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Hart v. West Mifflin Area School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2017

MARK HART, Plaintiff,
v.
WEST MIFFLIN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al ., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Cathy Bissoon United States District Judge

         I. MEMORANDUM

         Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint (Doc. 21), pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 21) will be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         A. BACKGROUND [1]

         As the parties are well aware of the factual and procedural events giving rise to the pending motion, the Court will recite only those facts alleged by Plaintiff that are material to the Court's ruling. Plaintiff worked as the Director of Security and Safety for Defendant West Mifflin Area School District (“Defendant School District”) from July 1, 2013, to September 24, 2015. (Amended Complaint (Doc. 17), ¶¶ 10, 11). Plaintiff avers that his tenure as Director of Security and Safety was marked by multiple confrontations with his direct supervisors, Superintendent Daniel Castagna and Assistant Superintendent Mark Hoover (together, the “individual Defendants”). (Id. ¶ 14).

         Among other things, Plaintiff alleges that, on or about December 18, 2014, a secretary at the West Mifflin Area High School, Cil King, accused Plaintiff of repeatedly using racially demeaning terms to describe West Mifflin Area School District's High School Principal, Phillip Woods. (Id. ¶ 18). Plaintiff claims this accusation was false. (Id. ¶ 19). Nevertheless, as a result of Ms. King's allegedly false accusation, Defendants Castagna and Hoover suspended Plaintiff from his position as Director of Security and Safety for two days. (Id. ¶ 20). Plaintiff claims that he was suspended from his position prior to any investigation by Defendants Castagna and Hoover into the validity of Ms. King's accusation. (Id. ¶ 21). Plaintiff further alleges that his suspension was immediately discussed on the social media site, Topix. (Id. ¶ 25).

         Specifically, Plaintiff claims that:

In a Topix forum dated January 2, 2015, Plaintiff is accused of using the “n-word” by several of the website's anonymous users including, but not limited to the following: In reference to the Plaintiff, one poster wrote, “The midget secret service agent is on the way out the door. He shouldn't bad mouth the administrators.” Another user wrote, “I am embarrassed to know that I shared my beloved [Marine] core [sic] with this dis loyal [sic] disrespectful fool. He should be ashamed for the core [sic], himself, and his family. I hope the district gives the shell of the MAN the dishonorable discharge he deserves!!” Another wrote, “He says some very offensive things about minorities? They need to send this outsider back to wherever he came from.” Additional posts referencing Plaintiff's alleged use of the “n-word” appeared on January 3, 2015, and January 5, 2015.

(Id. ¶ 26).

         Although Plaintiff acknowledges that the communications on Topix were anonymous, he believes that Defendants Hoover and Castagna (as well as possibly others yet to be identified) were responsible for the statements because they were the only individuals with access to information regarding Plaintiff's suspension. (Id. ¶ 27). Plaintiff claims that he “suffered fear, anxiety and emotional trauma as a result of his unjustified suspension and the resulting vicious public attacks on his reputation.” (Id. ¶ 28).

         Then, between September and November 2015, Defendants Castagna and Hoover accused Plaintiff of stealing food from West Mifflin Area High School's cafeteria freezer as well as $1, 400 from West Mifflin Area High School's vault. (Id. ¶¶ 33-44). Once again, Plaintiff claims that these accusations are false and that there is no evidence to support them. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 44). Nonetheless, based on these allegedly unfounded accusations, Defendants Castagna and Hoover suspended Plaintiff from September 4 to September 24, 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 39, 45). Defendant Castagna also informed Plaintiff that he would be recommending to the Board of School Directors at their meeting on September 24, 2015, that Plaintiff be terminated. (Id. ¶ 45). Plaintiff avers that, as a result of the Defendants' “baseless accusations” and “relentless attacks on his professional reputation, ” he intentionally crashed his car into a telephone pole in an attempt to kill himself on September 9, 2015. (Id. ¶ 48).

         Shortly thereafter, on or about September 11, 2015, Defendant School District's Board member, Michael Price (“Mr. Price”), contacted Plaintiff's brother-in-law, James Dorney (“Mr. Dorney”), to inform him that Plaintiff's job was in jeopardy. (Id. ¶ 51). When Mr. Dorney asked Mr. Price why Plaintiff's job was in jeopardy, Mr. Price responded that there was a past issue regarding the Plaintiff's use of a racial term and that Plaintiff was being accused of stealing food from Defendant School District. (Id. ¶ 52). After Mr. Dorney informed Plaintiff of his conversation with Mr. Price, Plaintiff called Mr. Price. During that conversation, Mr. Price informed the Plaintiff that he was aware that Plaintiff was being accused of stealing $1, 400.00 from Defendant School District. (Id. ¶ 53).

         On September 24, 2015, the Defendant School District's Board of School Directors met and voted to terminate Plaintiff's employment. (Id. ¶ 55). Plaintiff claims that the Board based its decision on Defendant Castagna's recommendation. (Id.). Plaintiff states that “although Defendant Castagna did not provide the Board with any reasons or evidence to support his recommendation to terminate Plaintiff at the Board meeting, [he] believes, based on his and Mr. Dorney's conversation with Mr. Price, that sometime prior to the board meeting, Defendant Castagna and/or Hoover told other members of Defendant West Mifflin's Board of School Directors that Plaintiff stole food and money from Defendant West Mifflin and that he had used racial slurs in the past.” (Id. ¶ 54).

         Plaintiff avers that, following his termination, there were additional anonymous communications about Plaintiff posted on the social media site, Topix, which were untrue, painted him in a poor and false light and otherwise defamed his character. (Id. ¶ 61). Specifically, Plaintiff claims that, “In a November 3, 2015 post on Topix, an anonymous user inferred that Plaintiff's September 9, 2015, car crash was the result of Plaintiff having drugs and alcohol in his system. On or about June 14, 2015, the same user stated that the cause of Plaintiff's car crash was a ‘cocktail of drugs.'” (Id. ¶ 62). Again, Plaintiff believes that Defendants Hoover and Castagna (as well as possibly others yet to be identified) were responsible for the allegedly defamatory statements posted to Topix following his termination. (Id. ¶ 63). Plaintiff further alleges that “[a]fter Plaintiff's termination, Plaintiff was approached by Defendant School District's Athletic Director, Scott Stevenson, and community member Dave Marshall on separate ...


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