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Rachel Dombrowski v. Governor Mifflin School District

June 29, 2012


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


Before the Court is the Motion of Defendant Governor Mifflin School District ("GMSD") to Dismiss Portions of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and to Strike Portions Thereof (Docket No. 36); Plaintiff Rachel Dombrowski's ("Plaintiff") Answer (Docket No. 38); and GMSD's Reply (Docket No. 43).

I. Introduction

Plaintiff brings four claims against GMSD arising from actions allegedly taken by GMSD while Plaintiff was in its employ.*fn1 Count One claims retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3. Count Two is a hostile work environment claim in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Count Three contains claims for violation of federal and state rights to privacy. Count Four is a claim for violations of due process.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), GMSD moves to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims except for a portion of Count One. In addition, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f)(2), GMSD moves to strike Paragraphs 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 25, 68, 69, and 115 of the Amended Complaint on the grounds that they are redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous. For the reasons that follow, I will grant the Motion in part and deny it in part.

II. Standard of Review

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. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks 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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (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." Id. at 678 (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." Id. at 678; accord Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) ("[A]ll civil complaints must contain more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.") (internal quotation marks omitted).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) permits the court, on its own motion, or on the timely motion of a party, to "strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent or scandalous matter." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(f). "Immaterial matter is that which has no essential or important relationship to the claim for relief. . . . A scandalous matter or pleading is one that casts a derogatory light on someone, uses repulsive language, or detracts from the dignity of the court." Conklin v. Anthou, No. 10--2501, 2011 WL 1303299, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 5, 2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). "The purpose of a motion to strike is to clean up the pleadings, streamline litigation, and avoid unnecessary forays into immaterial matters." Natale v. Winthrop Res. Corp., No. 07-4686, 2008 WL 2758238, at *14 (E.D. Pa. July 9, 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). While a court "possesses considerable discretion in disposing of a motion to strike under Rule 12(f), such motions are not favored and usually will be denied unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties, or if the allegations confuse the issues in the case." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing River Rd. Devel. Corp. v. Carlson Corp., Civ. A. No. 89-7037, 1990 WL 69085, at *2 (E.D. Pa. May 23, 1990)). Striking part of a pleading is considered a "drastic remedy to be resorted to only when required for the purposes of justice." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing DeLa Cruz v. Piccari Press, 521 F. Supp. 2d 424, 428 (E.D. Pa. 2007)).

III. Factual Allegations

For the purpose of deciding the instant Motion, I must assume all alleged facts are true. See Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233. Plaintiff alleges the following facts in the Amended Complaint.*fn2

GMSD hired Plaintiff as Assistant Director of Technology in August 2004, and it promoted her to Director of Technology in August 2006. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 9--10. GMSD hired Andrea Coleman-Hill as a school principal in December 2005. Id. ¶ 11. At that time, Coleman-Hill was the only African-American principal in the district. Id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff avers that, during Coleman-Hill's employment as principal, School Superintendent Mary T. Weiss ("Weiss") made disparaging comments based on race about Coleman-Hill and expressed a desire to remove Coleman-Hill from her position. Id. ¶¶ 16--20.

Plaintiff began having increasing interactions with Coleman-Hill during the 2006--07 academic year. Id. ¶ 23. Plaintiff avers that during this time she began to realize that Coleman-Hill "was not a terrible person," and Plaintiff concluded that Weiss harbored a "racist attitude" toward Coleman-Hill. Id. ¶¶ 24, 29. Plaintiff alleges that she voiced her displeasure to Weiss about said attitude. Id. ¶ 30. Plaintiff claims Weiss told her that it would be best to "stay away" from Coleman-Hill. Id. ¶ 35. Weiss began "keeping her distance" from Plaintiff in 2007, and at that time became increasingly critical of Plaintiff's conduct. Id. ¶ 37. In October 2009, Weiss "wrote [Plaintiff] up" for improperly disciplining a teacher, and issued Plaintiff a formal reprimand. Id. ¶¶ 38--42, 52. Plaintiff alleges that (1) the conduct at issue was not improper, and

(2) she had the support of the implicated teacher, that teacher's union representative, and Assistant School Superintendent Daniel G. Bulinski ("Bulinski"). Id. ¶¶ 43--45. In January 2010, Weiss contacted a computer service to conduct an evaluation of the Technology Department to determine if Plaintiff was improperly managing it. Id. ¶¶ 53, 55. Plaintiff avers that the completed IT report was "favorable" to her. Id. ¶ 60.

Coleman-Hill brought a lawsuit against GMSD on November 19, 2009. Coleman-Hill v. Governor Mifflin Sch. Dist., filed, No. 09-5525 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2009). Plaintiff was deposed in that action on August 16, 2010, and at that time Plaintiff testified that she believed Weiss "to be a racist" and that Weiss had "discriminated against Mrs. Coleman-Hill." Id. ¶¶ 63--64. Plaintiff alleges that, approximately four days later, she was moved to a smaller office which was located away from the offices of the other administrators with whom she worked. Id. ¶ 66.

On August 23, 2010, Robin Gray, Esq. ("Gray"), who is counsel for both Coleman-Hill and Plaintiff, improperly sent Plaintiff a subpoena for any and all school-account electronic mail from Weiss which pertained to Coleman-Hill. Id. ¶ 70; Ex. K. Plaintiff avers that Bulinski "told her to do what she had to do" concerning the subpoena. Id. ¶¶ 75--76. Plaintiff responded to the subpoena by sending approximately 180 of Weiss's e-mails to Gray. Id. ¶ 71. Thereafter, Plaintiff alleges that Weiss and an attorney for GMSD told her to stop the e-mail search. Id. ¶¶ 72, 79. Plaintiff then sent those 180 e-mails, plus additional e-mails, to the GMSD attorney. Id. ¶ 78. Weiss and Bulinski called Plaintiff to a meeting on September 2, 2010, during which Plaintiff alleges they questioned her about which e-mails she had searched. Id. ¶¶ 82, 85. Plaintiff asked for independent representation, but Bulinski denied the request and told Plaintiff that she would be considered insubordinate and terminated if she did not answer their questions. Id. ¶¶ 83--84. Plaintiff avers that she was then ordered to turn over her work keys, school computer, and other school items, and that she was then placed on administrative leave with pay. Id. ¶¶ 87, 89.

GMSD has an Acceptable Use Policy of Digital Technology ("Technology Policy") which governs the use of GMSD-owned property such as computers. Id. Ex. F. Plaintiff signed an Agreement that stated that she read, understood, and would comply with the Technology Policy. Def.'s Mot. Supp. Dismiss Pl.'s Am. Compl. (hereinafter "Def.'s Br.") Ex. C.*fn3 According to Plaintiff, GMSD sent her work laptop computer to a forensic investigator on September 24, 2010, and instructed the investigator to search the computer, as well as the GMSD computer network, for e-mails from Plaintiff to Gray and Coleman-Hill. Am. Compl. ¶ 95; Ex. P.

On September 21, 2010, Plaintiff received a notice of a Loudermill pre-termination hearing*fn4 and a list of allegations, which included Plaintiff's response to Gray's subpoena and a purportedly improper PowerSchool ("PS") presentation.*fn5 Id. ¶¶ 90--91. GMSD scheduled the hearing for late September 2010, but, because of Gray's scheduling conflicts, the hearing was postponed until October 15, 2010. Id. ¶ 99; Ex. R. A GMSD attorney notified Gray that Plaintiff's status would change to suspension without pay from October 1, 2010, but that back pay would be possible if Plaintiff was reinstated. Id. ¶ 99; Ex. R. GMSD conducted the Loudermill hearing on October 15, 2010. Id. ¶ 101; Ex. R. During the hearing, Plaintiff answered questions about her response to Gray's subpoena and the PS presentation. Id. By a letter dated October 18, 2010, GMSD notified Plaintiff that it was recommending that the School District's Board ("School Board") terminate her employment. Id. ¶ 103; Ex. T.
Subsequently, Plaintiff received charges for a School Board hearing, which she alleges included additional charges not discussed at the Loudermill hearing. Id. ¶ 104. Plaintiff then received amended charges on November 8, 2010. Id. ¶ 106. In response, Gray wrote to Weiss and specifically requested a public hearing. Def.'s Br. Ex. A.*fn6 The School Board conducted three public hearings, two in December 2010 and one in January 2011. Am. Compl. ¶ 106; Ex. S, at ¶ 43. Plaintiff alleges that the School Board "permitted into evidence attorney/client privileged documents, private emails [sic] taken from Dombrowski's personal AOL email [sic] account [and] personal GMAIL account." Id. ¶ 110. At the time, GMSD maintained that it had redacted any privileged content. Id. ¶ 111. Plaintiff alleges that privileged content was in reality not redacted, and she avers that GMSD presented altered and misleading versions of conversations between Plaintiff and Gray. Id. ¶ 112.

The School Board decided to terminate Plaintiff after less than one hour of deliberation after the January hearing. Id. ¶ 118. Plaintiff alleges that, in doing so, the School Board filed findings of fact and conclusions of law that were identical to those proffered by GMSD's counsel before the hearing (with the only difference being the School Board members' signatures at the end of the document). Id. ¶ 120. Plaintiff maintains that the ...

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