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Donovan v. Pittston Area School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 17, 2015

JANET DONOVAN, Plaintiff
v.
PITTSTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants

MEMORANDUM

MALACHY E. MANNION, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Janet Donovan was an administrator in the Pittston Area School District. She was head of curriculum for all grades, and was in charge of writing and applying for grants for the district. During the course of applying for a particular grant, plaintiff was repeatedly contacted by a former school superintendent and a vendor of school supplies who urged plaintiff to involve the vendor in the application. Even after the district did not receive the grant, the vendor and members of the school board continued to pressure her to make purchases from the vendor. Plaintiff did not acquiesce to these demands. Soon after, plaintiff was demoted by the district school board to principal of the intermediate center. Plaintiff alleges that this demotion was retaliatory, and in violation of the Pennsylvania School Code which requires notice and a hearing before a demotion or, in certain situations, after a demotion. She now sues the district and five members of the board alleging violation of her due process rights.

I. BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff Janet Donovan alleges that she was Principal in Charge of Curriculum for grades kindergarten through 12 for the Pittston Area School District (“PASD”) from 2009 through August 14, 2012. She was a professional employee of PASD. Her job entailed enhancing education programs for the PASD. She administered federal grant programs, Student Assistance Programs, and professional development programs for educators, updated technology and equipment, and oversaw other programs in the district. She reported to the Superintendent, who, at the time, was George Cosgrove. During her time as a professional employee of PASD, she had no disciplinary infractions. Plaintiff had control over spending for the curriculum at PASD, including grants obtained through federal programs, because of the nature of her position. She also was in charge of writing and preparing federal grant applications for PASD.

As part of her duties, plaintiff began to draft an application for the “Keystone to Opportunities” Grant (“KTO Grant”) in December 2011, to obtain additional funding for PASD. A former superintendent, Ross Scarantino, contacted plaintiff and encouraged her to involve one of the school’s vendors of school supplies and other materials, Step By Step (“SBS”), in the KTO Grant application process. Through the first few months of 2012, Scarantino and SBS constantly contacted plaintiff and urged her to change the KTO Grant application to meet SBS’s specifications.

Troubled by this behavior, plaintiff repeatedly notified Superintendent Cosgrove and District Principal Dr. John Lussi of her concerns about the involvement of Scarantino and SBS. Ultimately, the KTO Grant was not awarded to PASD due to a lack of diversity at PASD. However, Scarantino and a member of the PASD Board of Education, defendant Charles Sciandra, began to demand that plaintiff still make purchases for the school from SBS. Plaintiff resisted these demands, continuing to inform PASD and its administrators of her concerns through May and June of 2012.

Defendant Sciandra, aware of plaintiff’s unwillingness to purchase from SBS, said to Dr. Lussi and Cosgrove, within the hearing of plaintiff, that “someone’s going to pay for this.” Plaintiff alleges that shortly after defendant Sciandra made that statement, it had become clear to her that members of the PASD Board of Education were prepared to take action against some administrators in the district. Also, some time after Sciandra’s comment, in June 2012, Superintendent Cosgrove resigned.

Dr. Lussi maintained his position until August 14, 2012, when he submitted a letter of retirement effective December 21, 2012 to the Board of Education at an August 14, 2012 meeting. At that same August 2012 meeting, plaintiff was, without advanced warning, notice or a hearing, demoted by the defendants from “Principal in Charge of Curriculum for Grades Kindergarten through 12th Grade” to “Intermediate Center Principal” for 3rd through 5thgrades. Plaintiff states that the demotion from a district-wide curriculum position took away many of her duties, including her coordination of federal programs and fifty-two distinct planning and policy initiatives she had overseen in her previous position. Defendant board members Sciandra, Anthony Guariglia, Bruce Knick, Kent Bratlee, and John Donahue voted in favor of plaintiff’s demotion. As Exhibit A to her amended pleading, plaintiff attaches Minutes of the August 14, 2012 PASD Board of Education Meeting. Plaintiff tried to defend her achievements at the August 14, 2012 meeting, but was nevertheless demoted without cause and without her consent. Plaintiff states that defendants intentionally did not afford her notice or a hearing at any time, nor an opportunity to appear before the PASD Board to address her demotion. Plaintiff avers that her demotion removed all of her administrative duties and constituted a retaliatory action for her perceived failures to follow the demands of certain members of the PASD Board of Education regarding SBS. Plaintiff asserts that the PASD organizational chart attached to her amended complaint demonstrates that the change in her position constituted a demotion, and that the organizational chart was changed following her demotion.

Plaintiff contends that she sought the reason for her demotion, and was told by Sciandra that “there are younger administrators that want to move up” and by Lussi that she should “go ahead and sue” because her pay had been unchanged.

Plaintiff acknowledges that on September 19, 2012, she received correspondence from John Audi, Esquire, special counsel to defendant PASD, claiming that the “Board is offering [Donovan] a hearing to provide [Donovan] an opportunity to oppose the decision and to defend against it.” Exhibit B attached to the amended pleading is the September 19, 2012 letter from Audi. On October 1, 2012, plaintiff notified the defendants of her acceptance of the offer for a post-demotion hearing. The letter of October 1, 2012 is attached as Exhibit C. However, the defendants never responded to plaintiff’s acceptance of PASD’s offer for a hearing and never gave plaintiff a post-demotion hearing. Nor did the defendants ever issue any written or formal decision from which plaintiff could take an appeal. In fact, the defendants continuously tried to prevent plaintiff from taking any action against them. As such, plaintiff avers “the actions of the defendants in not only failing to hold the hearing that they offered, but to take affirmative steps to dissuade [her] from taking further action is evidence that all statutory remedies have been addressed or waived by PASD as a result of their actions confirming that a hearing was necessary and going to be provided.” Plaintiff further alleges that PASD personnel, including the solicitor and the superintendent, told her not to take any action, and specifically not sue.

She also states that they deliberately kept her $100, 000 per annum salary the same to avoid conducting a hearing on her demotion and change in position, and that the facts show her demotion was not for budgetary reasons as defendants claimed. The demotion also allowed defendants to keep her salary lower than the other administrators in PASD.

After serving as Intermediate Center Principal for one year, on August 1, 2013, plaintiff was voted to “Director of Curriculum” by the Board of Education, but did not fully return to her previous duties. Specifically, she did not have spending authority over the federal grant program, although she resumed working on curriculum for grades kindergarten through 12. Plaintiff alleges that throughout her time at PASD, she was paid approximately $12, 000.00 less per year than other administrators on the same level as her on the PASD Organizational Chart.

Plaintiff states that the actions of the individual defendants, Guariglia, Knick, Bratlee, Donahue and Sciandra, were arbitrary and capricious, and in direct and willful contravention of Pennsylvania law.

Plaintiff thus brings the instant suit with the following claims against the PASD and five board of education members Guariglia, Knick, Bratlee, Donahue, and Sciandra: Count I for a declaratory judgment that all defendants violated 24 P.S. §11-1151 by failing to hold a hearing for plaintiff regarding her demotion without her consent; Count II for a violation of her constitutional due process rights for the failure of all defendants to abide by 24 P.S. §11-1151;[2] and Count III for assumpsit for back pay against all defendants. Plaintiff sues the five board of education members in both their individual and official capacities as board members.

Plaintiff filed this case in the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas on August 14, 2014. Defendants removed the case on August 25, 2014, alleging that jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331 because plaintiff avers a violation of her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (Doc. 1). They also assert that the court has supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff’s state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1367. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s original complaint on September 3, 2014, (Doc. 3), and plaintiff filed a motion for leave to amend her complaint. (Doc. 7). The court granted, in part, plaintiff’s motion to the extent that the amended complaint remedied the original complaint’s failure to allege that there was an exhaustion of statutory remedies. The court then dismissed defendants’ motion to dismiss without prejudice, (Doc. 10), after plaintiff filed an amended complaint. (Doc. 9).The defendants then filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (Doc. 11). The motion has been briefed and is ripe for disposition. (Docs. 12, 18, 19).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The defendant's motion to dismiss is brought pursuant to the provisions of Fed.R.CiP. 12(b)(6). This rule provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated, Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005), and dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true, the plaintiff has failed to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007) (abrogating "no set of facts" language found in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). The facts alleged must be sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. This requirement "calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. Furthermore, in order to satisfy federal pleading requirements, the plaintiff must "provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, " which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (brackets and quotations marks omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65).

In considering a motion to dismiss, the court generally relies on the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record. See Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2007). The court may also consider "undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the [attached] documents." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, "documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the pleading, may be considered." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002). However, the court may not rely on other parts of the record in determining a motion to dismiss. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

Generally, the court should grant leave to amend a complaint before dismissing it as merely deficient. See, e.g., Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2007); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). "Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility." Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Monell Claim and Official Capacity Claim

Since plaintiff names PASD as a defendant and alleges that it violated her constitutional rights, the standards annunciated in Monell v. Department of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), apply to her due process claim against PASD. See McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 367–69 (3d Cir. 2005) (school district is subject to liability in a §1983 action under Monell). Plaintiff’s amended complaint does not state a proper municipal liability claim against PASD under Monell. See Moeck v. Pleasant Valley School Dist., 983 F.Supp.2d 516, 524 (M.D.Pa. 2013). “Municipal employers, such as school districts, ..., cannot be held vicariously liable for the constitutional violations committed by their employees.” Id. “Municipal liability only attaches when a plaintiff demonstrates that an official policy or custom caused the asserted constitutional deprivation.” Id.; Mann v. Palmerton Area School Dist., 33 F.Supp.3d 530, 540-41 (M.D.Pa. 2014).

Plaintiff also must allege that PASD unconstitutionally implemented or executed a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, decision or custom leading to the stated violations of her constitutional rights. Mann v. Palmerton Area School Dist., 33 F.Supp.3d at 540. Additionally, if the policy at issue relates to a failure to train or supervise municipal employees, “liability under section 1983 requires a showing that the failure amounts to ‘deliberate indifference’ to the rights of persons with whom those employees will come into contact.” Carter v. City of Phila., 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).

Thus, plaintiff’s constitutional claim against PASD is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE to file a second amended complaint to properly state her procedural due process claim against this defendant under Monell.

Additionally, to the extent plaintiff names the five board of education members as defendants in addition to PASD and sues them in their individual and official capacities, these defendants, in their official capacities, are part of the district itself. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-166 (1985) (Section1983 suits against individuals in their official capacities "represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.") (citation omitted). Thus, plaintiff’s claims against the five board of education members in their official capacities are redundant of the claims plaintiff asserts against PASD. See Swedron v. Borough, 2008 WL 5051399, *4 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2008) (Court held that official capacity claims under §1983 against defendant police officers should be dismissed since they were redundant of the claims against defendant Borough) (citing Gregory v. Chehi, 843 F.2d 111, 120 (3d Cir. 1988)); Brice v. City of York, 528 F.Supp.2d 504, 516 n. 19 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (“claims against state official in their official ...


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