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Myra G. Forrest v. Owen J. Roberts School

March 31, 2011

MYRA G. FORREST,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
OWEN J. ROBERTS SCHOOL
DISTRICT, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

According to Plaintiff, over the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 academic years, the public sessions of School Board meetings, "evolved into offensive, verbal assaults perpetrated by Defendants Dutton, Endress, Kerner, Bissland and Zelley, without any semblance of professionalism." Id. at ¶ 32. The executive sessions, which were closed to the public, "often turned into a form of verbal combat as acted by Defendants Dutton, Endress, Kerner, Bissland and Zelley, resulting in egregious forms of abuse, harassment and efforts of intimidation primarily focused on [Plaintiff]." Id. at ¶ 33. "The public and private meetings [were] lengthy, contentious acts of unprofessionalism directed towards Plaintiff and other women who did not share Defendants' . . . opinions or had the temerity to ask questions of Defendants regarding discussed agenda and non-agenda items." Id. at ¶ 34. Plaintiff avers that she and other administrators were berated and belittled in public and private meetings, and that their professional opinions were ignored in favor of what Bissland, Zelley, Dutton, Kerner and Endress wanted to do, whether or not it was educationally sound. Id. at ¶ 35. Plaintiff alleges that her staff members were told what to do "or else," and foul language and the threat of physical violence were directed towards Board members and Plaintiff when they asked questions or had differing opinions. As a result, Plaintiff alleges that the behavior of the Board majority "created an intimidating, hostile and offensive work environment." Id.

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

MEMORANDUM

Dr. Myra G. Forrest ("Plaintiff") brings numerous claims against the Owen J. Roberts School District ("OJRSD"), individual current and former School Board members Debbie L. Bissland ("Bissland"), Karen L. Zelley ("Zelley"), John M. Dutton ("Dutton"), Edward L. Kerner ("Kerner"), and Eugene P. Endress ("Endress"), and a John Doe Defendant (together, "Defendants"). Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Second Amended Complaint (Docket No. 36); Plaintiff's Response (Docket No. 37); Defendants' Reply (Docket No. 44); and Plaintiff's Sur-Reply (Docket No. 42). For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.

I. Procedural Background

Plaintiff's original Complaint in this matter was filed in July 2009, and it was accompanied by a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction. After a teleconference on the record, the Court denied Plaintiff's Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order only.*fn1 Plaintiff subsequently withdrew the remaining portion of her Motion and filed an Amended Complaint. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. At the allowance of the Court, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint ("Complaint").*fn2

Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss in response.

II. Legal Standard

In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), courts must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation and citation omitted). After the Supreme Court's decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, - U.S. -, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This standard, which applies to all civil cases, "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Accord Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-211 (3d Cir. 2009) ("All civil complaints must contain more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.") (internal quotation omitted).

III. Facts

For the purpose of deciding the instant Motion, the Court must take all alleged facts as true. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233. To be clear, under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, this is required at this stage of the case to evaluate, under a specific overall standard and the frameworks of particular legal claims, whether Plaintiff has alleged facts sufficient to establish that she may eventually be entitled to redress such that her claim(s) should be allowed to proceed to discovery, summary judgment motion practice, and, potentially, a trial on the merits. Accordingly, in reciting Plaintiff's averments the Court makes no findings of fact and reaches no conclusions as to whether Plaintiff will actually prevail at subsequent stages of this case. The burden remains with Plaintiff to adduce proof to support her allegations and meet her burden regarding any legal claims that survive the instant Motion to Dismiss.

Plaintiff alleges the following facts in the Complaint.*fn3

A. Hiring and Job Performance

After an extensive search for a new Superintendent to replace its departing Superintendent, OJRSD selected Plaintiff for the position. Complaint ¶ 13. Plaintiff entered into an employment contract with OJRSD on April 4, 2005. Id. at ¶ 14. Plaintiff began working at OJRSD in June 2005, "with the vision of moving the district, encompassing the administration, teachers and students, from 'good' to 'great.'" Id. at ¶ 15.

Plaintiff avers that the four academic calendar years during which she was superintendent of OJRSD were an unqualified educational success. Id. at ¶ 16. According to Plaintiff: (1) OJRSD students recorded excellent, improved Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores, id. at ¶ 17; Philadelphia Magazine named OJRSD the 22nd best school district in the eight-county Greater Philadelphia Area, which area comprised one-hundred and five area school districts, id. at ¶ 18; and (3) OJRSD was named a "best bang for the buck" district, because its educational outcomes outpaced per-pupil spending, id.

Plaintiff also avers that with her as Superintendent, OJRSD was also a great success outside of in-classroom instruction. Id. at ¶ 19. The district's Education Foundation, with what Plaintiff avers to have been her assistance as Superintendent, raised more than $286,000. Id. at ¶20. Plaintiff states that this money was used to fund the Owen J. Roberts High School television station, student scholarships, and teacher mini-grants, and to support, enhance and enrich the educational experience of OJRSD students. Id. Plaintiff avers that, despite inheriting building projects totaling more than $118,000,000, which were planned and approved by the School Board prior to her arrival, she found creative ways to locate untapped resources in an effort to keep costs at a minimum and without an increase to taxpayers. Id. at ¶ 21. According to Plaintiff, one example of this effort was securing over $2,400,000 in Access Funding since 2005 for OJRSD to assist with special education programs, aides and teachers. Id. Plaintiff states that prior to Plaintiff's arrival, OJRSD had only received minimal Access Funding. Id.

Plaintiff also alleges that her guidance also enabled the District to keep its taxes to a minimum. Id. at ¶ 22. The average tax increase during the four academic years during which Plaintiff was Superintendent was 3.40 percent. Id. Plaintiff's predecessor had averaged a 6.07 percent tax increase for the four academic years prior to Plaintiff's employment. Id. Plaintiff avers that she increased OJRSD's communication with citizens through innovative use of the media, including the high school television station and personal interaction with township supervisors, parents and other interested residents. Id. at ¶ 23. To keep the community involved with OJRSD, Plaintiff shared, via both e-mail to OJRSD personnel and via the OJRSD website to the public, insights gathered during visits to one OJRSD school each and every week for her entire tenure. Id.

Plaintiff avers that, along with the Business Administrator and Director of Human Resources, she successfully negotiated a new Teamsters contract to the betterment of OJRSD and without the need for unnecessary lawyer involvement -- therefore saving the district tens of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees. Id. at ¶ 24. According to Plaintiff, the School Board approved the contract as presented and without opposition. Id. Plaintiff avers she also proposed and implemented a tax relief program for senior citizens, called Star Fish Ambassadors, in which up to a $500.00 tax credit could be earned through volunteering at OJRSD. Id. at ¶ 25. Currently, an estimated forty-five (45) senior citizens work at OJRSD as part of the program. Id. In addition, Plaintiff avers that she addressed an important district need by implementing safety and security initiatives to the benefit of students. Id. at ¶ 26.

Plaintiff alleges that, despite those successes and absent any failures, she was the target of unacceptable conduct by certain School Board members. Id. at ¶ 27.

B. Interaction with the School Board

School Superintendents are charged by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with monitoring academic programs to ensure that requirements are met, and reporting deficiencies to the School Board and, ultimately, the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Id. at ¶ 28. Accordingly, Plaintiff was mandated to report to the School Board. Id. at ¶ 29. When Plaintiff became Superintendent in July of 2005, she implemented a practice of meeting with the School Board President on a weekly basis to keep him or her updated on the latest information. Id. at ¶30. Plaintiff included the Assistant Superintendent, Business Manager, Director of Pupil Services, Director of Human Resources, and the Supervisor of Special Projects in those meetings. Id. According to Plaintiff, these meetings were uneventful during the tenure of three School Board Presidents -- Barbara McMeekin ("McMeekin"), Eric Scheib ("Scheib") and Deborah Eddinger ("Eddinger"). Id.

Plaintiff alleges this changed when Dutton's term as President began. Id. Plaintiff avers that Dutton attended approximately four of these weekly meetings in full, but within the first ten minutes of the fifth meeting, stood up, walked out of the room, and slammed the door behind him. Id. According to Plaintiff, Dutton canceled the remaining meetings with Plaintiff's central staff during his tenure as President of the School Board. Id. Plaintiff states that, when Kerner became President of the School Board in December 2008, he agreed to restart the weekly meetings at Plaintiff's request, but Kerner insisted that Bissland, the Vice-President of the School Board, also attend. Id. at ¶ 31. Plaintiff avers that the meetings began in mid-January of 2009 and remained fairly consistent through February of 2009, however in March of 2009, Kerner and Bissland started missing meetings without notifying Plaintiff or her staff. Id. According to Plaintiff, Kerner and Bissland missed eight out of twelve meetings between March of 2009 and June of 2009. Id. Plaintiff alleges that the only meetings Bissland and Kerner attended during the months of March, April and May of 2009, were those which occurred on the third Tuesday of the month, which immediately preceded School Board meetings. Id.

Plaintiff avers that Defendants OJRSD and School Board allowed several members, including Dutton, Kerner and Endress, to harass, intimidate and discriminate without fear of repercussion. Id. at ¶ 36. According to Plaintiff, each has been verbally abusive, hostile and harassing to her, including the use of sexist and racist language. Id. According to Plaintiff, this resulted "in a work environment fraught with hostility." Id. As she sets forth in the Complaint, "[t]he abusive, hostile, harassing behavior, lacking total self-control in regard to their treatment of [Plaintiff], escalated with each passing month." Id. More broadly, Plaintiff avers that, beginning on or about December 3, 2007 (i.e., during tenures of Dutton and Kerner as Board President), open meetings and executive sessions were characterized by screaming, arguing and unprofessional behavior by the entire Board majority of Bissland, Zelley, Endress, Dutton and Kerner. Id. at ¶38.

Plaintiff further alleges that Endress, Dutton and Kerner would show their animus towards women by berating any woman that dared express a viewpoint with slurs and making other attempts to intimidate the women. Id. According to Plaintiff: (1) Endress and Dutton would curse (e.g., "bullshit") and call McMeekin, other female Board members and Plaintiff "bitches," among other slurs, at Board meetings, id. at ¶ 39; (2) Dutton and Kerner would lose control of their tempers and slam things (e.g., tables or chairs) at meetings, id. at ¶ 40; and (3) Dutton attempted to stifle any dissent by physically threatening others, id. Among other threats, Plaintiff alleges that Dutton specifically told McMeekin that he wished "he could run the meetings like his union meeting, because 'someone . . . would be pulpy after the meeting.'" Id. Moreover, Plaintiff avers that Dutton would often threaten to settle things outside; he often told McMeekin to "shut up you bitch; we can settle this outside." Id.

According to Plaintiff, Kerner, Dutton and Endress continually talked over and cut off questions or opinions from herself and female Board members in an effort to bully and intimidate. Id. at ¶ 41. Plaintiffs avers that this type of behavior happened at most or all meetings between December 2008 and June 2009. Id. Plaintiff also avers that Endress and Kerner, in both public and private meetings, showed their animus towards women by continually questioning the hiring of women for positions within the district. Id. at ¶ 42. Plaintiff alleges that, during a May 2009 meeting with Plaintiff and the Assistant Superintendent, Kerner asked that more men be hired for positions as a potential cost saving measure to the District: "Do we have to hire young women? All they do is get themselves impregnated and then we have to hire somebody else." Id.

In January 2008, Keith Fulmer, a Board member for only one month at the time, was charged with various types of sexual misconduct by a minor female. Plaintiff alleges that, shortly after she learned of the situation, she called Board President Dutton to discuss the matter and the potential resignation of Fulmer. Id. at ¶ 43. Plaintiff alleges that Dutton's only response was stating that the girl making the charge was a "ditz." Id. Fulmer was later charged with molesting two minor girls and sentenced to prison. Id. at ¶ 43 n.1.

Plaintiff also alleges a pattern of hostile conduct over the course of a number of specific Board and committee meetings, including the following:

1. Plaintiff avers that, at a School Board meeting on January 28, 2008, Dutton and others screamed at, ridiculed, and harassed her during a heated argument regarding the firing of OJRSD's previous solicitors and hiring of new solicitors. Id. at ¶ 44.

2. Plaintiff avers that, at a School Board meeting on March 10, 2008, Kerner and Bissland ridiculed, mocked and demeaned her, other female administrators, and certain Board members. Id. at ¶ 46. According to Plaintiff, Kerner and Bissland called into question the integrity and honesty of those women during an argument pertaining to Board protocol and proposed changes to the Human Resources Department. Id. Plaintiff also avers that Kerner also engaged in disrespectful treatment of Antonia Cramp, the Director of Human Resources. Id.

3. Plaintiff avers that, at a necessary and regularly scheduled meeting between she and Dutton on March 11, 2008, Dutton described, in a threatening fashion, how he handled problems of dissension "behind the shed." Id. at ¶ 47. Plaintiff further alleges that Dutton indicated during that discussion that he often carried a gun. Id.

4. Plaintiff additionally alleges that, at the same March 11, 2008, meeting, Dutton made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature, including discussions of a past girlfriend. According to Plaintiff, Dutton stated the she reminded him of a former girlfriend who was attractive, intelligent, and a strong-willed woman. Id. at ¶ 48. Plaintiff also alleges Dutton stated that, because of these qualities similar to those of his past girlfriend, Dutton was convinced that Plaintiff and he would encounter difficulties (i.e., they would "butt heads").*fn4 Id.

5. Plaintiff avers that, at a School Board meeting on March 17, 2008, she was screamed at, ridiculed, and harassed by Dutton and Bissland during an argument about ...


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