United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
G. SMITH, J.
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 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
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.
ALLEGATIONS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Standard of Review
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
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 ...