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Hammond v. Chester Upland School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 9, 2014

DARLA HAMMOND, Plaintiff,
v.
CHESTER UPLAND SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

OPINION

JOEL H. SLOMSKY, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Darla Hammond ("Plaintiff" or "Dr. Hammond") initiated this action against the Chester Upland School District, the Board of School Directors of Chester Upland School District (the "School Board"), Tony L. Watson, Acting Superintendent of the School District ("Defendant Watson"), Joe Watkins, Financial Receiver for the School District ("Defendant Watkins"), and various individual members of the school board.[1] The School District, Defendant Watkins, and the School Board are collectively referred to as the "School District Defendants." (Doc. No. 8 at ¶ 20.) Defendants Watson, Watkins, and the individual members of the School Board are sued in both their individual and official capacities. (Id. at ¶¶ 6-15.) Plaintiff claims that she was improperly terminated as Principal of Chester High School without sufficient notice or due process of law.

Plaintiff alleges eight claims in her Amended Complaint. The headings of each claim are worded as follows: (1) Violation of Due Process, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Deprivation of Property Interest: Indefinite Suspension, against all Defendants (Count One); (2) Violation of Due Process, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Deprivation of Property Interest: De-Facto Termination, against all Defendants (Count Two)[2]; (3) Violation of Due Process, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Deprivation of Liberty Interest, against all Defendants (Count Three); (4) Breach of Contract against all Defendants (Count Four); (5) Promissory Estoppel against all Defendants (Count Five); (6) Mandamus against all Defendants (Count Six); (7) Declaratory Judgment against all Defendants (Count Seven); and (8) Violation of Local Agency Law and Public School Code against the School District Defendants (Count Eight). (Doc. No. 8.)

Defendants Chester Upland School District, the members of the School Board, and Acting Superintendent Tony Watson filed a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 10.) Defendant Watkins filed a separate Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 20.) Plaintiff Responded to the first Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 24), but did not respond to Defendant Watkins' Motion. The Motions are now ripe for disposition.[3] For reasons that follow, both Defendants and Defendant Watkins' Motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

II. BACKGROUND

The following facts are alleged in the Amended Complaint and must be considered as true when deciding a Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff began working for the Chester Upland School District in 2003 as an Academy Director/Vice Principal with Edison Partnership under the direction of Superintendent Dr. Dexter Davis. (Doc. No. 8 at ¶ 25.) In 2005, Plaintiff was appointed Acting Principal of Chester High School, replacing Principal Dr. Eboni Wilson, who was terminated. (Id. at ¶ 26.) From 2006 to 2007, Plaintiff was Principal of Wetherill Middle School under Superintendent Dr. Gloria Grantham. (Id. at ¶ 27.) From 2007 to 2008, Plaintiff was Vice Principal of Chester High School, under Principal Robert Crawford. (Id. at ¶ 28.)

As Vice Principal of Chester High School, Plaintiff's duties included overseeing the administration of the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment ("PSSA"). (Id. at ¶ 29.) The PSSA is a standardized test given to students in several grades, including the eleventh grade. The test assesses certain language and mathematics skills. (Doc. No. 7-1 at 2.) Instructions for administering the test are given to the Principal and/or the Central Division of Chester High School by the Superintendent. (Doc. No. 8 at ¶ 30.) These instructions include how to administer the test and which students to select for testing. (Id.) According to Plaintiff, these instructions stated that only "true" eleventh graders should be tested-meaning that students who had taken the PSSA should not be re-tested. (Id. at ¶¶ 30-31.) Since 2003, when Plaintiff began her tenure with Chester High School, it was common practice to test only those students who had never taken the PSSA before. (Id. at ¶ 31.)

In 2010, Plaintiff was appointed Acting Principal of Chester High School under Superintendent Gregory Thornton. (Id. at ¶ 32.) Her contract was automatically renewed each year. (Id. at ¶ 27.) Plaintiff's contract for employment ("Employment Contract") stated:

It is agreed by and between Darla Hammond, Professional Employee, and... the School District of Chester-Upland Pennsylvania, that said professional employee shall, under the authority of said board and its successors, and subject to the supervision and authority of the properly authorized superintendent of schools or Supervising Principal, serve as a Principal in the school district... This contract is subject to the provisions of the "Public School Code of 1949" and the amendments thereto AND IT IS FURTHER AGREED by the parties that... this contract shall continue in force year after year unless terminated by the Education Empowerment Board by official written notice presented to the professional employee: Provided, That [sic] said notice shall designate the cause for termination and shall state that an opportunity to be heard if the said professional employee, within ten (10) days after receipt of the termination notice, presents a written request for such hearing.

(Id. at ¶ 34.) Defendants do not contest that the Public School Code of 1949 ("Public School Code") applies to the Employment Contract.

From 2010 to 2012, Plaintiff served as Principal of Chester High School under Superintendent Gregory Thornton and Acting Superintendent Dr. Joyce Wells.[4] (Id. at ¶ 36.) On January 17, 2012, the Chester Upland School District hired Tony Watson as Acting Superintendent. (Id. at ¶ 37.) From January 2012 through March 2012, Plaintiff served as Principal under Acting Superintendent Watson. (Id. at ¶ 38.)

On March 8, 2012, Acting Superintendent Watson stopped Plaintiff in the hallway of Chester High School. (Id. at ¶ 44.) During a brief walk to Plaintiff's office, Defendant Watson asked Plaintiff questions about Chester High School procedures with respect to PSSA testing. (Id.) Plaintiff told him that only "true" eleventh grade students were tested. (Id.) Following this conversation, Defendant Watson did not give Plaintiff any instructions or directives regarding PSSA testing, either verbally or in writing. (Id.) Defendant Watson also did not notify Plaintiff of any charges against her, either orally or in writing. (Id.)

On March 15, 2012, Defendant Watson told Plaintiff to come to his office immediately to attend a meeting. (Id. at ¶ 47.) He did not tell her the purpose of the meeting. (Id.) Plaintiff went to Defendant Watson's office where she found Defendant Watson and Attorney Leo Hackett, a representative of Chester Upland School District. (Id. at ¶ 48.) During the meeting, Defendant Watson indicated that there were discrepancies between eleventh grade enrollment and the number of students scheduled to take the PSSA. (Id. at ¶ 49.) Plaintiff responded that she had no authority to make a change of that nature, so the information Defendant Watson received must have been inaccurate. (Id. at ¶ 50.) Defendant Watson then inquired about certain trends from the last several years that were the result of an investigation he had been conducting for at least one week. (Id.) Plaintiff could not respond to Defendant Watson's request for documentation because she did not have sufficient notice of the meeting or time to gather or consult notes, memos, or other documentation. (Id.)

After this March 15, 2012 meeting, Defendant Watson did not provide Plaintiff with any instructions, written or verbal, regarding PSSA testing. (Id. at 54.) In fact, Defendant Watson never instructed Plaintiff to cease or remedy any alleged professional negligence with respect to the PSSA. (Id. at ¶ 55.) Plaintiff never received any write-ups for violations related to the PSSA while she was Principal or Assistant Principal of Chester High School. (Id. at ¶ 57.) On the contrary, Plaintiff had always received good evaluations as both Assistant Principal and Principal. (Id. at 56.)

On March 19, 2012, Defendant Watson called Plaintiff to his office and handed her a letter stating that she was suspended without pay, effective March 20, 2012 (the "Suspension Letter"). (Id. at ¶ 63; Id . at Ex. A.) The Suspension Letter did not state a reason for the suspension. (Id.) The Suspension Letter stated:

On March 19, 2012, an Administrative Hearing was held to discuss the allegation(s) regarding your performance and behavior as Principal in the Chester Upland School District. As a result of the above Administrative Hearing, I have determined that you are hereby suspended as an employee of the School District without pay beginning March 20, 2012.
You are not to respond to any questions or concerns in the capacity of a Chester Upland School District employee during the time of suspension. In addition, you are not to be on school property or attend school related activities in the role of high school principal. However, you are permitted to attend any and all activities as any other citizen may decide.
This action may not be the final disciplinary action. After my further review of the circumstances related to your employment it is possible that I will impose and/or recommend additional employment related action(s).
Please provide to my office today any keys, materials and equipment of the Chester Upland School District.

(Id. at Ex. A.) The Suspension Letter falsely stated that an Administrative Hearing had been held on March 19, 2012. (Id. at ¶ 65.) Defendant Watson admits that he had made the decision to suspend Plaintiff prior to March 19, 2012, and that he drafted and signed the Suspension Letter prior to that date. (Id. at ¶¶ 66-67.)

On March 25, 2012, Plaintiff filed for unemployment benefits and was approved on June 7, 2012. (Id. at ¶ 82.) On April 2, 2012, Plaintiff sent a letter to Defendant Watson, through her attorney, inquiring as to why she was suspended and putting Defendants on notice that they had violated her due process rights. (Id. at ¶ 84; Id . at Ex. B.) On April 9, 2012, Mr. Hackett, attorney for the School District, replied that Plaintiff was suspended for the unauthorized movement of students before PSSA testing. (Id. at ¶ 86.) This was the first time Plaintiff had been notified of the reason for her suspension. (Id.)

On May 21, 2012, the Chester School District sent out a mass email advertising that the position of Principal of Chester High School was open and candidates should apply. (Id. at ¶ 88.) At a meeting held in May 2012, Defendant Watson indicated that Plaintiff would not be reinstated as Principal. (Id. at ¶ 89.) Also at that meeting, Defendants offered Plaintiff a teaching position, which Plaintiff immediately rejected. (Id.) That meeting was attended by Plaintiff, James Lee, Esquire, Plaintiff's counsel, Mr. Hackett, attorney for the School District, and an unknown individual. (Id.)

On or about June 2012, Defendants threatened to report Plaintiff to the Professional Standards and Practices Commission if Plaintiff did not voluntarily end her employment with the School District by July 6, 2012. (Id. at ¶ 90.) Plaintiff refused to do so, and the Amended Complaint alleges that Defendants then communicated false allegations of professional misconduct by Plaintiff to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. (Id. at ¶ 91.)

Although the School Board held monthly meetings between March 2012 and July 2012, Defendants did not offer Plaintiff a hearing on her suspension until August 13, 2012, over five months after her suspension began. (Id. at 92-93.) On August 10, 2012, Mr. Hackett sent a letter to Plaintiff's counsel informing Plaintiff and her counsel that the School District would be holding ...


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