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Smith v. Allegheny Valley School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 8, 2017

DAVID A. SMITH, Plaintiff,



         Pending before the Court is Defendant Allegheny Valley School District's Motion to Dismiss the Complaint filed against it by Plaintiff David A. Smith pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). ECF No. 2.


         On May 26, 2017, Allegheny Valley School District ("Defendant" or "the District") filed a Notice of Removal from the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County related to the Complaint filed against it by David A. Smith ("Plaintiff or "Mr. Smith") in state court on May 3, 2017. ECF No. 1. In the Complaint, ECF No. 1-5, Mr. Smith alleges a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 First Amendment retaliation claim against the District; "Plaintiff alleges that his right to be free of retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights has been violated by Defendant's actions in banning him from school property and initiating a criminal complaint which led to his arrest. ECF No. 10 at 6.

         On June 16, 2017, the District filed its Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 2, and Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 3. On August 14, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Brief in Response to Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). ECF No. 10. This matter, thus, is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. As more fully explained below, for the following reasons, the Court concludes that the District's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part as to Mr. Smith's request for punitive damages and denied in all other respects.


         In Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor. Inc., 926 F.2d 1406 (3d Cir. 1991), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit explained:

A district court can grant a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the legal insufficiency of a claim. But dismissal is proper only when the claim "clearly appears to be immaterial and made solely for the purpose of obtaining jurisdiction or ... is wholly insubstantial and frivolous." Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682, 66 S.Ct. 773, 776, 90 L.Ed. 939 (1946). See also Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 666, 94 S.Ct. 772, 776, 39 L.Ed.2d 73 (1974) (claim must be "so insubstantial, implausible, foreclosed by prior decisions of this Court, or otherwise completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy"). Ordinarily, a court must assume jurisdiction over a case before deciding legal issues on the merits. Bell, 327 U.S. at 682, 66 S.Ct. at 776. A Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal for failure to state a claim is not subject to the same limitations. The claim need not be wholly insubstantial to be dismissed. As this court has noted, "[t]he threshold to withstand a motion to dismiss under [Rule] 12(b)(1) is thus lower than that required to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion." Lunderstadt v. Colafella, 885 F.2d 66, 70 (3d Cir. 1989).

Kehr Packages, Inc., 926 F.2d at 1408-09. Motions brought under Rule 12(b)(1) may present either a facial or factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction. As explained by the appellate court in Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v. Aichele, 757 F.3d 347 (3d Cir. 2014):

A facial attack, as the adjective indicates, is an argument that considers a claim on its face and asserts that it is insufficient to invoke the subject matter jurisdiction of the court because, for example, it does not present a question of federal law, or because there is no indication of a diversity of citizenship among the parties, or because some other jurisdictional defect is present. Such an attack can occur before the moving party has filed an answer or otherwise contested the factual allegations of the complaint. See Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 889-92 (noting the distinction between a facial attack and a "factual evaluation, " which "may occur at any stage of the proceedings, from the time the answer has been served until after the trial has been completed." (emphasis added) (footnote omitted)). A factual attack, on the other hand, is an argument that there is no subject matter jurisdiction because the facts of the case-and here the District Court may look beyond the pleadings to ascertain the facts-do not support the asserted jurisdiction. So, for example, while diversity of citizenship might have been adequately pleaded by the plaintiff, the defendant can submit proof that, in fact, diversity is lacking. See id. at 891 ("[T]he trial court is free to weigh the evidence ... and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims."). In sum, a facial attack "contests the sufficiency of the pleadings, " In re Schering Plough Corp., 678 F.3d at 243, "whereas a factual attack concerns the actual failure of a [plaintiffs] claims to comport [factually] with the jurisdictional prerequisites." CNA v. United States, 535 F.3d 132, 139 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted) (alterations in original).

Constitution Party of Pennsylvania, 757 F.3d at 358.

         In assessing the sufficiency of a complaint pursuant to a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all material allegations in the complaint and all reasonable factual inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Odd v. Malone. 538 F.3d 202, 205 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court, however, need not accept bald assertions or inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. See Cal. Pub. Empls.' Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp.. 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist.. 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). Nor must the Court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rather, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court has held that a complaint is properly dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) where it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Id. at 570, or where the factual content does not allow the court "to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). See Phillips v. Ctv. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (finding that, under Twombly, "labels, conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" do not suffice but, rather, the complaint "must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct" and that are sufficient "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s] of his claim").


         In the Complaint, Mr. Smith makes the following factual allegations, which this Court must accept as true for purposes of deciding the District's Motion to Dismiss.

         Mr. Smith is the parent of D.S.; D.S. used to be a student at Springdale Junior-Senior High School in the District. ECF No. 1-5 ¶¶ 1, 3. On May 1, 2014, when D.S. was a sophomore, D.S. was assaulted by his teammates on the high school baseball team. Id. ¶ 4. Two boys threw D.S. down, grabbed his cell phone, and texted rude and explicit messages to D.S.'s mother. Id. This was part of a pattern of bullying and harassment that D.S. had endured while participating on the baseball team since his freshman year of high school. Id. ¶ 5. On May 3, 2014, Mr. Smith met with the baseball coach to report the incident. Id. ¶ 6. The coach indicated to Mr. Smith that the bullying problem would be taken care of following the conclusion of the baseball season. Id. ¶ 7.

         On the bus ride home from the baseball team's section title game in May 2014, the coach showed or participated in the showing of pornographic videos to members of the baseball team. Id. ¶ 8. This incident was part of a sexualized atmosphere perpetuated by the coach who often made sexual comments about women during baseball practice and who allegedly also showed pornography in the locker room. Id. ¶ 9. On May 29, 2014, during the end-of-the-year sports banquet, Mr. Smith again asked the coach to do something about the May 1, 2014, assault on his son. Id. ¶ 10.

         Also on May 29, 2014, Plaintiffs wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Id. ¶ 11. She died on June 1, 2014. Id. On June 2, 2014, Mr. Smith went to the high school office to report his wife's death and to discuss arrangements for his son to take his finals. Id.

         During the summer, the school guidance counselor contacted D.S. to check on him and to tell him about the Caring Place, an organization for individuals grieving the loss of a friend or relative. Id. ¶ 12. During that phone call, D.S. mentioned to the school guidance counselor the pornography incident and the harassment because it still upset him. Id. Nothing was done in response to this report and the incident was not reported to Childline, which is required by Pennsylvania's mandatory reporting law when any professional in contact with a child suspects abuse. Id.

         Mr. Smith and D.S. began attending sessions at the Caring Place and informed a therapist at the Caring Place of D.S.'s issues at the school. Id. A Caring Place staff member who was a mandated reporter made a report to Childline regarding the baseball coach exposing the team to pornography. Id. ¶ 13.

         In July 2014, the school principal telephoned Mr. Smith to discuss the May 2014 incident. Id., ¶ 14. Mr. Smith was upset because there had been no resolution of the matter. Id. In his frustration with the lack of action on the school's part, Mr. Smith stated that he could see how incidents like those at Franklin Regional High School happen (where an allegedly bullied student assaulted classmates), stating, "when kids get bullied to the degree my son has, now you can understand why this happens." Id., The District's administrators all knew that Mr. Smith was still grieving the sudden loss of his wife. Id. ¶ 16.

         Shortly thereafter, in late August 2014, Mr. Smith and D.S. had a meeting with the school principal, head of the athletic department, and the baseball coach to address the bullying and pornography. Id. ¶ 17. Mr. Smith complained about the harassment D.S. had endured while on the team, but in particular, the text message that had been sent to his late wife. Id. Mr. Smith reiterated his comment about how bullied students may react in the same manner as did the alleged perpetrator at Franklin Regional. Id.

         On or about September 23, 2014, [1] Mr. Smith called the principal at the high school, still upset about the fact that the boys who perpetrated the assault against his son had not yet apologized to D.S. Id. ¶ 18. Mr. Smith indicated to the principal that he was going to take the issue to the media. Id.

         On or about November 15, 2014, Mr. Smith and D.S. met with the baseball coach and the superintendent of the District. Id. ¶ 19. The discussion became heated, particularly because the coach and principal deflected the question of bullying and harassment and instead misrepresented Mr. Smith's concerns as anger about D.S.'s playing time. Id. ¶ 20. At some point thereafter, Mr. Smith asked the principal whether she had children and how she would feel if this (meaning the bullying and lack of action) happened to her child. Id. ¶ 21.

         On January 13, 2015, [2] while visiting the school guidance counselor for another reason, D.S., mentioned the assault and the fact that nothing had been done about it. Id. ¶ 22. D.S. also mentioned that the baseball coach had showed some players pornographic videos from a cell phone. Id. On January 16, 2015, the guidance counselor spoke with Mr. Smith over the phone. Id. ¶ 23. She asked his permission to relay the content of the conversation to the administration. Id. Sometime during the conversation, Mr. Smith asked the counselor how she would feel if her son was exposed to pornography. Id.

         On January 16, 2015, the Springdale Junior-Senior High School Principal and the Superintendent of the District contacted the Chief of Police of Springdale Borough and requested that the police department investigate allegations that the baseball coach had been showing sexually explicit pornography to students on the baseball team. Id. ¶ 24. Mr. Smith made several calls to the Chief of Police of Springdale Borough regarding the investigation and D.S.'s experience with the coach and team. Id. ¶ 25. During one such conversation with the Chief of Police, in reference to the administrators at Springdale Junior-Senior High School and the District, Mr. Smith said, "I am going for the jugular." Id. ΒΆ 26. Knowing it was an issue of general concern, Mr. Smith also said, "I ...

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