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Kegerise v. Susquehanna Township School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 7, 2015

DR. SUSAN M. KEGERISE, Plaintiff,
v.
SUSQUEHANNA TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

WILLIAM W. CALDWELL, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff is Dr. Susan M. Kegerise, the former superintendent of the Susquehanna Township School District.[1] The defendants are the School District and three members of the District's School Board, Carol L. Karl, Jesse Rawls, Sr., and Mark Y. Sussman. Plaintiff mainly alleges that the Board constructively discharged her from her job and that in doing so, it acted on the basis of racial, gender and age discrimination. Plaintiff also claims a due process violation and a breach of her employment contract because the discharge occurred without notice or a hearing.

Plaintiff's Amended Complaint sets forth ten causes of action. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all of the claims, asserting that none of them is meritorious.

II. Standard of Review

Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "[w]e 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.'" Byers v. Intuit, Inc., 600 F.3d 286, 291 (3d Cir. 2010)(quoted case omitted).

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). Nonetheless, the complaint still has to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 at 1974. "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, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965). "[L]abels and conclusions" are not enough, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65, and a court "is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Id., 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (quoted case omitted).

With this standard in mind, we set forth the background to this litigation, as Plaintiff alleges it in her Amended Complaint.

III. Background

The Amended Complaint alleges as follows. Plaintiff was the Susquehanna Township School District's assistant superintendent from 2006 until January 2010. (Am. Compl. ¶ 17). She was promoted to superintendent and given a three-year contract running from January 6, 2010, through January 6, 2013. ( Id. ¶ 18). She is at least forty years old. ( Id. ¶ 19). Defendants Karl, Rawls, and Sussman are elected members of the School Board. ( Id. ¶¶ 6, 7, and 8). The superintendent is an ex officio member of the Board. ( Id. ¶ 26). Rawls was Board president from December 2011 until December 2012. ( Id. ¶ 24). On November 5, 2013, he was reelected to the Board, and Karl was elected to the Board for the first time. ( Id. ¶ 73). In December 2013, Rawls became the Board's vice-president. ( Id. ¶ 7).

Plaintiff asserts that during her term as superintendent, she was "subjected to physical intimidation, verbal abuse, sabotage of [the] district image and administration performance, discrimination on the basis of race, sex and age, and micromanagement by members of the School Board of Directors and the Board as a whole." ( Id. ¶ 2). The following allegations provide detail.

On or about March 5, 2012, defendant Rawls, then the Board president, called a meeting of the Board without telling Plaintiff and during that meeting the Board hired an interim solicitor. ( Id. ¶ 27). On August 20, 2012, the Board met in executive session to discuss a personnel and student-safety issue. The district solicitor asked Rawls to recuse himself from the meeting because a relative of Rawls was a possible witness. Rawls refused to do so and threatened legal action in response. The Board and Dr. Kegerise did not receive a full briefing as a result of Rawls' decision not to recuse. ( Id. ¶ 28). On or about September 25, 2012, Rawls attempted to have a conversation with the District's high school principal "which was critical" of the District's "central administration." ( Id. ¶ 29). Rawls also approached a union official to suggest that the union "file a grievance against [the District] regarding a personnel issue." ( Id. ¶ 30).

"Defendant Rawls has publically and privately advocated for, even demanded, the hiring of minority teachers and administrators, even expressing that [the District] should hire more Black males' because the Superintendent is Caucasian." ( Id. ¶ 34). The District has an established merit-selection system for hiring teachers and administrators. ( Id. ¶ 31). Factors considered are "certifications, work experience, education level, job related skills, interview performance and references." (Id. ¶ 33).

"At one point, Defendant Rawls told Dr. Kegerise as Superintendent that she was white and the whites would listen to her because you think like them.'" ( Id. ¶ 35). "In the same conversation, Defendant Rawls relayed to Dr. Kegerise that she would pave the way for an African American male to replace her and said that is what his friend Major [Poteat] did in the Harrisburg School District." ( Id. ¶ 36). Apparently, Rawls expressed this opinion to Dr. Kegerise on a second occasion. ( Id. ¶ 42). Rawls "has publicly referred to Plaintiff as a bitch' and that the [District] is run by three white bitches.'" ( Id. ¶ 43). Rawls made the "three white bitches" statement in "one or more instances." ( Id. ¶ 59).

"On or about May 27, 2010, Defendant Rawls voted against the hiring of Assistant Superintendent Dr. Cathy Taschner, citing his belief that an African-American should have been hired for the position instead." ( Id. ¶ 39). "On or about November 19, 2012, Defendant Rawls voted against the hiring of an assistant principal, citing insufficient information about the applicant." ( Id. ¶ 40). However, when the assistant principal was introduced to the Board at a later meeting, "Defendant Rawls became visibly angry" when he saw that the man was "African-American and yelled at Plaintiff I should know [the applicant's race] ahead of time.'" ( Id. ¶ 41)(brackets in original).

On or about December 12, 2012, at the request of the Board, Plaintiff left a Board meeting because it was going to discuss her contract. ( Id. ¶ 44). However, the Board, led by Rawls, then had a discussion, in addition to Plaintiff's contract, about personnel issues unrelated to Plaintiff's contract, a discussion for which she could have been present. ( Id. ¶ 45).

Resumes and other application documents are not permitted to be taken home because of privacy concerns. ( Id. ¶ 38). On or about May 13, 2010, when he was not permitted to take these documents home, "Defendant Rawls, a former college wrestler, became visibly angry and verbally and physically threatened Dr. Kegerise." ( Id. ). Rawls stopped only when he realized there were two witnesses to his conduct. ( Id. ).

District Policy 907 prohibits Board members from engaging directly with District employees because of possible liability concerns and undermining of the administration. ( Id. ¶ 47). "On February 15, 2013, Defendant Rawls visited the District Middle School and High School without giving prior notice to the administration." ( Id. ¶ 46). In 2013, a long-time high school gym teacher agreed to a transfer to an elementary school. ( Id. ¶ 48). Rawls believed the teacher was not in fact agreeable to the transfer and that the transfer was discriminatory. ( Id. ). "Rawls attempted to intervene by usurping the role and judgment of the Administration." ( Id. ). He even "approach[ed] the president of the teacher's union, stating the transfer should be grieved' by the district." ( Id. ).

"On January 28, 2013, Defendant Rawls, at a public meeting of the Board, falsely accused Plaintiff of nepotism as grounds to not renew her contract." ( Id. ¶ 50). His remarks could be understood as "an accusation that the Plaintiff hired an underqualified family member over more qualified applicants." ( Id. ¶ 162). Specifically, Rawls stated:

There was a time that we interviewed for counselors for the high school K through twelve and I know you had eight or nine candidates that were certified K through twelve. But we didn't hire those people because we wanted to hire the Superintendent's niece, which we did. Which was wrong. And I asked her about it. Now, I'm finding out that we are paying for her certification to be...
....
[W]e all want our friends hired, sometimes. Nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to relatives, when it comes to people that's not qualified, when you say, Dr. Taschner says we only hire the best qualified, ok, so if you have eight people that are certified K through twelve for counselors, and we didn't move personnel down to make room, and not hire one of those eight people but we go back and get someone that wasn't certified K through twelve, I have a problem with that. And the Superintendent did write, send an email, said that she does the hiring. She recommend (sic) the hiring to the Board, so she is responsible.

( Id. ¶ 157). A special investigation cleared Plaintiff of any wrongdoing. ( Id. ¶ 51). On September 23, 2013, the Board "issued an apology" for the false accusation of nepotism, to the employee who had been hired, not Plaintiff. ( Id. ¶¶ 52 and 163).

"On March 12, 2013, Defendant Rawls approached a district custodian regarding whether another employee should have been terminated. The propriety of the termination was pending arbitration at the time. Defendant Rawls further stated to the employee that the union should have helped the terminated employee and district employees should start using ASFME (sic) as their union instead of [the] Teamsters." ( Id. ¶ 54). In an executive session of the Board, Rawls accused Plaintiff of fabricating this incident "by threatening to fire the custodian if he did not make something up about Defendant Rawls." ( Id. ¶ 55). The District solicitor "spoke with the custodian who confirmed the accuracy of the report and denied any threat by Plaintiff." ( Id. ¶ 56). At a meeting of the Board on April 9, 2013, Plaintiff and the solicitor confronted Rawls about the inappropriateness of his discussion with the custodian and its potential for liability. ( Id. ¶ 57). "Rawls responded by violently slapping his hands on a table and yelling a string of profane references to Dr. Kegerise and the Solicitor." ( Id. ). "Defendant Rawls' actions at the meeting on April 9, 2013, were perceived by Dr. Kegerise and other members of the Board as threatening towards Dr. Kegerise." ( Id. ¶ 58).

On April 22, 2013, by a six-to-three vote, the Board ratified a new contract with Plaintiff. ( Id. ¶¶ 60 and 62). Defendants Rawls and Sussman voted against it. ( Id. ¶ 62). In pertinent part, the contract was effective for four and one-half years, running from January 1, 2013, through June 30, 2017. (Am. Compl. Ex. B, employment agreement, Art. 3.00). The contract provides that the Board could only terminate it on the grounds specified in 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 11-1122, including incompetency and persistent negligence. (Am. Compl. Ex. B, Art. 8.00(b)). And before removing the superintendent, the contract obligated the Board to provide her with a hearing, along with other due process requirements, pursuant to 24 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 10-1080. ( Id., Art. 8.00(a)). Removal could only be by a two-thirds vote of the Board (six members of the nine-person board). ( Id. ).

On October 31, 2013, defendants Rawls and Sussman announced their intent to file a lawsuit against the Board and Plaintiff seeking to void the contract. ( Id. ¶ 63). In October 2013, Sussman, under the user name moderatecommmonsense, posted a comment to an article on Pennlive.com indicating that Plaintiff should get her resume ready as there were enough votes on the Board to fire her. ( Id. ¶¶ 64 and 66).[2] On October 31, 2013, Sussman, under the user name DumbandDumber, posted a comment to an article on Pennlive.com asserting that Plaintiff could now be fired without any financial repercussions because she was responsible for the hiring of Shawn Sharkey.[3] The comment also complained about certain costs, the costs of hiring a friend of Plaintiff to be a communications director, the salary of Plaintiff's niece, and $30, 000 worth of office equipment in Plaintiff's office. ( Id. ¶¶ 65 and 66).

On November 1, 2013, Bret Keisling, Rawls and Sussman's attorney in the lawsuit (that had not yet been filed) appeared uninvited with them at the District's administration building "with multiple reporters and cameras." ( Id. ¶ 67). Keisling yelled at Plaintiff about the intended lawsuit. ( Id. ¶ 69). When the District solicitor told Keisling that Plaintiff was his client and that he should not speak to her, Keisling ignored him and "continued to yell at Dr. Kegerise in a loud and aggressive tone." ( Id. ¶ 70). "Keisling then threatened to falsely accuse [the solicitor] of assaulting him and later made such false accusations to the assembled media." ( Id. ¶ 71). "Dr. Kegerise was so threatened by Keisling's actions that she instructed a fellow administrator to call 911 and summon law enforcement." ( Id. ¶ 72).

On November 25, 2013, almost a month after they had announced their intention to do so, Rawls and Sussman filed their lawsuit, doing so in this court, and naming the Board, the District and Plaintiff as defendants. ( Id. ¶ 74; Doc. 4, Am. Compl. Ex. D).[4] On January 15, 2014, the District solicitor wrote to Keisling, stating that sanctions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 would be sought because the complaint was frivolous. ( Id. ¶ 75). On January 21, 2014, Rawls and Sussman filed an amended complaint naming only Dr. Kegerise as the defendant. ( Id. ¶ 76).

On February 7, 2014, Plaintiff's counsel in the instant lawsuit wrote to Keisling advising him that he would be seeking sanctions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 11 in the Rawls and Sussman lawsuit because the amended complaint was frivolous. ( Id. ¶ 80). "On March 4, 2014, Defendants Rawls and Sussman discontinued their federal lawsuit against Dr. Kegerise without any type of settlement." ( Id. ¶ 82). On or about March 4, 2014, Rawls and Sussman announced they were withdrawing their lawsuit "because the reasons for filing this action have been corrected as a result of community and media interest in this case and recent events.'" ( Id. ¶ 83; Doc. 4, Ex. I).

In the meantime, on January 31, 2014, Rawls "publicly demanded the resignation of Dr. Kegerise as Superintendent." ( Id. ¶ 77). On February 1, 2014, defendant Karl was quoted in a newspaper article demanding the resignations of Plaintiff and assistant superintendent Dr. Cathy Taschner, ( id. ¶ 78; Doc. 4, Ex. G), [5] and on February 3, 2014, she "signed a petition demanding Plaintiff's resignation." ( Id. ¶ 79).

"On or about February 24, 2014, the Board met in executive session, whereupon Dr. Kegerise's representative was directed by the district solicitor to leave without reason." ( Id. ¶ 81). The representative had been sent as part of a routine practice when the superintendent was absent attending a conference. (Am. Compl., p. 16 n.1).

"In early March 2014, Defendants Karl and Sussman and Attorney Keisling brought members of the local media to a community meeting with a local realtor." ( Id. ¶ 84). "[T]he purpose of the meeting was to obtain statistics showing reduced demand for homes within Susquehanna Township in an effort to portray [the District] as dysfunctional and harmful to property values." ( Id. ¶ 85). "When informed by the realtor that home prices in Susquehanna Township have increased at a greater rate than neighboring Lower Paxton Township and Dauphin County as a whole, the meeting promptly ended." ( Id. ¶ 86).

On or about May 21, 2013, there was a rumor in the high school "regarding a text or photo on a student's cellular telephone." ( Id. ¶ 87). The District administration investigated the rumor. ( Id. ¶ 88). A Dauphin County grand jury reviewed the administration's investigation. ( Id. ¶ 89). On January 30, 2014, the grand jury concluded that criminal charges were not warranted for the manner in which the District handled the investigation because the District had acted upon the advice of counsel. (Doc. 4-10, ECF pp. 9-10, Grand Jury Report, Ex. J to the Amended complaint).[6] On March 11, 2014, the Board started another investigation into the administration's handling of the Sharkey matter, "after the administration's original investigation, law enforcement's investigation, and the Dauphin ...


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