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Hamilton v. Spriggle

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2013

ROLAND and CELESTE HAMILTON, as parents and legal guardians of K.H., a minor, Plaintiffs,
v.
HEATHER SPRIGGLE, SENECA HIGHLANDS INTERMEDIATE UNIT 9, NORTHERN POTTER SCHOOL DISTRICT, RONALD MANCIA, ANTHONY WATT, MICHAEL MORGAN, KEN SUTTER, ROBERT SMITH, JEANETTE BARKER, SANDRA BAKER, CRYSTAL HEPFNER, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Roland Hamilton, as Parents and Legal Guardians of Kyle Hamilton, a minor, Plaintiff: Amy R. Boring, LEAD ATTORNEY, Schemery Zicolello, Williamsport, PA; Michael Zicolello, SCHEMERY & ZICOLELLO, Williamsport, PA.

For Celeste Hamilton, as Parents and Legal Guardians of Kyle Hamilton, a minor, Plaintiff: Amy R. Boring, LEAD ATTORNEY, Schemery Zicolello, Williamsport, PA; Michael Zicolello, LEAD ATTORNEY, SCHEMERY & ZICOLELLO, Williamsport, PA.

Heather Spriggle, Defendant, Pro se, Ulysses, PA.

For Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9, Ronald Mancia, Anthony Watt, Ken Sutter, Defendants: Richard A. Lanzillo, LEAD ATTORNEY, Knox McLaughlin Gornall & Sennett, PC, Erie, PA.

For Northern Potter School District, Michael Morgan, Robert Smith, Defendants: Robin B. Snyder, LEAD ATTORNEY, Mark Joseph Kozlowski, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Scranton, PA.

For Jeanette Barker, Sandra Baker, Defendants: Thomas P. Clark, Polachek & Associates PC, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

For Crystal Hepfner, Defendant: Barry A. Kronthal, Margolis Edelstein, Camp Hill, PA; Carl P. Beard, Jr., Andrews & Beard Law Offices, Altoona, PA; Emily L. Bristol, Annandale, PA.

Matthew W. Brann, United States District Judge. Magistrate Judge Carlson.

OPINION

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MEMORANDUM

Matthew W. Brann, United States District Judge.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

On September 17, 2009, Roland and Celeste Hamilton, parents of a minor [1] son, K.H., filed the instant action. ECF No. 1. Because the undersigned writes only for the parties, and the matter is before the court via a thorough report and recommendation from Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson, and his suggested disposition will be adopted, although on a more narrow basis, I will conserve judicial resources and adopt, and incorporate by reference, various aspects of the report and recommendation. Thus, the procedural history of this matter is as set forth by Magistrate Judge Carlson on pages 10-14 of his report and recommendation. ECF No. 130. For the purposes of the instant memorandum and accompanying Order, it is only salient to note that the matter is proceeding on the Second Amended Complaint filed July 15, 2011. ECF No. 63. In addition, the undersigned will adopt, without further comment, the undisputed portions of the report and recommendation; and will only address the objections to the report and recommendation.

B. Allegations in the Complaint and Undisputed Facts

As an initial matter, all facts are adopted from the report and recommendation as set forth by Magistrate Judge Carlson. ECF No. 130, p 6-10.

K.H. is a largely non-verbal young man who was diagnosed as autistic and mentally retarded. During the 2005-2006 school year, K.H. was a 13-, then 14-, year-old student in the special education program in the Northern Potter Elementary School in Ulysses, Pennsylvania. The Northen Potter School District is a defendant, as is the Seneca Highlands Intermediate Unit 9, the entity that operated the special education classroom in the Northern Potter Elementary School. It is undisputed that K.H.'s special education teacher, defendant Heather Spriggle, engaged in some nature

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and level of abuse of K.H, as she was convicted of the summary offense of harassment of K.H. and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Professional Standards and Practices Commission revoked Spriggle's professional educator certification.

Also named as defendants are Ronald Mancia, the director of special education; Anthony Watt, the supervisor of special needs; Michael Morgan, the school principal; Ken Sutter, a behavior specialist; Robert Smith, the superintendant of schools; Jeanette Barker, a classroom aide; Sandra Baker, a classroom aide; and Crystal Hepfner, a classroom aide.

According to Magistrate Judge Carlson, resolving any undisputed facts in favor of the non-moving plaintiffs, the facts are as follows.

Spriggle demeaned and abused K.H., including through the use of inappropriate physical force, despite the availability of less restrictive measures and techniques. The evidence documents a catalogue of cruelty by Spriggle, a compelling pattern of abuse. Some of these instances of allegedly abusive conduct included bending K.H.'s fingers until they popped audibly and caused him to scream in pain; pulling his hair; twisting his arms and bending them behind his back; grabbing and throwing K.H.; pulling and shoving him; throwing him violently into a cubby area with such force that one or more aides was concerned he was injured; pinching him; depriving him of food all day; and placing liquid soap in K.H.'s mouth and holding it shut.
[The] sobering array of abuse [also included] sitting on his back while he was laying on the floor; hauling him violently out of the room and into the hall, using such force that he had red marks on his back; throwing him into a cubby area with such explosiveness that it caused a teacher's aide to be concerned about K.H.'s neck; bending K.H.'s finger back so hard that it made an audible popping noise, causing him to scream in pain; pulling K.H.'s chair out from under him when he was trying to sit down; twisting his arm forcefully behind his back; pulling his hair; depriving him of food all day; and filling his mouth with liquid soap and holding his mouth closed.
Beginning in November 2005, the three aides working in Spriggle's classroom became sufficiently alarmed at her conduct toward K.H. and her manner of running her classroom, that they reported their concerns to Ken Sutter and Anthony Watt. Ronald Mancia was informed at this time about some of the allegations about Spriggle's conduct and potential mistreatment of students. Although there is some evidence that Mancia looked into these allegations, it appears that the claims were discounted, and it appears that little was done in response.
[Moreover,] there is also evidence to show that [Mancia and Watt] had previously been made aware of Spriggle's allegedly assaultive conduct towards another special education student, [T.J.] and that an investigation into her conduct was undertaken that resulted in the intervention of officials, pictures of injuries allegedly caused by Spriggle [bruises on his body], and a letter being placed in Spriggle's personnel file - but no additional precautions were taken to protect K.H. and other students who were placed under Spriggle's care and instruction in the intermediate classroom during 2005-2006.
A former employee of the intermediate unit, Amy Hathaway, testified that she met frequently with Watt about her concerns after leaving Spriggle's classroom,

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and that she was concerned about leaving the students alone with Spriggle.
When Spriggle's conduct remained a matter of concern into 2006, the aides brought further concerns to the attention of Principal Morgan, Anthony Watt and Ronald Mancia in February and March 2006. In March, Mancia and Watt conducted interviews with Spriggle and the teacher's aides about the allegations. Mancia also interviewed [two others who were present in the classroom at times], who reported concerns about Spriggle's conduct in the classroom, although they did not claim to witness actual physical abuse of students. Ultimately Mancia determined that no abuse had occurred, and credited Spriggle's account in favor of the allegations made by three aides who worked in her classroom.
The evidence shows that although complaints were made to Ronald Mancia and Anthony Watt in the fall of 2005, there was no intervention in Spriggle's classroom, and the evidence suggests that Mancia determined that the aides' complaints were not credible or cause for concern at that time...[I]n February, 2006, these teacher's aides reported their concerns not only to Ronald Mancia, who was responsible for the intermediate unit, but also to Michael Morgan, the principal of the school in which Spriggle worked, and to Anthony Watt.
The factual record [shows that similar complaints] had been raised by the family of another autistic student in Spriggle's classroom, T.J.
These complaints were not isolated; to the contrary, all three teacher's aides reported to one or more of the school district and intermediate unit defendants about their concerns on more than one occasion, starting in the fall of 2005 and continuing into the second semester of school in February 2006. Additional intermediate unit staff spoke with Ronald Mancia in March 2006, and shared with him their concerns about Spriggle, which corroborated some complaints about her conduct in the classroom and her gruff treatment of the special needs children she taught, if falling short of claiming that she was actually abusing children. Other staff brought their concerns to Principal Morgan, who expressed confusion about what he could do, and who declined the aides' request that he come take the simple step of looking at Spriggle's classroom himself.
[Either Mancia or Watt, or both, prepared a document]...with...new rules ...that there was to be no further student discipline unless two school personnel were present. Notably, the document also directed the classroom personnel to report to Michael Morgan and Anthony Watt any form of " abuse" that was witnessed.
Notably, none of the supervisory officials within the school district or the intermediate unit ever contacted K.H.'s parents about the allegations, or about the investigation into Spriggle's treatment of students in her classroom. In fact, staff were forbidden from communicating their concerns to K.H.'s parents, shrouding this suspected abuse in silence. Even though K.H. was largely non-verbal, and thus apparently had little ability to inform his parents about his experience in school, Mancia instructed the teacher's aides that they were not to contact the parents about the investigation. Uninformed during the school year, K.H.'s parents observed him developing an increasingly strong aversion to school in 2005-2006, including negative reaction to discussing school and increased aggression.

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Following the end of the school year, one of the teacher's aides, Jeanette Barker, felt compelled to resign. In doing so, she wrote a letter to officials with the intermediate unit, the superintendent, and members of the Northern Potter School District in which she made a number of allegations about Spriggle's unprofessional conduct, and her alleged mistreatment of students, among other matters. After writing this letter, Barker called Celeste H[amilton] to inform her about [Barker's] resignation, and to inform [Hamilton] personally about [Barker's] concerns over how K.H. had been treated during the school year. Following receipt of this information in the summer, Celeste H[amilton] brought the matter to the attention of law enforcement. A criminal investigation was later undertaken, and Spriggle was charged and convicted of the summary offense of harassment, given probation, and ordered to perform community service.
Later, following an investigation by state officials, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Professional Standards and Practices Commission issued an order on March 12, 2012, revoking Heather Spriggle's professional educator certification.

Report and Recommendation, ECF No. 130 at 7-10; 27-30; 38-40; 44; 53; 58. (internal citations omitted).

Spriggle has made no effort to defend this action. The summons was returned as executed by the process server, and signed by Spriggle on November 17, 2009. Spriggle has not had an attorney file an appearance on her behalf, nor has she answered the complaint, nor attempted to defend this action. Spriggle may conclude by her conduct to date that she can escape the long-arm of the law simply by ignoring the liability that may be imposed on her. She is wholly incorrect. Plaintiffs should be prepared to discuss during the telephone conference call that will be scheduled shortly, what steps to take against Spriggle as this matter proceeds forward.

The Second Amended Complaint contains eight counts. July 15, 2011, ECF No. 63. Count I is alleges a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against the two institutional defendants. Count II alleges a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all nine individual defendants; specifically plaintiffs allege that defendants are liable under the " state created danger" theory of substantive due process liability. Count III alleges a violation of Article I, Section 26 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against the two institutional defendants. Counts IV through VII are allegations of Negligence, Assault, Battery and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, respectively, all against Spriggle. The final Count, Count VIII, is a demand for punitive damages against all nine individual defendants.

B. Report & Recommendation

On February 7, 2013, Magistrate Judge Carlson issued a 79-page report and recommendation. ECF No. 130. The report and recommendation will be adopted in its entirety, but, as noted above, on narrower grounds. The report and recommendation thoroughly explores the nuances of the body of law applicable to the instant action. The parties have filed multiple objections, and should feel assured that the undersigned has expended a great deal of time examining both the report and recommendation and the objections. ...


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