbell and Taylor told him that there was no appeal process in which he could contest the District's ruling. Wayne Bell Dep. at 8-11.

However, on November 19, 2008, a School District official hand-delivered a letter to Mr. Bell confirming its decision to remove Blayre from its rolls, explaining the basis for this decision, and informing Mr. Bell that he had the right to appeal the decision to the Pennsbury School Board President within five days and receive a hearing. Mr. Bell did not appeal. He testified that despite the clear language in the letter informing him of his appeal rights, he believed he had no such rights because of what Campbell and Taylor told him during their meeting. Wayne Bell Dep., 10:18-11:4.

Instead, he filed a federal complaint in December of 2008, later dismissing it to pursue a hearing before the School Board. That hearing was held on May 27, 2009; the School District and the Bells were each represented by counsel. Counsel for the School District called Campbell and Taylor as witnesses and then attempted to call Mr. Bell, Mrs. Bell, and Blayre. Through counsel, all three refused to testify, invoking a Fifth Amendment privilege. The School Board issued a decision on June 18, 2009, finding that Blayre resides with Mrs. Bell, who is not a resident of the School District, and that he had been properly removed as a student.

Following the hearing, Mr. Bell filed a second federal suit which is now before the Court. His first and second causes of action are both asserted against the School District, and liberally construing these causes of action, he asserts three claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: an equal protection claim based on the School District's removal of Blayre on the basis of his race, a substantive due process claim, and a procedural due process claim. His third cause of action, filed against Gary Campbell, asserts the same three claims.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is proper "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). For an issue to be "genuine," a reasonable fact-finder must be able to return a verdict in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

A party seeking summary judgment initially bears responsibility for informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing relevant portions of the record, including depositions, documents, affidavits, or declarations, or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or showing that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c).

Summary judgment is therefore appropriate when the non-moving party fails to rebut the moving party's argument that there is no genuine issue of fact by pointing to evidence that is "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 ...


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