Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Anderson v. Abington Heights School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

December 11, 2017

JACOB ANDERSON Plaintiff
v.
ABINGTON HEIGHTS SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al. Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Robert D. Mariani, United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction and Procedural History

         Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 96) and Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 93).

         On December 13, 2012, K.A., filed a Complaint on behalf of her son, J.A., [1] against Defendants Abington Heights School District (“AHSD”), Michael Mahon, Ph.D., Thomas Quinn, Ph.D., Sam Sica, Michael Elia, Eduardo Antonetti, and Brian Kelly. (Doc. 1).

         Prior to the filing of the present action, K.A. had filed a special education due process action against Abington Heights School District which resulted in an appeal of the Hearing Officer's decision to this Court by the School District, and ultimately a settlement agreement between the parties. (See generally, 3:12-cv-804-RDM (M.D. Pa. 2012); Release and Settlement Agreement).[2]

         Following unsuccessful mediation proceedings in the present case, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint on June 21, 2013 (Doc. 21)[3] which Defendants moved to dismiss (Doc. 23). The Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' motion. The Court dismissed with prejudice Plaintiff's Fifth Amendment claim, Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim, intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, negligence claim, and civil rights claim, and dismissed Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim without prejudice. The Court also dismissed with prejudice Plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty and punitive damages claims as to Abington Heights School District, dismissed these claims without prejudice as to Defendants Mahon and Quinn, and allowed these two claims to proceed against Defendants Antonetti, Elia, and Kelly. Finally, the Court dismissed with prejudice Plaintiff's Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act claim as to Defendants Mahon, Quinn, Elia, Antonetti, and Kelly, but dismissed this claim without prejudice as to Abington Heights School District. (See Docs. 43, 44).

         Plaintiff timely filed a Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 47) and Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 50). The Court granted in part and denied in part Defendants' motion. Specifically, the Court dismissed with prejudice Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim with respect to violations of J.A.'s liberty interest; dismissed with prejudice Plaintiff's claims for breach of fiduciary duty and punitive damages against Defendant Mahon, and dismissed Defendant Quinn in his entirety. The Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim with respect to violations of J.A.'s property interest and Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. (See Doc. 64).

         As a result of the Court's rulings, the following claims remain in this action: Violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically Plaintiff's procedural due process claim for violations of his property interest, against Defendant AHSD and Defendants Mahon, Elia, Antonetti, and Kelly in their individual capacities (Count I); Breach of Fiduciary Duty against Defendants Elia, Antonetti, and Kelly (Count II); Punitive Damages against Defendants Elia, Antonetti, and Kelly (Count III); and Violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against Defendant AHSD (Count IV).

         The parties have now filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 93, 96). Plaintiff's motion requests that the Court grant summary judgment with respect to Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint for violations of Section 504. Defendants' motion requests summary judgment on all remaining Counts of the Second Amended Complaint.

         The parties have fully briefed the motions, and they are ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 96) and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 93).

         II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

         The plaintiff, J.A., was born on September 6, 1997 and was 13 years old at all times relevant to the issues in this action. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 8).

         Abington Heights School District is a school district duly organized, established and existing under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with administrative offices located in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania. Michael Mahon, Ph.D., and Thomas Quinn, Ph.D., were employed as the superintendent and assistant superintendent respectively of AHSD at all times relevant to this matter. Michael Elia and Eduardo Antonetti were employed respectively as the principal and vice-principal of the Abington Heights Middle School at all times relevant to this matter. Brian Kelly was employed as the school counselor of the Abington Heights Middle School at all times relevant to this matter. (Doc. 94, at ¶¶ 2-7).

         J.A. has been diagnosed with two neurological disorders: Attention Deficit Disorder (“ADD”), specifically Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”), and Dysthymia. (Id. at ¶ 9). As a result of his diagnosis of ADHD, which is a recognized disability under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, J.A. was provided an instructional support plan by AHSD pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. (Id. at ¶ 10). J.A. has never had an IEP. (See Dep. of J.A., at 11-12 (stipulation by attorneys for the parties)).

         On February 24, 2011, J.A. reported late to school and had to serve detention for late arrival to school. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 12). J.A. admits that on that day he brought a small amount of "spice" to school and that he gave the “spice” to a friend, A.W., in exchange for a debt. (Doc. 97, at ¶¶ 6, 7; see also, Dep. of J.A., at 22-23, 95-96). A.W., a non-disabled student, served detention with J.A. on February 24, 2011, and was removed from detention that day by vice-principal Antonetti. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 13). When A.W. briefly returned to detention, he whispered to J.A. that he would tell him later what happened. (Dep. of J.A., at 28-29). Later that day, A.W. told J.A. that a third student, W.F., who is non-disabled, reported A.W. to school administrators for possessing “spice” and providing the “spice” to W.F. As a result, A.W. was searched by school administrators, who found “spice” on him. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 14). Upon discovering the “spice” on A.W., he informed the school administrators that he received it from J.A. (Id. at ¶ 15).

         J.A. remained in detention until 4:00 p.m. on February 24, 2011, at which time he was permitted to go home. J.A. had no further contact with school administrators that day and J.A.'s mother, K.A., was never contacted by the Defendants, administrators, or teachers regarding J.A.'s possession of “spice”. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 16; see also, Doc. 97, at ¶ 59). After J.A. finished detention, he contacted A.W., who advised J.A. he was in trouble as a result of his possession of “spice” and that A.W.'s father was called to the school to meet with administrators that same day. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 17; see also, Doc. 97, at ¶ 73).

         On February 25, 2011, J.A. arrived to school by bus at 7:45 a.m. and was approached by his counselor, Brian Kelly, who escorted him with his belongings to vice-principal Antonetti's office. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 20). During his deposition, J.A. testified that in Antonetti's office, the vice-principal asked him a few questions and searched his things. (Doc. 97, at ¶ 75; see also, Dep. of J.A., at 42). At that time, he was informed that another student had told the District that he had received a substance from J.A. (Doc. 97, at ¶ 76). This initial questioning lasted for ten to fifteen minutes, after which J.A. was moved to the in-school suspension room. (Id. at ¶¶ 78, 79). J.A. was given lunch in the in-school suspension room. (Id. at ¶ 80). J.A. was then asked questions about other students and people in the community who were drug users. (Id. at ¶ 82). According to J.A., Principal Elia dropped in once but did not say anything. (Doc. 97, at ¶ 83; see also, Doc. 94, at ¶ 22 (Plaintiff's undisputed statement of fact that Principal Elia was not initially in the room, but later joined in the questioning of J.A. in Antonetti's office regarding his source of the “spice”, the cost, and whether he distributed it to any other students)). J.A. testified that Antonetti asked him about abuse and showed concern for him. (Doc. 97, at ¶ 85). J.A. informed Antonetti that his parents had marijuana in the home. (Id. at ¶ 86). J.A. was then given another break in the in-school suspension room. (Id. at ¶ 87). J.A. was subsequently interviewed a third time by Elia and Antonetti. During this interview, Antonetti asked the questions, and J.A. was again asked about his home environment. (Id. at ¶¶ 88-90).

         K.A. stated in her deposition that J.A. did not return home on the school bus as he was supposed to that day, prompting her to call the school at 2:30 p.m. and being told by Antonetti that she needed to come to the school at 3:30 p.m. (Dep. of K.A., at 22; see also, Doc. 97, at ¶¶ 60, 61). Upon K.A.'s arrival at school she was informed that her son had been accused of distributing drugs at school. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 27).

         J.A. was released to his mother and her fiancé, J.R. and provided a brief explanation of the school's charges against him. (Id. at ¶ 28).

         By letter dated February 28, 2011, Principal Elia informed K.A. of the reported incident involving J.A. on February 24, 2011, and that her son had been suspended from school for 10 days. (Id. at ¶ 29). In a subsequent letter, dated March 3, 2011, Principal Elia summarized a telephone conversation on March 2, 2011, with K.A. regarding the events of February 25, 2011, her declining a meeting at the middle school, and that further notice would be sent by March 11, 2011, if a formal hearing would be scheduled. (Id. at ¶ 30). Superintendent Mahon then informed K.A. in a letter dated March 11, 2011, of a formal hearing scheduled for March 14, 2011, regarding charges that J.A. had violated Abington Heights School District Policy No. 227. (Id. at ¶ 31). According to the letter, J.A. “[was] charged with possession of drugs on school district property. He [was] charged with providing drugs to another student. He [was] charged with selling drugs to other middle school students during the 2010-2011 school year. Jacob [was] also charged with making a hostile threat of violence in a text message against a fellow student in an effort to cover up Jacob's drug related activities.” (Letter to K.A. from Michael Mahon, March 11, 2011).

         On March 14, 2011, J.A. appeared before the AHSD Board of Directors for an expulsion hearing. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 32). J.A., K.A., and J.R., attended the expulsion hearing without counsel. (Id. at ¶ 33). K.A., Elia, and Antonetti testified at the hearing. (Doc. 97, at ¶¶ 64, 110, 119). After hearing the facts and evidence presented during this hearing, the School Board found J.A. guilty of possession of contraband on school property and therefore in violation of the school's policies. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 34). As a result, the School Board voted to expel J.A. for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year and for the entirety of the 2011-2012 school year with instructions to reapply for the 2012-2013 school year. (Id. at ¶ 35).

         No manifestation determination hearing took place regarding J.A.'s disabilities prior to his expulsion hearing, except Superintendent Mahon's review of J.A.'s behavior and 504 plan. (Id. at ¶ 36).[4] Mahon acknowledged that in the case of expulsion it must be considered whether the underlying cause or trigger for the Section 504 plan was the cause of the behavior that occurred. (Id. at ¶ 38). Mahon stated that with respect to J.A., he determined after conferring with the special education director that J.A.'s “ADHD was not manifested in the selling of the drugs . . . and all the things that he had been accused of.” (Id. at ¶ 37).

         The record reflects that by letter to Mahon dated November 29, 2011, Plaintiff's legal counsel, attorney Harry P. McGrath, requested “a special educational due process hearing under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of Chapters 14 and 15 of the Pennsylvania School Code.” (Letter from Attorney McGrath to Dr. Mahon, Nov. 29, 2011). A hearing was thereafter held on March 1, 2012, before Special Education Hearing Officer Anne L. Carroll, Esq. On March 31, 2012, the Hearing Officer issued a Decision wherein she summarized J.A. and K.A.'s due process complaint as follows:

Parent filed a due process complaint in November 2011 alleging violations of § 504 and IDEA due to the District's failure to conduct a full psycho-educational evaluation, provide adequate and appropriate services to assure that Student received a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) and to properly consider Student's disability before imposing a disciplinary change of placement.

(Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer Decision, March 31, 2012, at 2). The Hearing Officer's Decision found that the District engaged in “a myriad of procedural and substantive violations” of Plaintiff's rights. (Id.). Of note, the parties agree that the Defendant's failure to conduct a manifestation hearing and/or Section 504 hearing was fully adjudicated during the initial due process hearing before the Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer. (Doc. 94, at ¶ 41; Doc. 101, at ¶ 41).

         The District appealed the Hearing Officer's decision to the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (See generally, 3:12-cv-804-RDM (M.D. Pa. 2012)). On August 15, 2012, the parties executed a Release and Settlement Agreement, thereby settling the District's appeal and closing the federal action.

         The Release and Settlement Agreement provides:

Releasors acknowledge and agree that by accepting the terms of this Agreement that they are waiving rights, release, and forever discharge on their own behalf, and on behalf of the Student, Releasee, and its present and past officers, directors, professional staff employees, agents, attorneys, and insurers from any claim or demand of any kind, administrative or judicial, concerning the education of the Student (from the beginning of time until the effective date of this Agreement) whether or not known, including but not limited to claims for compensatory education, denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education, extended school year, related services, assistive technology, tuition reimbursement, transportation, attorney fees and costs, any and all expert witness fees and costs, evaluations of any kind, whether associated with a due process hearing request, federal lawsuit or litigation or otherwise, any other costs, charges, or liabilities, including claims for compensatory damages, including but not limited to claims pursuant to the IDEA and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 300 et seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. Section 794, (“Section 504”) and its implementing regulation, 34 C.F.R. Part 104; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. Sections 12101-12213 (“ADA”); The Pennsylvania School Code of 1949, 24 P.S. 1-101, et seq.; Chapters 14, 15 and 16 of the regulations of the State Board of Education, 22 Pa. Code Chapters. 14, 15, and 16; former Chapter 342 of the standards of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, former 22 Pa. Code Chapter 342; or any other applicable state or federal law for any claim that may arise or has arisen regarding Student's educational programming and/or placement from the beginning of time until the effective date of this Agreement.

(Release and Settlement Agreement, at ¶ 17).

Furthermore, the Agreement recognizes that
the Releasee's agreement to pay the amount stated is intended to provide Releasors with consideration for a settlement and compromise of all claims regarding the Student's educational programming and/or placement, that they may not have or which may in the future arise relative to the above disputes through the date of the Releasors' execution of this release and settlement agreement, including claims for compensatory education or compensatory damages that they and/or the Student may otherwise have arising under the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, or the ADA.

(Id.).

However, the Agreement specifically
does not settle claims that are non-educational in nature which may arise from the investigation which took place on February 24 and 25, 2011, including a claim pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or 42 U.S.C. Sections 12101-12213 (“ADA”) based upon the investigation of February 24 and 25, 2011, but does settle all claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and 42 U.S.C. Sections 12101-12213 (“ADA”) based upon, related to, or arising out of the Student's 504 plans, educational programming, and/or educational placement.

(Id.).

         III. Standard of Review

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “As to materiality, . . . [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . . or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, “[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). “Inferences should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party's evidence contradicts the movant's, then the non-movant's must be taken as true.” Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir.1992), cert. denied 507 U.S. 912 (1993).

         However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,

its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).

         In this case, the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. According to the Third Circuit:

Cross-motions are no more than a claim by each side that it alone is entitled to summary judgment, and the making of such inherently contradictory claims does not constitute an agreement that if one is rejected the other is necessarily justified or that the losing party waives judicial consideration and determination whether genuine issues of material fact exist.

Lawrence v. City of Philadelphia, 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008). Each movant must show that no genuine issue of material fact exists; if both parties fail to carry their respective burdens, the Court must deny the motions. See Facenda v. N.F.L. Films, Inc., 542 F.3d 1007, 1023 (3d Cir. 2008). When reviewing each cross-motion, the Court is still bound to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; United States v. Hall, 730 F.Supp. 646, 648 (M.D. Pa. 1990).

         IV. Analysis

         A. Count I - Violations of the Fourteenth Amendment

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's procedural due process claim (Count I) against AHSD and Mahon, Elia, Antonetti, and Kelly in their individual capacities. (Doc. 96, at ¶¶ 14-39). Because Plaintiff “does not contest the Defendants' request for summary judgment relative to Count I of the Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint” (Doc. 103, at 2), the Court will enter summary judgment in favor of the defendants and against the plaintiff on Count I without further discussion.

         B. Count IV - Violation of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act

         Plaintiff and AHSD both move for summary judgment with respect to Count IV of the Second Amended Complaint, “Violation of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act.” Defendant argues that Plaintiff has failed to present evidence to establish a Section 504 claim and that Plaintiff cannot recover compensatory damages pursuant to Section 504 because there is no evidence of intentional conduct. (Doc. 96, at ¶¶ 46-49). Defendant further contends that Plaintiff cannot prevail on his Section 504 claim because it is based upon issues which were previously decided by the special education hearing officer and were released in the Release and Settlement Agreement. (Id. at ¶¶ 40-45). In contrast, Plaintiff asserts that he is entitled to summary judgment on the basis that the record evidence establishes that he was not provided with a pre-expulsion hearing, a manifestation determination hearing, or hearing similar to a manifestation determination hearing as necessary under Section 504. (Doc. 93).[5]

         1. Whether a Material Factual Dispute Exists as to Plaintiff's Section 504 Claim.

         Section 504 provides in relevant part:

No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, . . . shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. . .

29 U.S.C. § 794(a). To establish a violation of Section 504, a plaintiff must show that “(1) he is ‘disabled' as defined by the Act; (2) he is ‘otherwise qualified' to participate in school activities; (3) the school or the board of education receives federal financial assistance; and (4) he was excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subject to discrimination at, the school.” Andrew M. v. Delaware Cty. Office of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 490 F.3d 337, 350 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Ridgewood Bd. of Educ. v. N.E., 172 F.3d 238, 253 (3d Cir.1999), superseded by statute on other grounds as recognized by D.F. v. Collingswood Borough Bd. of Educ., 694 F.3d 488 (3d Cir. 2012)).

         Additionally, “[t]he state must have failed to provide the service for the sole reason that the child is disabled.” Andrew M., 490 F.3d at 350. In other words, a “plaintiff cannot establish a Rehabilitation Act claim simply by demonstrating a disability and denial of some service. Instead, the plaintiff must show that the service was not provided solely because the plaintiff is disabled.” D.G. v. Somerset Hills Sch. Dist., 559 F.Supp.2d 484, 497 (D.N.J. 2008) (citing Andrew M., 490 F.3d at 350).

         AHSD does not dispute that Plaintiff can establish the first three elements to succeed on his Section 504 claim, namely, that J.A. was disabled as defined by the Act due to his ADD/ADHD, that he was qualified to participate in school activities, and that Abington Heights receives federal financial assistance. (See generally, Doc. 98, at 22-23). Nor does AHSD assert that Plaintiff was not excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, the school. Rather, Defendant's motion for summary judgment on this issue only contends that “Plaintiff has failed to present any evidence to establish that Plaintiff was treated differently because of his disability, or that the decision to expel him was due to his disability.” (Doc. 98, at 23).

         “[A] plaintiff need not establish that there has been an intent to discriminate in order to prevail under § 504.” Nathanson v. Med. Coll. of Pennsylvania, 926 F.2d 1368, 1384 (3d Cir. 1991). Thus, Plaintiff did not have to present evidence demonstrating an intent on the part of AHSD to discriminate against J.A., but simply evidence that Defendant's actions or inactions resulted in the exclusion of J.A. from participation in, the denial of benefits of, or that he was subjected to discrimination at, school, due to his disability.

         The regulations regarding the implementation of Section 504 in the context of educational institutions appear at 34 C.F.R. Part 104.[6] Although the Rehabilitation Act does not provide any express procedural protections that must be afforded to a student who is disabled under Section 504, the regulations implementing Section 504 dictate that the student be afforded certain due process protections. Pursuant to 34 C.F.R. § 104.36:

A recipient that operates a public elementary or secondary education program or activity shall establish and implement, with respect to actions regarding the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of persons who, because of handicap, need or are believed to need special instruction or related services, a system of procedural safeguards that includes notice, an opportunity for the parents or guardian of the person to examine relevant records, an impartial hearing with opportunity for participation by the person's parents or guardian and representation by counsel, and a review procedure. Compliance with the procedural safeguards of section 615 of the Education of the Handicapped Act [now “IDEA”] is one means of meeting this requirement.

34 C.F.R. § 104.36. Thus, although one method of satisfying the requisite due process requirements is a manifestation hearing, at minimum, a school must provide, in some form, the student with “notice, an opportunity for the parents or guardian of the person to examine relevant records, an impartial hearing with opportunity for participation by the person's ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.