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Karen Hertzler v. West Shore School District

September 10, 2012


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


I. Introduction

We are considering a motion to dismiss filed by Defendants, West Shore School District ("District"), Tammi Jones, and Jemry Small. This case involves disciplinary action taken against Plaintiff, principal of the New Cumberland Middle School. Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

II. Background

The following facts are set forth in Plaintiff's complaint and are taken as true, as they must be when considering a motion to dismiss. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Plaintiff has been employed by the District for nine years. (Doc. 23, ¶ 9). Her immediate supervisor is Defendant Jones, the District's Director of Secondary Education. (Id. at ¶ 14). Defendant Jones is supervised by Defendant Small, Superintendent of the District. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 15). Defendant Jones investigated a harassment claim made against Plaintiff. Plaintiff was "verbally and vaguely instructed to keep the pending harassment investigation confidential." (Id. at ¶ 53). Upon the conclusion of the investigation, Plaintiff believed that she was free to discuss the results of the investigation and disclosed that she was found not to have engaged in harassment. (Id. at ¶¶ 55, 57). On January 10, 2012, Defendant Small met with Plaintiff to discuss whether she had committed a breach of confidentiality, and Plaintiff was given an opportunity to respond. (Id. at ¶¶ 59, 60). On January 17, 2012, Defendant Small sent Plaintiff a letter informing her that she would be suspended without pay for three days beginning January 18, 2012. (Id. at ¶ 62). On January 20, 2012, Plaintiff hired legal counsel to appeal the suspension. (Id. at ¶ 63). Also in January 2012, Jones gave Plaintiff a "highly critical" mid-year evaluation, which Plaintiff alleges was in retaliation for hiring legal counsel and petitioning the District to overturn her suspension. (Id. at ¶¶ 71, 72).

A staff member at the middle school alerted Defendants Jones and Small that there was money missing from a student activity fund used to pay for a trip to New York. (Id. at ¶ 86). Plaintiff was responsible for approving student activities and field trips, but she was not responsible for the disbursement of funds from student accounts. (Id. at ¶ 97). On March 9, 2012, Plaintiff was asked to report to the District's Administrative Offices. She met with Defendant Jones, who gave her a three-page letter discussing the missing funds and her obligation to oversee the funds. The letter also noted that Plaintiff would be suspended without pay for five days and would be required to repay the District for the money missing from the fund. Plaintiff alleges she was "stupefied by being blindsided on a late Friday afternoon with three pages of written charges of misconduct that she was unable to comprehend in a moment's time."(Id. at ¶ 109). Defendant Jones did not ask any questions regarding the letter and "moved the meeting along without granting Plaintiff any time to comprehend the allegations leveled against her." (Id. at ¶ 109). Plaintiff asserts she was not given a "meaningful opportunity" to respond to the charges, and Defendants Small and Jones "intentionally prohibited [her] from fully comprehending the charges . . ." (Id. at ¶¶ 120. 125). She alleges that the charges were a result of her hiring a lawyer to attempt to overturn her three-day suspension. (Id. at ¶ 122).

Following the March 9 meeting, Plaintiff's counsel sought to interview witnesses regarding the allegedly missing funds, but Defendants Small and Jones, through the District's attorney, explained that Plaintiff "would be disciplined or discharged for intimidating witnesses." (Id. at ¶ 136). Plaintiff filed a complaint pursuant to District Policy 326 against Small and Jones based on their refusal to allow her to interview witnesses. (Id. at ¶ 145). Pursuant to the procedure for a Policy 326 complaint, the matter was investigated by Defendant Small. Plaintiff asked to bring her complaint before the District's Board of Directors, to avoid having Small involved in the case. The Board of Directors denied this request. Small began investigating the complaint, "unreasonably demand[ing] that Plaintiff answer in detail numerous questions that were not germane to her 326 complaint." (Id. at ¶ 152). To avoid harassment from Small, Plaintiff withdrew her complaint. (Id. at ¶ 154). Small and Jones continued to insist that Plaintiff answer questions concerning the student activity funds. (Id. at ¶ 155). Defendants Small and Jones included the mishandling of these funds in Plaintiff's performance evaluation. (Id. at ¶ 161).

Plaintiff has sued Defendants for violating her First Amendment right of freedom of association and to petition the government for redress of grievances, and for violation of her due process rights pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendants have moved to dismiss.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Under Rule 12(b)(6), we 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." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008)). 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." 570. "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, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "[L]abels and conclusions" are not enough, and a court "'is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quoted case omitted).

In resolving the motion to dismiss, we thus "conduct a two-part analysis." Fowler, supra, 578 F.3d at 210. 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).

B. First Amendment Retaliation Claim

To bring a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must allege three things: "(1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action." Thomas v. ...

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