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Black & Davison v. Chambersburg Area School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2018

BLACK & DAVISON, et al., Plaintiffs



         Plaintiffs commenced this action against the Chambersburg Area School District (“school district”), as well as individual defendants Dana Baker, William Lennartz, Carl Barton, Edward Norcross, Joan Smith, Robert Floyd, Mark Schur, Kevin Mintz, Alexander Sharpe, and Dr. Joseph Padasak pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. (See Doc. 1). Before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 5) filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History

         Plaintiff Black & Davison (“Black & Davison” or “the firm”) is a law firm located in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1 ¶ 7). It consists of five equity partners-plaintiffs Jan G. Sulcove, Esq., Robert C. Schollaert, Esq. (“Attorney Schollaert”), Elliott B. Sulcove, Esq., Jerrold A. Sulcove, Esq., and Mark T. Orndorf, Esq. (Id.) Black & Davison served as the school district's solicitor from approximately 1968 through 2016. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 49). All of the firm's partners performed “solicitor duties” for the school district except for Attorney Schollaert. (Id. ¶ 19). Until 2015, the school district retained Black & Davison as solicitor “via resolution of the [school board].” (Id. ¶ 22).

         On or about May 27, 2015, Black & Davison and the school district entered into a “Solicitor Engagement Agreement” (“Agreement”), wherein the school district agreed, inter alia, to employ Black & Davison for the purpose of providing “legal expertise as [s]olicitor” from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2018. (See Doc. 5-1 at 1; see also Doc. 1 ¶ 23). The parties agreed that the school district could terminate the Agreement for cause. (Doc. 5-1 ¶¶ 3.1, 5.1). Specifically, the school district could terminate the Agreement if Black & Davison: (1) failed to “maintain an accepted quality of legal services as determined by [the school district]”; (2) failed to “maintain a current unrestricted license to practice law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania;” (3) failed to “conduct itself with professional decorum;” or (4) received “any sanction imposed . . . as a result of the commission of any felony or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.” (Id. ¶ 5.1). The parties also agreed that the Agreement would be governed by Pennsylvania law. (Id. ¶ 10.5). Approximately 25% to 33% of Black & Davison's annual revenue resulted from its solicitor duties for the school district. (Doc. 1 ¶ 58).

         The school board is comprised of nine elected voting members that serve four-year terms. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 28). The Superintendent of the school district serves as an additional, non-voting member. (Id.) Dr. Joseph Padasak is the current Superintendent. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 15). The school board approves “every personnel decision” for school district employees, including “hiring, firing, transfer, promotion, [and] demotion” decisions. (Id. ¶ 12).

         In 2015, five school board seats were up for election. (See Id. ¶¶ 27, 35). School board elections are “technically non-partisan” but “candidates may be endorsed by different political groups.” (Id. ¶ 29). During the 2015 election, candidates were endorsed by one of two political faction groups: (1) Citizens for Value and Excellence in Education (“Citizens for Education”), a group made up mostly “moderate republicans, ” and (2) Common Sense. (Id. ¶¶ 30-32). Prior to the election, five of the school board's members were members of the Citizens for Education faction; the other four school board members were members of the Common Sense faction. (Id. ¶ 33).

         The individual plaintiffs “engaged in campaign activities” to support the Citizens for Education candidates. (Id. ¶¶ 37-42). These activities included, among other things, “handing out campaign literature, taking constituents to the polls, [and] hanging [or] posting political signs.” (Id. ¶ 37; see also Id. ¶¶ 38-42). The Common Sense candidates took all five board seats at the election. (Id. ¶ 43). This resulted in a school board composed of eight Common Sense members and one Citizens for Education member. (Id.) On or about December 3, 2015, the new school board members were sworn into office. (Id. ¶ 45).

         Shortly thereafter, the school board “purged” the school district of employees-including plaintiffs-who “openly supported” Citizens for Education even though “political affiliation was not an appropriate requirement” or “necessary” to the “efficient operation of their position[s].” (Id. ¶¶ 46-47). On March 23, 2016, the school board unanimously voted to terminate the Agreement with Black & Davison and informed plaintiffs by letter. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50). The board claimed their decision was economically motivated but thereafter retained another law firm as temporary solicitor that charged more than Black & Davison. (Id. ¶¶ 51, 53-54). Plaintiffs contend that the school board's decision was “based solely on [plaintiffs'] support of the [Citizens for Education] ticket.” (Id. ¶ 55).

         Plaintiffs commenced the instant action on April 17, 2017. (Id.) Plaintiffs assert a First Amendment claim against all individual defendants (Count I) and the school district (Count II), a procedural due process claim against all defendants (Count IV), and a state law claim for breach of contract against the school district (Count III). (Id.) Defendants move to dismiss all claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In addition to reviewing the facts contained in the complaint, the court may also consider “matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.” Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

         Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, “the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'” Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be separated; well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32; see Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual allegations, it must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts “that allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         III. ...

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