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Bassetti v. Boyertown Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2017

DEA BASSETTI, Plaintiff,
v.
BOYERTOWN AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

         A stigma-plus claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 involves reputational injury suffered when a public employer creates and disseminates a false and defamatory impression concerning a public employee (the stigma), in conjunction with terminating or constructively discharging the employee (the plus).

         Here, the plaintiff, a teacher, voluntarily left her employment at Boyertown Area School District (“Boyertown”). She now asserts a stigma-plus claim against Boyertown, alleging that she suffered a constitutional deprivation in the form of reputational injury when a Boyertown employee made defamatory statements about her to employees of Pottstown School District (“Pottstown”), that subsequently caused Pottstown to refuse to finalize her employment there. She further alleges that Boyertown is liable under a Monell theory for the actions of its employee because (1) it failed to train its employees not to make defamatory statements about other employees, or (2) it failed to have a policy to prevent employees from making defamatory statements about other employees, or (3) a supervisor employed by Boyertown personally ratified the statements made in the telephone call.

         Boyertown moves to dismiss the complaint, contending that (1) the plaintiff's underlying claim of constitutional deprivation (stigma-plus) fails as a matter of law, and (2) the plaintiff fails to plead a sufficient basis for section 1983 Monell liability against it. As explained below, the court will dismiss the complaint for failure to state an underlying constitutional deprivation, as the plaintiff's stigma-plus claim relies on Pottstown's refusal to finalize her hire, rather than any employment action by Boyertown.

         I. ALLEGATIONS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         From August 2008 until May 2016, the plaintiff, Dea Bassetti (“Bassetti”), was a middle school math and high school business teacher in the Reading School District. First Amended Complaint (“Am. Compl.”) at 3, Doc. No. 13. In May 2016, Bassetti resigned from her position with the Reading School District and began applying for different teaching positions. Id. Bassetti interviewed with, and ultimately was offered, teaching positions at the Renaissance Academy Charter School and with the defendant, the Boyertown Area School District. Id. The position at the Renaissance Academy Charter School was a permanent teaching position, while the position at Boyertown was a long-term substitute position that was to start at the beginning of the school year and end in February 2017. Id.

         In August 2016, while Bassetti was considering which position she wanted to accept, she received a phone call from Ciara Talarico (“Talarico”), a teacher at Boyertown, and Talarico told Bassetti she would be Bassetti's “mentor” teacher. Id. After the phone call, Bassetti decided that she wanted to work for Boyertown. Id. at 4. Although Bassetti knew the position at Boyertown would be a long-term substitute position, she accepted it because she was confident that it would become permanent based on statements made by Talarico that the teacher on leave was likely not returning. Id. at 3-4.

         Bassetti started teaching at Boyertown in August 2016. Id. at 5. The relationship between Bassetti and Talarico started off well, and Talarico told Bassetti things about her personal life, including that Dr. Brett Cooper (“Dr. Cooper”), the principal at Boyertown, “would give her whatever she needed and that she had him ‘wrapped around her finger.'” Id. Two weeks into the school year, however, Talarico “started to hate” Bassetti. Id. Bassetti could tell Talarico hated her because she would not say hello to her in the hallway, and another teacher, Mr. Hiryak, told Bassetti “things” that Talarico would say to him about her and said that Talarico was jealous of her. Id. Bassetti believes that Talarico “hated” the fact that the students liked Bassetti more than her. Id. Other staff members also told Bassetti that Talarico referred to her as “the hottie” and said that male teachers liked her and asked her out. Id.

         By November 2016, Bassetti started looking for a new teaching position because it appeared that the teacher who was on leave would be returning and, as such, Bassetti's temporary teaching position would end in February 2017. Id. As part of her search, she applied to the Pottstown School District for a permanent teaching position. Id. at 6. After interviewing at Pottstown, Deena Cellini (“Cellini”), Pottstown's Director of Human Resources, offered Bassetti a teaching position on December 13, 2016. Id. at 6-7. Bassetti accepted the position and was told to start on December 15, 2016. Id. at 8. Later that day, Bassetti informed Dr. Cooper that her last day at Boyertown would be December 14, 2016. Id. at 7. On December 14, 2016, Bassetti went to Pottstown and filled out her new hire paperwork. Id.

         On December 15, 2016, Bassetti reported to Pottstown for her first day of work, and at the end of the teaching day, she was asked to report to the principal's office for a meeting. Id. At the meeting, Cellini told Bassetti that “they received a phone call [earlier that day] from someone at Boyertown” who made allegations that had “something to do with [Bassetti's] planning, alleged inappropriate contact and language with students, and bad mouthing staff members.” Id. at 7-8. Cellini would not tell Bassetti who made the phone call, but Bassetti believes that Talarico made the call. Id. at 8. Bassetti also believes that Talarico made the call with the authority or knowledge of Dr. Cooper, based on her prior comment that she had him “wrapped around her finger.” Id. Alternatively, Bassetti believes that another employee or employees made the call with the authority or knowledge of Dr. Cooper, or that an actual decision-maker at Boyertown made the call. Id. Cellini told Bassetti that because of the phone call, she would not present Bassetti's name for hiring approval to the school board at the monthly meeting scheduled for that evening. Id. Cellini also told Bassetti that Pottstown was very careful about whom it hires, and because of the allegations contained in the telephone call, it was no longer offering her employment. Id.

         Bassetti filed suit against Boyertown on March 15, 2017, bringing a stigma-plus claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arising from the alleged defamatory statements made about her to Pottstown, and Pottstown's subsequent refusal to finalize her employment. Complaint (“Compl.”) at 1, 7-9, Doc. No. 1. Boyertown filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on April 13, 2017, and Bassetti filed a response to the motion on May 12, 2017. Doc. Nos. 5, 10. The court granted Boyertown's motion on May 17, 2017, dismissing the complaint without prejudice for Bassetti's failure to allege a basis for municipal liability. Am. Order, Doc. No. 12.

         Bassetti filed an amended complaint against Boyertown on May 31, 2017, again bringing a stigma-plus claim pursuant to section 1983, arising from the alleged defamatory statements made about her to Pottstown, and Pottstown's subsequent refusal to finalize her employment. Am. Compl. at 1, 7-12. Boyertown filed the instant motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on June 14, 2017, contending that Bassetti (1) failed to adequately plead a basis for section 1983 liability, and (2) failed to state an underlying constitutional deprivation. Mem. of Law in Support of Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss Pl.'s Am. Compl. (“MTD”) at 8, Doc. No. 14. Bassetti filed a response to the outstanding motion on July 12, 2017, and the court heard oral argument on the motion on July 25, 2017. Doc. Nos. 17-19. The motion to dismiss is currently ripe for disposition.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a party to move for dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests “the sufficiency of the allegations contained in the complaint.” Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). As the moving party, “[t]he defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented.” Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citation omitted).

         In general, a complaint is legally sufficient if it contains “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “The touchstone of [this] pleading standard is plausibility.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012). Although Rule 8(a)(2) does “not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, ” it does require the recitation of “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that ...


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