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Regina Knaub v. Dennis Tulli

April 21, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Regina Knaub, filed a complaint against defendants, Commonwealth Connections Academy (CCA), a public cyber charter school, and Dennis Tulli, CCA's chief executive officer. Knaub was a teacher at the school and alleges that she was suspended and eventually terminated because she spoke on behalf of a nonCCA student at a meeting intended to develop an individualized education program (IEP) for the student. Plaintiff makes claims for the violation of: (1) procedural due process, (2) substantive due process, and (3) equal protection. She also makes claims alleging retaliation in violation of: (1) the First Amendment; (2)the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (3) the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA); and (4) the Rehabilitation Act (RA).

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff has failed to allege any meritorious claims.

II. Standard of Review

Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." On a motion to dismiss, "[w]e '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.'" Byers v. Intuit, Inc., 600 F.3d 286, 291 (3d Cir. 2010)(quoted case omitted). While a complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), and detailed factual allegations are not required, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 at 1974. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, U.S. , , 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965). Hence, "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at , 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

After Iqbal, in resolving a motion to dismiss, we "conduct a two-part analysis." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). First, we separate the factual elements from the legal elements and disregard the legal conclusions. Id. at 210-11. Second, we "determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoted case omitted).

With this standard in mind, we provide the background to this case, as Plaintiff alleges it.

III. Background

Plaintiff avers the following. On or about August 22, 2007, CCA hired her as a special-education teacher. (Am. Compl. ¶ 8). Among other duties, she was to develop IEPs (individualized education programs) for students and to communicate with parents of students with special needs to insure that their IEP goals were being met. (Id. ¶ 9).

After she completed her first school year (2007-2008), Plaintiff received a "satisfactory" rating on her individual performance evaluation and was given a salary increase of $1,500, to be paid over the 2008-2009 school year. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11). In February 2009, Plaintiff received a "satisfactory in all respects" interim performance evaluation. (Id. ¶ 12).

On April 30, 2009, on her own time and without compensation, Plaintiff attended a meeting held for a friend's autistic child to determine the student's IEP. (Id. ¶ 14). The student was receiving educational services from the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in a school located in the Middletown Area School District. Defendant CCA is not directed by, or under the control of, either of these entities. (Id. ¶ 13).

Before the meeting, CCA had never advised Plaintiff that she was prohibited from advocating on behalf of special-needs children. (Id. ¶ 19). Nor did Plaintiff represent herself at the meeting as being an employee of Defendant CCA or as acting on its behalf. (Id. ¶ 18). Instead, Plaintiff attended the meeting "as an advocate" for the student. (Id. ¶ 14).

The Intermediate Unit's proposed IEP "did not include a positive behavior support plan . . . ." (Id. ¶ 15). Plaintiff believed this plan "was necessary for the safety of the child . . . ." (Id.). Plaintiff "expressed her opinion that the IEP was not satisfactory without" such a plan, (id.), and the Intermediate Unit "reluctantly" agreed to include the plan in the student's IEP. (Id. ¶ 16).

On or about May 1, 2009, a representative of the Intermediate Unit complained to Plaintiff's supervisor about Plaintiff's "having advocated on behalf of" the student. (Id. ¶ 20). On or about May 7, 2009, defendant Tulli suspended Plaintiff from her employment and told her that he was going to recommend that CCA's board terminate her employment "because of her advocacy on behalf of the disabled child." (Id. ¶¶ 21-22). Tulli told Plaintiff that she could resign to avoid having a termination on her work record. (Id. ¶ 23).

On May 22, 2009, defendant CCA's board did not terminate Plaintiff but did vote to suspend her without pay. (Id. ¶ 25). Additionally, "Tulli directed Plaintiff's supervisor to give her an unsatisfactory evaluation for the entire school in all respects" even though Tulli knew that Plaintiff's performance was not unsatisfactory in all respects. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27).

Around May 13, 2010, Plaintiff filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), (id., ¶ 28), basing her complaints on the actions taken against her by Defendants. Id. Defendants repeatedly asked Plaintiff to withdraw her administrative complaints, but Plaintiff refused to do so. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31).

Plaintiff has made the following complaints to the management of CCA. First, "Plaintiff has . . . repeatedly complained to management of CCA about repeated confidentiality violations by staff employees in violation of federal and state law." (Id. ¶ 31). Second, Plaintiff "complained to management of CCA about the lack of CCA's repeated failure to follow student's IEPs." (Id. ¶ 33). "Plaintiff's complaints were made . . . for the purpose of having the Defendants comply with the requirements of federal and state law relating to special needs children and not for reasons personal to herself." (Id. ¶ 34).

Around October 26, 2010, Tulli informed Plaintiff by letter that he was recommending that CCA's board terminate her employment the next day but did not specify any charges or evidence against her. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36). On October 27, 2010, defendant CAA terminated Plaintiff's employment without either a pre- or post-termination hearing, and with Tulli presenting "bogus reasons" for the termination. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37, 39-40). CAA terminated her employment, which Plaintiff characterizes as a "property right," (id. ¶ 39), because she refused to withdraw her complaint with the PHRC and the EEOC and because of "her continued efforts to have CCA comply with federal law." (Id. ¶ 37). Plaintiff alleges that the actions of the defendants damaged her reputation "and will make it difficult to obtain employment as a special education teacher." (Id. ¶ 44).

Other teachers at CCA, similarly situated to the Plaintiff, had participated in IEP meetings outside of their employment and had made internal complaints about CCA's compliance with federal and state law, but these teachers had not been suspended or terminated, and there was no rational basis for Defendants to treat Plaintiff differently. (Id. ¶¶ 38-39).

In Count I of the complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the defendants' conduct violated her rights to: procedural due process, substantive due process, equal protection, and against retaliation for the exercise of her First Amendment rights. In Count II, she asserts their actions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12117. In Count III, she asserts their actions violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. In Count IV, she asserts the defendants' actions violated ...

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