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Yelland v. Abington Heights School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 9, 2017



          MALACHY E. MANNION United States District Judge.

         I. BACKGROUND [1]

         Plaintiff William H. Yelland was a science teacher at the Abington Heights Middle School ("AHMS") in the Abington Heights School District ("AHSD") from 2013 until May 7, 2015. On April 8, 2015, allegations of assault were made by the parents of one of plaintiff's eighth grade students, ("Student A"), to AHMS Principal Michael Elia and AHMS Vice Principal Eduardo Antonetti. After the meeting, the principal and vice principal at AHMS assured the parents of Student A that plaintiff would not return to the classroom and they contacted the Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families ("CYF") as well as the South Abington Police Department to commence criminal proceedings against plaintiff. The next day, AHSD officials, including defendants AHSD Superintendent Michael Mahon, Eliaand Antonetti, initiated an investigation into the assault allegations and discussed the allegations with plaintiff during a meeting. The teacher's union counsel was also present. Plaintiff was asked to describe the April 8th incident with Student A and he was asked questions about some other alleged incidents. After the meeting, plaintiff was suspended indefinitely without pay. AHSD officials then interviewed several students and eventually forwarded the results of their investigation to the Lackawanna County District Attorney's ("DA") Office. Plaintiff alleges that defendants intentionally withheld exculpatory information when they provided information to the county prosecutor and that they failed to disclose the accounts of several eyewitnesses.

         On June 11, 2015, the DA filed criminal charges of simple assault and endangering the welfare of children against plaintiff based solely on the allegations of assault made by Student A arising out of the April 8, 2015 incident. A jury trial was subsequently commenced in November 2015 against plaintiff regarding the criminal charges. Plaintiff was found not guilty by a jury on all of the charges. See Lackawanna County Court criminal docket in Com. of PA v. Yelland, Docket No. CP-35-CR-1178-2015.[2]

         On October 14, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 against defendants AHSD, AHSD Board of Directors, Mahon, Elia and Antonetti. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff sues Mahon, Elia and Antonetti in both their official and individual capacities. Plaintiff alleges that his Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process rights were violated with respect to his suspension and termination.

         Specifically, in Count I, plaintiff alleges that he was not afforded pre-deprivation due process by all defendants and that the April 9, 2015, meeting did not satisfy the requirements of Cleveland Bd. of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Plaintiff alleges that after his indefinite suspension without pay, defendants conducted a "sham investigation" culminating in his May 7, 2015, termination based on his alleged April 8th "physical[] attack" on Student A as well as alleged physical attacks against other students.

         In Count II, plaintiff alleges that all defendants denied him post-termination process by refusing to participate in his request for arbitration regarding his grievance claim that he was wrongfully terminated without just cause which he made pursuant to the Abington Heights Education Association's Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"). As Exhibit A attached to his complaint, (Doc. 1-1), plaintiff submitted a copy of the decision and order issued by the Pennsylvania Labor Relation Board ("PLRB") regarding an unfair practices charge filed by the Abington Heights Education Association ("Union") on September 25, 2015 alleging that AHSD violated the Public Employee Relations Act ("PERA") by refusing to arbitrate Yelland's grievance. Further, plaintiff alleges that AHSD was deliberately indifferent to his rights by failing to properly supervise and train defendants Mahon, Elia and Antonetti.

         In Count III, plaintiff asserts a state law claim of malicious prosecution against the defendants Mahon, Elia and Antonetti.

         As relief in his complaint, plaintiff seeks an injunction from the court to order the defendants to reinstate his employment, compensatory damages, including front pay and back pay, punitive damages, nominal damages as well as attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988 and costs.

         Pending is the motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint, (Doc. 1), forfailure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) filed jointly by all defendants, (Doc. 6), on November 3, 2016. Defendants filed their brief in support on November 17, 2016. (Doc. 9). Plaintiff filed his brief in opposition to defendants' motion on December 7, 2016. (Doc. 14). On December 21, 2016, defendants filed a reply brief. (Doc. 16). Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion is ripe for disposition.

         The court has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331 and 28 U.S.C. §1343(a) because plaintiff avers violations of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court can exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs state law malicious prosecution claim under 28 U.S.C. §1367. Venue is appropriate in this court since the alleged constitutional violations occurred in this district and all parties are located here. See 28 U.S.C. §1391.


         A. Motion to Dismiss

         The defendants' motion to dismiss is brought pursuant to the provisions of Fed.R.Civ.P. 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." Prvor 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. Mavview 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).

         B. Section 1983

         The school district, the school board and the school officials are state actors for purpose of §1983. See Kline ex rel. Arndt v. Mansfield, 454 F.Supp.2d 258, 262 (E.D.Pa. 2006).

         To state a claim under section 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements. He must allege: 1) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) that as a result, he was deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330-331 (1986). If a defendant fails to act under color of state law when engaged in the alleged misconduct, a civil rights claim under section 1983 fails as a matter of jurisdiction, Polk Cntv. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 315 (1981), and there is no need to determine whether a federal right has been violated. Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830, 838 (1982).

         "A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior." Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207-08 (3d Cir. 1988). See also Sutton v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236, 249 (3d Cir. 2003)(citing Rode). "Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence." Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207. Accord Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh, 120 F.3d 1286, 1293-96 (3d Cir. 1997); Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1995). As explained in Rode:

A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. . . . [P]ersonal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence. Allegations of participation or actual knowledge and acquiescence, however, must be made with appropriate particularity.

Rode, 845F.2dat1207.

         With respect to punitive damages for a §1983 violation, this remedy is only available "when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others." Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983). Regarding federal civil rights claims, "reckless indifference" refers to the defendant's knowledge of the illegality of his actions, not the egregiousness of his actions. Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419, 431 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Kolstad v. Am. Dental Ass'n, 527 U.S. 526, 536 (1999)).


         A. Punitive Damages Claim

         It is well settled that the Supreme Court has held punitive damages may not be awarded against municipalities under §1983. See City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 271 (1981). In fact, as defendants note, (Doc. 1(5 at 2, n. 1), plaintiff concedes that punitive damages are not permissible against AHSD and against Mahon, Elia and Antonetti in their official capacities. (Doc. 14 at 23-24). Thus, any claim for punitive damages against defendants AHSD and its Board of Directors as well as against Mahon, Elia and Antonetti in their official capacities is subject to dismissal. However, plaintiff has ...

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