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Foster v. Crestwood School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 22, 2017

MARGARET FOSTER, Plaintiff
v.
CRESTWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          MALACHY E. MANNION United States District Judge.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Plaintiff Margaret Foster has been the Principal of Fairview Elementary School, which is part of the Crestwood School District ("CSD"), since 2012. In May 2015, the Superintendent of Schools for CSD announced that he was retiring effective January 2016. Plaintiff then applied for the Superintendent position. At a November 19, 2015 meeting, the CSD Board of Directors ("CSD Board") accepted the Human Resources Committee's recommendation that the Board enter into an agreement with plaintiff to serve as the Superintendent of Schools for CSD effective January 8, 2016 through June 30, 2019, at an initial salary of $115, 000 per year, contingent upon receipt of necessary Superintendent qualification documentation/clearances and subject to review of the final contract terms by the CSD Solicitor. On November 27, 2015, the President of the CSD Board and plaintiff signed a Contract for Employment of the Superintendent of CSD (the "Contract") after it was approved by the District Solicitor. The Contract provided that the CSD would function in accordance with the provisions of the Public School Code. Subsequently, plaintiff completed all of the requirements to be Superintendent and advised CSD.

         At the December 10, 2015 CSD Board meeting, three newly-elected CSD Board Directors, including defendants Ron Sturgeon and Joseph Kaminski, became part of the Board. At this meeting, the new CSD Board held an executive session and passed a verbal motion which was added to the agenda to rescind the Board's action of November 19th which had approved entering into the agreement with plaintiff to serve as the new CSD Superintendent. Six Board Directors voted in favor of the rescission, including defendants Kaminski, Sturgeon and Maureen McGovem. Plaintiff alleges that when the CSD Board and the three individual defendants voted to rescind the Board's prior action, they knew that their rescission was unlawful.

         Prior to the next CSD Board meeting, the directors and the solicitor were advised that plaintiff had completed the course work, testing and certification process and currently held a valid Superintendent Letter of Eligibility. Nonetheless, at the January 7, 2016 CSD Board meeting, the CSD Board passed a motion that appointed Brian Waite as Acting CSD Superintendent for up to one year.

         The CSD Board then held a special meeting on April 11, 2016 and approved the appointment of Joseph Gorham as the CSD Superintendent. Gorham started his new position as Superintendent on April 13, 2016.

         Plaintiff alleges that "[t]he action of the Defendants rescinding the CSD Board's prior appointment of [her] and prior approval of [her] Contract was without legal basis or authority, either in the Public School Code or otherwise." Plaintiff alleges that the appointments of Waite and Gorham were invalid. She also alleges defendants CSD and the CSD Board failed to provide her with the rights provided in the Contract and required by law, including "the right to proper notice and a fair and impartial hearing prior to terminating her Contract." As a result of defendants' alleged unlawful conduct, "plaintiff has suffered and incurred damages, including lost wages and benefits, humiliation, embarrassment, injury to her reputation and emotional distress." (Doc. 1 at ¶'s 36-39).

         On June 8, 2016, plaintiff filed the instant civil rights action pursuant to 42U.S.C.§1983 against defendants CSD, CSD Board of Directors, Sturgeon, Kaminski and McGovem. (Doc. V). Plaintiff sues Sturgeon, Kaminski and McGovern only in their individual capacities. Plaintiff alleges that her 14thAmendment procedural due process rights were violated with respect to her termination as CSD Superintendent.

         Specifically, in Count I, plaintiff alleges that she had a protected property interest in public employment as Superintendent of CSD under the Contract and under the Pennsylvania Public School Code (the "Code"), 24 Pa.C.S. §1-101, et seq. Plaintiff alleges that she was not afforded pre-deprivation due process by all defendants seemingly under the requirements of Cleveland Bd. of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). She alleges that both the Contract and the Code require that she be given due process before termination of the Contract. In particular, plaintiff alleges that defendants failed to give her notice of the reasons for the rescission of her appointment as Superintendent and her employment agreement, and that defendants failed to hold a hearing regarding their decision to rescind her appointment. As such, plaintiff avers that all of the defendants violated her procedural due process rights under the 14th Amendment.

         Plaintiff also alleges that the three individual defendants improperly interfered with her appointment and the Contract in retaliation for actions she took regarding certain CSD employees when she was Principal of the elementary school.

         Plaintiff states that post-deprivation remedies are inadequate since defendants already hired Gorham as Superintendent on April 11, 2016, and that he has held the position with the approval and at the direction of the defendants. She also alleges that "defendants' actions were done with a reckless, callous and/or deliberate indifference to [her] federally protected rights." (Doc. 1 at ¶ 52).

         As relief in Count I, plaintiff seeks compensatory damages and punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988 and costs.

         In Count II, plaintiff raises a state law breach of contract claim against defendants CSD and CSD Board. Plaintiff alleges that she satisfied all conditions of the Contract to hire her as Superintendent and she met all legal requirements necessary for her to serve in this position effective January 8, 2016. Plaintiff alleges that defendants CSD and CSD Board breached her Contract "by attempting to rescind it without proper cause and without notice or a hearing" and, "by appointing an Acting Superintendent on January 7, 2016 and failing to allow [her] to take office as the Superintendent of CSD on January 8, 2016." Plaintiff states that due to defendants' breach, she suffered harm "in the form of lost wages and benefits that were and are due to her under the Contract." (Doc. 1 at ¶'s 54-57).

         In Count III, plaintiff alleges that defendants CSD and CSD Board violated the School Code since it requires that there be one of several specified causes for terminating a Superintendent's contract and that termination of such a contract can only occur "following statutorily specified notice of a hearing followed by a hearing conducted in accordance with the Local Agency Law." Specifically, plaintiff alleges that defendants violated the Code by attempting to rescind her appointment as Superintendent and her Contract without proper cause and, without proper notice and an opportunity to be heard. She states that "there is no authority in the Code allowing for a newly elected school board to rescind a Superintendent's employment contract that has been approved by and Dated: behalf of a prior school board." Thus, plaintiff alleges that defendants "violated the Code by improperly rescinding [her] appointment by the prior CSD Board, by appointing an Acting Superintendent on January 7, 2016, by failing to allow [her] to take her position as Superintendent of CSD effective January 8, 2016 and by appointing Joseph Gorham as Superintendent on April 11, 2016." (Doc. 1 at ¶'s 59-63).

         As relief in Counts II and III, plaintiff seeks compensatory damages as well as attorneys' fees and costs.

         Pending is the motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint, (Doc. V), for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) filed jointly by all defendants, (Doc. 11), on August 29, 2016. Defendants filed their brief in support on September 12, 2016, (Doc. 17), along with an appendix of five exhibits, (Doc. 16). After being granted an extension of time, plaintiff filed her brief in opposition to defendants' motion on October 6, 2016 with seven attached exhibits, including plaintiff's Declaration. (Doc. 24). On October 20, 2016, defendants filed a reply brief. (Doc. 28). Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion is ripe for disposition.

         Defendants also filed a motion to strike plaintiff's Declaration, (Doc. 24-2), on October 19, 2016, (Doc. 26), with a brief in support, (Doc. 27). Plaintiff filed her brief in opposition to defendants' motion to strike on November 2, 2016. (Doc. 30). On November 15, 2016, defendants filed a reply brief. (Doc. 31). Defendants' motion to strike is also 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 her due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court can exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiffs state law claims 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.

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         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 plaintiffs 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. 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 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. She must allege: 1) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) that as a result, she 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 Cnty. 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); Bakery. 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 ...

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