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Michalow v. Pasquerilla

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh.

December 22, 2016

THOMAS R. MICHALOW, Plaintiff,
v.
DR. JOSEPH W. PASQUERILLA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS SUPERINTENDENT OF NORTHGATE SCHOOL DISTRICT AND; AND NORTHGATE SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          CYNTHIA REED EDDY, United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim [ECF No. 5]. For the reasons that follow the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND[2]

         Plaintiff, Thomas R. Michalow (“Plaintiff”) brings the instant civil rights action against his former employer, defendant Northgate School District (“Northgate” or the “school district”) and Northgate's Superintendent, defendant Dr. Joseph W. Pasquerilla (“Dr. Pasquerilla”). Plaintiff was a tenured teacher at Northgate who taught, inter alia, German and Advanced Placement History. Plaintiff was suspended without pay by Dr. Pasquerilla on June 3, 2015, effective June 2, 2015. The events leading up to Plaintiff's suspension are as follows.

         In January 2013, Plaintiff spoke at two public school board meetings concerning staff cuts being taken by the school district. Dr. Pasquerilla was present at these school board meetings. Following the end of a school day in either January or February 2013, Dr. Pasquerilla presented himself to Plaintiff's classroom and berated him for the public statements he made at the school board meeting regarding the staff cuts. During this encounter, Dr. Pasquerilla repeated several times to Plaintiff that Dr. Pasquerilla was in a “superior position” as Plaintiff's employer and directed that Plaintiff not express any of his concerns and/or voice any criticism regarding the Northgate staff cuts at any future school board meeting.

         In September 2013, during another public school board meeting, Plaintiff expressed his opinion that the staff cuts had negatively affected the school district. After that school board hearing, Dr. Pasquerilla in September or October 2013, presented to Plaintiff's classroom at the end of the day and expressed frustration that Plaintiff had expressed his concerns with other members of the community regarding the staffing cuts and directed that Plaintiff refrain from criticizing how Northgate is managed and limit the content of his speech to the positive aspects of Northgate.

         Between April and September 2014, Plaintiff, as he had done several times in the past, organized a non-Northgate sponsored trip for students and parents to Germany. Northgate school board approved this independent trip for students and parents and stated that it was not a Northgate-sponsored trip. Following the Germany trip, there were allegations that students were consuming alcohol. A Loudermill hearing occurred on June 19, 2014 regarding this accusation and Plaintiff was directed that no students were to consume alcohol on any future trip that he planned, or else he could face disciplinary actions.

         On May 19, 2015, Plaintiff was summoned to Dr. Pasquerilla's office. During this meeting, Dr. Pasquerilla advised Plaintiff of unspecified complaints about Plaintiff's Facebook postings depicting pictures from the recent prom that Plaintiff had chaperoned. Dr. Pasquerilla stated that he saw nothing in the posts that warranted an investigation, but directed that Plaintiff remove the private postings to which Plaintiff complied.

         On May 22, 2015, which was the last day of school for seniors at Northgate, at the end of the day, two female students returned to Plaintiff's classroom to retrieve items left there before leaving the building. After the female students retrieved their items, Plaintiff escorted them into the video-surveilled hallway to bid them farewell and good luck. Plaintiff gave both female students a hug and one of the female students a kiss on the cheek. Later that day, Plaintiff was summoned to Dr. Pasquerilla's office. During this meeting, Plaintiff was advised that there was another unspecified complaint regarding Plaintiff's recent Facebook posts in which Plaintiff noted how he used the Greek word “agape” for love to describe his feelings for the students, a feeling he alleges is akin to a love of a fellow human being through sacrifice and not the type of love indicative of an intimate relationship. Dr. Pasquerilla directed Plaintiff to remove the post; Plaintiff complied.

         Following the school day on May 22, 2015, Dr. Pasquerilla contacted Plaintiff by telephone to advise him that Plaintiff's employment was being suspended, but refused to tell Plaintiff the reasons for the suspension. At some point between May 22, 2015 and June 2, 2015, one of the female students, which Plaintiff had kissed on the cheek bidding farewell, and her mother had been summoned to the Northgate principal's office by Dr. Pasquerilla and informed that someone had witnessed something and were asked whether anything inappropriate had transpired between the student and Plaintiff. The female student indicated that nothing inappropriate occurred between her and Plaintiff. On June 2, 2015, the female student and her mother were again summoned to the Northgate principal's office by Dr. Pasquerilla. At that meeting, Dr. Pasquerilla showed the student and her mother a surveillance video of Plaintiff giving the student a goodbye hug and kiss on the cheek. The student and her mother advised that they did not feel that anything inappropriate transpired between the student and Plaintiff, and the student informed Dr. Pasquerilla that she had been hugged by another male teacher at Northgate and had witnessed other teachers hugging other students. The student also admitted that Plaintiff had given her and other students rides from the school to their homes and the student's mother advised Dr. Pasquerilla that she had given Plaintiff permission to do so. Not long after this meeting, the female student and her mother were contacted by the Allegheny County Police and were questioned about Plaintiff's conduct that Dr. Pasquerilla questioned the female student and her mother about at the June 2, 2015 meeting. The Allegheny County Police declined to pursue the matter further.

         Plaintiff was given another Loudermill hearing on June 2, 2015 concerning his conduct with the two female students and whether he gave students rides home. In a letter dated June 3, 2015, Dr. Pasquerilla advised Plaintiff that he had determined that Plaintiff had engaged in inappropriate contact and conduct with students, including but not limited to, hugging students, kissing students and driving students alone in his car. Dr. Pasquerilla also informed Plaintiff that he would recommend that his employment be terminated, that he was suspended indefinitely without pay effective June 2, 2015, and that he was restricted from entering any property owned or operated by the school district without express permission from Dr. Pasquerilla.

         Plaintiff alleges that following his suspension and throughout the summer of 2015, there was “an atmosphere of suspicion and rampant speculation” throughout the school district and community regarding Plaintiff's suspension. Compl. [ECF No. 1] at ¶ 54. He alleges that a school board member told a non-Northgate employee that Plaintiff was suspended for “doing something he shouldn't have done” and “heard multiple stories” as to the reasons for Plaintiff's suspension. Id. at ¶ 55. He further alleges that a Northgate teacher told a substitute teacher that Plaintiff “has been suspended for engaging in sexual relations with a student, rumors that [the teacher] said he personally did not believe.” Id. at ¶ 57. He further alleges that the Northgate football coach informed that same substitute teacher that Plaintiff had been suspended for engaging in sexual relations with a student, rumors that the football coach did not believe.

         Sometime during his suspension, Plaintiff sought medical leave for his previously documented Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and was denied such leave on September 1, 2015.

         Plaintiff initiated the present action on April 19, 2016 against Defendants Northgate School District and against Dr. Pasquerilla in his official and individual capacities. Plaintiff brings the following claims: (1) a First Amendment retaliation claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Dr. Pasquerilla in his official and individual capacities;[3] (2) “Retaliatory/Wrongful Discharge Contrary to Public Policy” against both Defendants, see Compl. [ECF No. 1] at p.29; (3) “Deprivation of Liberty without Due Process” against both Defendants, see id. at p.30; (4) a Pennsylvania state law claim for defamation pursuant to 42 Pa. Con. Stat. Ann. 8343(a) against Dr. Pasquerilla in his individual capacity; and (5) a Pennsylvania state law claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against both Defendants. Likewise, Plaintiff seeks punitive damages for his claims.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The applicable inquiry under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is well settled. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8, a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 12(b)(6) provides that a complaint may be dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A complaint that merely alleges entitlement to relief, without alleging facts that show entitlement, must be dismissed. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009). This “‘does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, ' but instead ‘simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary elements.” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Nevertheless, the court need not accept as true “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, ” Doug Grant, Inc. v. Great Bay Casino Corp., 232 F.3d 173, 183-84 (3d Cir. 2000), or the plaintiff's “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions, ” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997).

         Although a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and “sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” 550 U.S. at 555. Facial plausibility exists “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

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. . . . Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability, it “stops short of the line ...

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