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Runco Transportation, Inc. v. Mid Valley School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 17, 2015



A. RICHARD CAPUTO, District Judge.

Presently before the Court are Defendants Borough of Throop (the "Borough") and Keith Jones' ("Chief Jones") (collectively, "Borough Defendants") Partial Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 13) and Mid Valley School District (the "District") and Cathy Jones' ("Mrs. Jones")[1] (collectively, "District Defendants") Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. 14.) Plaintiffs Runco Transportation, Inc. ("Runco Transportation"), Michael Runco ("Mr. Runco"), Randy Parry ("Mr. Parry"), and Diane Parry ("Mrs. Parry")[2] (collectively, "Plaintiffs") contend that Defendants retaliated against them in violation of the First Amendment. Additionally, Runco Plaintiffs assert that Defendants deprived them of their Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. For the reasons that follow, Borough Defendants' partial motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part, while District Defendants' motion to dismiss will be denied in its entirety.

I. Background

The facts alleged in the Complaint are as follows:

For at least a decade prior to 2006, K.C. Jones Enterprises, a school bus company owned and operated by Chief Jones[3] and his wife, Mrs. Jones, served as the busing and van contractor for the District. ( Compl., ¶¶ 12, 20.) In 2001, the District implemented a competitive bidding process, and although Runco Plaintiffs[4] were the low bidder by hundreds of thousands of dollars, the District awarded the five-year contract to K.C. Jones Enterprises. ( Id . at ¶¶ 22-24.) The Joneses were displeased that Runco Plaintiffs bid on the contract. ( Id . at ¶ 25.)

The District again solicited bids for the busing contract in 2006, and, this time, Runco Plaintiffs were awarded the contract. ( Id . at ¶¶ 27-28.) K.C. Jones Enterprises also lost the contract for van transportation, which was taken over directly by the District. ( Id . at ¶ 29.) From that point forward, the Joneses harbored animosity towards Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶¶ 30-31.)

The Joneses' animus towards Runco Plaintiffs grew, ultimately resulting in Mrs. Jones running for, and being elected, to a seat on the District's School Board in 2009. ( Id . at ¶¶ 39-40.) Mrs. Jones' true agenda in running for office was to eliminate Runco Transportation as the busing contractor for the District, going so far as stating that she "ran for office solely to get rid of Runco." ( Id . at ¶¶ 41-42.) Chief Jones expressed similar views at the victory celebration on election night. ( Id . at ¶ 43.)

Shortly after being elected, Mrs. Jones approached Mr. Parry, the Superintendent of the District, and requested all of the District's records concerning Runco Plaintiffs, including personnel and drug and alcohol testing records. ( Id . at ¶¶ 4, 45.) After Mr. Parry refused to comply with Mrs. Jones' request, she accused him of covering up for Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶¶ 46-48.)

Mrs. Jones ultimately obtained the District's records regarding Runco Plaintiffs from a different source, and she shared them with her husband. ( Id . at ¶¶ 51-53.) Chief Jones subsequently called the drug and alcohol testing company used by the District in an attempt to obtain confidential information. ( Id . at ¶ 54.) The company refused to comply with the request, and it continued to refuse to provide the confidential information even after Chief Jones falsely implied that the records related to a criminal investigation. ( Id . at ¶¶ 55-59.) The company transcribed that conversation and notified Runco Plaintiffs about the call by letter dated April 23, 2010. ( Id . at ¶¶ 60-61.) The Joneses intensified their campaign of retaliation and harassment against Plaintiffs after they were confronted about the improper communication with the testing company. ( Id . at ¶¶ 62-63.)

Mrs. Jones accused Mrs. Parry, the District's Director of Transportation, of falsifying the District's personnel records for Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶ 64.) Mrs. Jones would also show up at Mrs. Parry's office unannounced and stare at her while she performed her duties. ( Id . at ¶ 67.) Mrs. Jones would raise at virtually every board meeting concerns and issues with the transportation services provided by Runco Plaintiffs, and she would vote against any issue concerning Runco Plaintiffs, including the payment of invoices for services rendered. ( Id . at ¶¶ 68-70.) Mrs. Jones also accused the District's Business Manager of being "in bed" with Runco Plaintiffs, and she warned him that he was going to go down with them. ( Id . at ¶¶ 71-74.) Mrs. Jones further called Runco Plaintiffs' bank to falsely report problems in an attempt to get the bank to terminate its lending relationship with Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶ 76.)

The Joneses also harassed Runco Plaintiffs and their bus drivers by constantly following the buses without cause, pulling the buses over without justification, and calling the Pennsylvania State Police and the District to report alleged violations. ( Id . at ¶ 77.)

In a letter dated January 30, 2012, Mr. Parry alerted the Mayor of Throop and Throop Borough Council of Chief Jones' behavior. ( Id . at ¶ 91.) Mr. Parry stated in his letter that Chief Jones "is using his position and directing the officers in which he is in charge of to go out of their way to target transportation in the Mid Valley School District." ( Id . at ¶ 95.) In addition, Mr. Runco and Mr. Parry "personally attended Throop Borough Council meetings in a further effort to speak out and put an end to the Joneses' abuse of power and retaliatory actions." ( Id . at ¶ 96.) Mr. Runco also met with Borough Council President Thomas Lukasewicz and provided him with an explanation of the conduct engaged in by the Joneses against Runco Plaintiffs and the Parrys. ( Id . at ¶¶ 97-98.)

Stanley Lukowski, the ex-husband of Mrs. Parry, served as the Borough's Mayor at this time. ( Id . at ¶¶ 99-100.) Mrs. Parry spoke to her ex-husband in his capacity as mayor to complain and speak out about the conduct of the Joneses. ( Id . at ¶ 101.)

Following these complaints, the Joneses' retaliation against Runco Plaintiffs and the Parrys only intensified. For example, Chief Jones would repeatedly drive around the District's administration building. ( Id . at ¶ 103.) Additionally, Chief Jones or one of his officers would travel to district buildings and intentionally set off security alarms in the middle of the night which would require Mr. Parry or other administrators to leave their homes to respond. ( Id . at ¶ 104.)

Mrs. Jones continued to falsely accuse Mrs. Parry of not being truthful in responding to questions about Runco Plaintiffs, and she further accused Mrs. Parry of tampering with District records and covering up for Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶¶ 108-109.) Mrs. Jones also continued to show up unannounced at Mrs. Parry's office in an attempt to obstruct and interfere with her duties as the Director of Transportation. ( Id . at ¶ 110.) Although Mrs. Parry had been employed by the District for approximately twenty-two years, with the final three years as Director of Transportation, she was forced to resign in July 2012 as a result of the unbearable and intolerable working conditions caused by Mrs. Jones. ( Id. at ¶¶ 16-19, 111-112.) Because she retired three years before her twenty-fifth anniversary with the District, Mrs. Parry sustained a substantial reduction in her monthly pension payment. ( Id . at ¶ 113.)

The Joneses also continued to target and harass Runco Plaintiffs. ( Id . at ¶ 114.) Mrs. Jones would follow Runco Transportation buses in her own vehicle and taunt its drivers. ( Id . at ¶¶ 115-116.) Mrs. Jones also showed up unannounced at Runco Plaintiffs' bus lot three weeks prior the start of the 2012-2013 school year to personally inspect buses. ( Id . at ¶ 117.) Although three of Runco Transportation's buses were awaiting final inspection, the buses were scheduled to be fully inspected before the start of the school year and Runco Transportation was able to fulfill its contract with the District even without these buses, facts which were known by Mrs. Jones. ( Id . at ¶¶ 118-119.) Nevertheless, Mrs. Jones ignored these facts, and a special school board meeting was scheduled immediately following her inspection of the buses. ( Id . at ¶¶ 120, 125.) The meeting was originally held on September 12, 2012, but because of a lack of notice, the meeting was rescheduled until September 19, 2012. ( Id . at ¶¶ 126-127.) Although at the time of the September 19, 2012 meeting Runco Transportation's buses were fully inspected and it was in compliance with its contract with the District, the Joneses manipulated board members to move for and vote in favor of terminating Runco Transportation's contract. ( Id . at ¶ 128.) Mrs. Jones, however, abstained from voting on the motion to terminate even though she had voted the previous week at the illegal meeting to terminate Runco Transportation's contract. ( Id . at ¶¶ 129-130.) The Joneses initiated the effort to terminate Runco Transportation's contract prior to September 12, 2012, and they had a number of discussions outside of the public forum plotting and lobbying for the contract to be terminated. ( Id . at ¶¶ 131-132.) Mrs. Jones even arranged a secret meeting about this topic at another board member's home, and she also offered to trade votes on other issues without regard to merit. ( Id . at ¶¶ 133-134.) Runco Transportation's contract was ultimately terminated. ( Id . at ¶ 137.)

Mr. Parry was also subject to retaliation as Chief Jones conspired with his wife to have him eliminated as Superintendent. ( Id . at ¶ 142.) Specifically, it was decided that Mr. Parry's contract would not be renewed unless he "backed off" and stopped complaining to Borough officials about Chief Jones' conduct. ( Id . at ¶ 143.) As part of that plan, the Joneses solicited Donna Dixon ("Ms. Dixon"), a member of the school board and a personal friend, to approach Mr. Parry and inform him that he needed to back off Chief Jones if he wanted to continue his employment with the District. ( Id . at ¶ 82, 144-145.) Ms. Dixon also informed Mr. Parry that if he backed off Chief Jones, she would make sure he kept his job. ( Id . at ¶ 146.)

Because Mr. Parry refused to be bullied by the Joneses and their friends, the Joneses carried out their threat and had Mr. Parry removed as Superintendent. ( Id . at ¶¶ 147-148.) Specifically, the Joneses plotted and lobbied for the non-renewal of Mr. Parry's contract, and they were able to manipulate school board members to vote in favor of not renewing his contract. ( Id . at ¶¶ 149-150.) Again, Mrs. Jones offered to trade votes on other issues to board members that voted against the renewal of Mr. Parry's contract. ( Id . at ¶ 152.) Mr. Parry was removed as Superintendent effective December 31, 2013. ( Id . at ¶ 153.)

As a result of the foregoing events, Plaintiffs commenced this action against Defendants on June 30, 2014. In the Complaint, the following claims are asserted by all Plaintiffs: First Amendment retaliation against the Joneses (Count I); First Amendment retaliation against the Borough and the District (Count II); and conspiracy to violate Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights against the Joneses (Count III). Runco Plaintiffs also assert Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claims against the Joneses (Count IV) and the Borough and the District (Count V), as well as a claim for conspiracy to violate their Fourteenth Amendment rights against the Joneses (Count VI).

On September 5, 2014, Borough Defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss seeking dismissal of all claims except Count III of the Complaint. (Doc. 13.) And, on September 16, 2014, District Defendants moved to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety. (Doc. 14.) Plaintiffs timely filed a brief in opposition to Borough Defendants' motion on November 6, 2014 (Doc. 21), and their brief in opposition to District Defendants' motion was timely filed on November 17, 2014. (Doc. 24.) On November 24, 2014, Borough Defendants filed their reply brief in further support of their motion to dismiss. (Doc. 25.) Lastly, District Defendants' ...

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