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Elmira C. Sexton v. County of York

June 14, 2012


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


Before the court is Defendants County of York, Pennsylvania, t/b/d/a York County Youth Development Center ("YDC") and Rodney Wagner's partial motion to dismiss Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. §1983 First Amendment retaliation claim and claim for violations of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. § 1421 et seq. Defendants seek dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, Defendants motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background

A. Facts*fn1

Plaintiff, Elmira C. Sexton, brought this suit against YDC and Rodney Wagner alleging that her employment was terminated in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment right to speak out on alleged violations involving children under the care, custody and control of YDC as well as violations of internal policies and procedures at YDC. (Count I.) Plaintiff also claims that she was terminated as a result of making good-faith reports of wrongdoing and/or waste, in violation of Pennsylvania's Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. § 1421 et seq. (Count II.)*fn2

YDC is an emergency shelter for children that is owned and operated by York County, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶¶ 5-6.) Rodney Wagner ("Wagner") was, at all times relevant hereto, employed by York County as director of YDC. (Id. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff was hired by YDC on or about March 6, 2000, and, at all times relevant hereto, served as a shift supervisor at YDC. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 10.) As a shift supervisor, Plaintiff was responsible for general supervision of staff and residents at YDC, and also was tasked with assuring compliance with applicable protocols and regulations. (Id. ¶ 11.) Additionally, Plaintiff was responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Sanctuary Model, an internal policy or methodology designed to create or change an organization's culture with the goal of rehabilitating at-risk children instead of punishing them.*fn3 (Id. ¶¶ 11-13.)

Plaintiff worked with the YDC training supervisor at bi-weekly trainings to assure that all staff were in compliance with Department of Public Welfare regulations, the Sanctuary Model, as well as the Safe Crisis Management Curriculum. (Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiff also served as the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instruments ("MAYSI") administrator. (Id. ¶ 16.) In that capacity, Plaintiff conducted MAYSI assessments of children, which inquired into sensitive areas such as past abuse or suicidal intentions. (Id. ¶ 18.)

During the course of her employment, Plaintiff became aware of a number of problems at YDC involving violations of mandatory protocols, regulations, and curriculum by staff, supervisors, and management, resulting in mistreatment of children. (Id. ¶ 19.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that she became aware of instances of inappropriate behavior by staff and supervisors including "threatening/challenging of children, using abusive language towards the children, staff failing to model appropriate behavior, neglect being used as a form of punishment, the making of racially insensitive jokes and/or statements, crumbling up resident grievances, denying or making conditional basic human rights of using the restroom or maintaining basic hygiene, and generally bullying and/or neglect." (Id. ¶ 20.)

From Fall 2010 until her termination on September 20, 2011, Plaintiff made attempts on a daily or weekly basis to raise concerns about the alleged wrongful behavior. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 23, 38, 66.) Plaintiff attempted to address the complaints during management meetings, staff meetings, as well as in private conversations with Wagner, as well as Assistant Director Kevin Sheppard, and Beverly Mackereth, Director of Human Services for York County. (Id. ¶¶ 31, 39.)

Plaintiff alleges that, as a result of her attempts to raise these concerns, Defendant Wagner engaged in a course of conduct to impede in her job performance. For example, Plaintiff alleges that Wagner directed Assistant Director Sheppard to remove reference materials from her office and moved her desk to a shared office, where the necessary privacy to conduct the MAYSI assessments was lacking. (Id. ¶¶ 30, 31, 33, 34.) Wagner also altered Plaintiff's work schedule, which Plaintiff alleges impeded her ability to evaluate and address various issues on each shift. (Id. ¶ 24.) Following a "heated" confrontation with an employee who Plaintiff implicated as one of the employees "failing to treat the children with fairness, dignity, and respect," Plaintiff was given a "last-chance agreement," despite not having a significant disciplinary history. (Id. ¶¶ 50-52.) Plaintiff attempted to contact Bob Nace, Director of Human Resources for York County, to discuss her objections to the last-chance agreement, but Nace referred her to Wagner, who in turn referred her back to Nace. (Id. ¶¶ 54- 56.)

On September 6, 2011, Plaintiff received two disciplinary actions: one for failing to complete a supervisor log sheet and another for failing to assure that staff members filled out a meal count sheet relating to the school lunch program. (Id. at 61.) At this time, Wagner also questioned Plaintiff about an email sent on August 21, 2011, from Plaintiff to Sheppard and Wagner requesting a "Red Flag" meeting to discuss various complaints of residents and shortcomings on the part of staff and supervisors. (Id. ¶62.) Wagner allegedly insinuated at the meeting that Plaintiff sought out the complaints in an effort to discredit or damage Wagner's reputation. (Id.) On September 20, 2011, Plaintiff was terminated. (Id. ¶ 66.) According to Plaintiff, Wagner told her that he interpreted her failure to fill out the supervisor logs as an indication that she no longer wanted to be employed by YDC. (Id. ¶ 67.) Plaintiff believes that any disciplinary action taken against her was pretextual and that she was terminated because of her history of advocating for children's rights. (Id. ¶¶ 75, 76.)

B. Procedural History

On March 3, 2012, Plaintiff filed a complaint. (Doc. 1.) On May 4, 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss and brief in support. (Docs. 6 & 7.) On May 18, 2012, Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 8) to which Defendants replied on May ...

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