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Pocono Mountain Charter School v. Pocono Mountain School Dist.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 8, 2012

POCONO MOUNTAIN CHARTER SCHOOL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
POCONO MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Daniel M. Fennick, Anderson, Converse and Fennick, York, PA, Marshall E. Anders, Anders & Masington, L.L.C., Stroudsburg, PA, Judith A. Gran, Reisman Carolla Gran, LLP, Haddonfield, NJ, for Plaintiffs.

John E. Freund, III, King Spry Herman Freund & Faul, LLC, Bethlehem, PA, Patrick J. Boland, III, Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

A. RICHARD CAPUTO, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 34) Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint. Plaintiffs, the Pocono Mountain Charter School, students enrolled at the school, and the parents of the enrolled students, commenced this action alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States Constitution, and the Pennsylvania Constitution. Defendants, the Pocono Mountain School District and employees and members of the school district's board of education, have moved to dismiss the action in its entirety for lack of jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part. Because the relationship between a charter school and school district is analogous to that of a municipality and its creator, Pocono Mountain Charter School's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 will be dismissed. Moreover, Plaintiffs' cause of action for violation of Article I, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution will be dismissed because the claim, as alleged, seeks to assert the constitutional rights of individuals that are not plaintiffs in this litigation. However, because Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated claims under Title

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VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Article I, Section 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Plaintiffs will be permitted to proceed on Counts I and VI of the First Amended Complaint.

I. Background

The facts as alleged in the First Amended Complaint are as follows:

Plaintiffs are the Pocono Mountain Charter School (the " Charter School" ) and students and the parents of students enrolled in the Charter School. ( Am. Compl., ¶ 1.) The Charter School is a publically funded charter school organized and existing under the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 17-1701 et seq. ( Id. at ¶ 5.) Defendant Pocono Mountain School District (the " District" ) is a public school district organized and existing under the Public School Code, 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 1-101 et seq. ( Id. at ¶ 7.) The named Individual Defendants are the District's superintendent, former superintendent, members of the District's Board of Education, and former members of the Board of Education. ( Id. at ¶¶ 8-11.)

The Charter School was established as a public charter school in 2003. ( Id. at ¶ 51.) The Charter School's initial charter was approved by the District the same year. ( Id. ) Currently, three-hundred and sixty-nine (369) students are enrolled in the Charter School. ( Id. at ¶ 52.) Over ninety percent (90%) of these students are African-American, Hispanic, or of other minority groups. ( Id. ) Additionally, the composition of the majority of the Charter School's board of directors is African-American. ( Id. at ¶ 53.) The former Chief Executive Officer of the Charter School is an associate pastor at the Shawnee Tabernacle Church. Several members of the Charter School's Board of Trustees attend worship services at the Shawnee Tabernacle Church. ( Id. at ¶ 54.)

The Charter School fulfills its commitment to each student's individual needs by providing an individualized curriculum, a high staff to student ratio, and small class sizes. ( Id. at ¶ 55.) The Charter School affords its students more immediate support and guidance than they would otherwise receive in a large, traditional public school, and the students are also provided with opportunities for service and leadership. ( Id. ) The students at the Charter School have made significant academic progress, and the Charter School has earned various progress and achievement awards and accolades. ( Id. at ¶¶ 56-57.)

Conversely, the District is one of the lowest-performing school districts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. ( Id. at ¶ 58.) In that regard, the District has failed to assure that its students make Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. ( Id. )

The initial charter granted by the District to the Charter School was for a period of three years, with an expiration date of June 2006. ( Id. at ¶ 63.) On June 4, 2006, a five-year renewal was granted to the Charter School. ( Id. at ¶ 65.) However, in order to obtain renewal of its charter, the Charter School was required to agree to sixty-five (65) conditions. ( Id. at ¶ 65.)

The District has also approved a charter for the Evergreen Charter School (" Evergreen" ). ( Id. at ¶ 66.) Evergreen's student population is predominantly Caucasian, with approximately only fifteen percent (15%) minority students. ( Id. at ¶ 67.) Unlike the Charter School's charter, Evergreen's charter contains only thirty (30) conditions. ( Id. at ¶ 68.) And, these thirty (30) conditions are less restrictive of Evergreen's operations. ( Id. )

In the initial approval of the Charter School's charter, as well as during its renewal, the District imposed more onerous

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conditions on the Charter School than Evergreen due to religious and/or racial animus and bias. ( Id. at ¶ 70.) These conditions include: (1) dictating the composition of the board and the church members may attend; (2) imposing overly detailed requirements regarding Adequate Yearly Performance, truancy practices, and Assessment Plans; (3) requiring preparation of a Professional Development Plan for faculty; (4) imposing onerous transportation arrangements; and (5) requiring documentation of staff/personnel shared by the Charter School and Shawnee Tabernacle Church. ( Id. at ¶ 70.) The District has also treated the two schools differently by, among other things, donating equipment to Evergreen, assigning a liaison that attends every Evergreen Board meeting but has never attended a Charter School board meeting, referring high performing students to Evergreen, providing technical assistance to Evergreen, and assisting Evergreen in its purchase of buses. ( Id. at ¶ 71.)

On May 21, 2008, the District instituted charter revocation proceedings against the Charter School for alleged violations of the Charter School Law. ( Id. at ¶ 72.) These proceedings were initiated without evidence and in bad faith. ( Id. at ¶ 73.)

Subsequently, the Charter School appealed to the Charter Appeal Board (" Appeal Board" ). On September 27, 2011, the Appeal Board voted 5-2 to reverse the decision of the District's Board of School Directors. ( Id. at ¶ 74.)

The harsh treatment of the Charter School has been admitted by the District to be related to its prior " bad experience" with the Pocono School for Excellence (" Excellence" ), a charter school that was predominantly minority-run. ( Id. at ¶ 75-76.) Excellence was closed in 2003-2004 because of financial irregularities and poor academic performance. ( Id. at ¶ 75.) The Charter School, however, has no connection to Excellence. ( Id. at ¶ 78.)

The District has also submitted multiple, baseless complaints to the Pennsylvania Department of Education alleging deficiencies in the Charter School's performance. ( Id. at ¶¶ 84-88.) Yet, on every occasion, the Department of Education found the complaints without merit. ( Id. )

As a result of the District's actions, the Charter School's enrollment has dropped by nearly one hundred (100) students, resulting in an annual loss of revenue for operations of approximately one million dollars ($1,000,000.00). ( Id. at ¶ 92.)

Based on the foregoing events, the Charter School initiated this action in June 2010 asserting claims for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the First Amendment, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, Article I, Sections 3 and 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and defamation. ( Compl. ) On November 23, 2010, 2010 WL 4867615, Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint was granted and the action was dismissed in its entirety. (Doc. 26.)

Thereafter, Plaintiffs appealed the dismissal of their claims to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. (Docs. 27, 28.) The Third Circuit affirmed the decision in part, and reversed and remanded in part for further proceedings. See Pocono Mountain Charter Sch. v. Pocono Mountain Sch. Dist., 442 Fed.Appx. 681 (3d Cir.2011). Specifically:

We will affirm the District Court's dismissal of the individual plaintiffs' Due Process claim, the Charter School's Title VI claim, and all plaintiffs' claims for monetary damages under the Pennsylvania Constitution and for defamation. Because the District Court failed to address plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief

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under the Pennsylvania Constitution, we will remand for it to consider whether those claims have merit. We also will vacate the portion of the District Court's order dismissing the individual students' Title VI claim and direct the Court to grant the individual plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint regarding their Title VI claims on remand. Finally, we will vacate the Court's dismissal of plaintiffs' § 1983 claims, reverse its holding that, under the Pennsylvania Charter School Law, the Charter School is a political subdivision, and remand for the District Court to determine the Charter School's capacity to sue under § 1983.

Id. at 684.

In accordance with the Third Circuit's mandate, Individual Plaintiffs were given leave to file an amended complaint. (Doc. 32.) In the First Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert six causes of action. Specifically, Individual Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Count I). ( Am. Compl., ¶ 95.) [1] In addition, the Charter School asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the First Amendment (Count II), the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count III), and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Count IV). ( Id. at ¶¶ 96-98.) Lastly, all Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief under Article I, Sections 3 and 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution (Counts V-VI). ( Id. at ¶¶ 99-100.)

Defendants, on May 29, 2012, moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety. Now, as Defendants' motion to dismiss has been fully briefed, it is ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard for a 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining if a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of their claims. See Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir.2000). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir.2000).

" A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain ... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955. However, mere conclusory statements will not do; " a complaint must do more than

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allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir.2009). Instead, a complaint must " show" this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. " While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). As such, " [t]he touchstone of the pleading standard is plausability." Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir.2012).

The inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage is " normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir.2011).

Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded " enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, meaning enough factual allegations " ‘ to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of’ " each necessary element. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir.2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). " 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." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. " When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir.1993). The Court may also consider " undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Id. The Court need not assume the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n. 13 (3d Cir.1998), or credit a complaint's " ‘ bald assertions' " or " ‘ legal conclusions.’ " Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir.1997) (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir.1997)).

III. Discussion

Defendants seek dismissal of the Amended Complaint in its entirety. Specifically, Defendants argue that: (1) the Charter School lacks standing to sue the District under § 1983; (2) Individual Plaintiffs fail to establish Article III standing for the Title VI claim; and (3) Plaintiffs fail to adequately state claims for equitable relief under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Defendants' contentions will be addressed in that order.

A. The Charter School's Section 1983 Claims

1. The Charter School is a " person" under § 1983.

The Charter School's First and Fourteenth Amendments claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides:

[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes ...

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