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Smith v. Engler

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 14, 2018

LAUREN SMITH
v.
SCOT ENGLER, ET AL.

          MEMORANDUM

          SCHMEHL, J.

         Plaintiff brought this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, claiming that her termination as a kindergarten teacher with the Palmerton Area School District (“PASD”) by defendant Superintendent Scot Engler (“Engler”) was in retaliation for Plaintiff exercising her First Amendment right to express concern about the lack of fulfillment of individualized education plans within the PASD and the conduct of another teacher, defendant Shanna Matthews Koscinski (“Koscinski”). Plaintiff also alleges that by terminating her, Engler deprived her of a liberty interest by impugning her honesty and morality, thereby entitling her to a name-clearing hearing. Finally, Plaintiff also alleges that by terminating her without just cause, Engler deprived Plaintiff of a property interest. Plaintiff has also added state law claims against all the defendants for tortious interference with a contract (Count II), tortious interference with a prospective economic advantage (Count III), libel/defamation (Count IV), false light/invasion of privacy (Count V) and civil conspiracy (Count VI). Plaintiff subsequently voluntarily withdrew Count V. [ECF 6.] Presently before the Court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

         Following completion of discovery and shortly before dispositive motions were due, Plaintiff's counsel filed a motion to withdraw along with a declaration and exhibits. [ECF 19.] Counsel requested that these documents be filed under seal, which the Court granted. [ECF 25.] Following a hearing, the Court granted Plaintiff's counsel's motion to withdraw and stayed the action for a period of 60 days so that Plaintiff could secure new counsel. [ECF 28.] When Plaintiff informed the Court that she was unable to secure counsel after the 60-day period expired, the Court granted Plaintiff's request for an additional period of 30 days to secure counsel. [ECF 34.] In doing so, the Court cautioned Plaintiff that if at the end of the 30 day period, she still had not secured counsel, the case would proceed with Plaintiff appearing pro se and needing to file a response to the Defendants' motion for summary judgment. [ECF 34.] Plaintiff failed to secure counsel and failed to file a response to the motion for summary judgment.

         When a party fails to respond to a properly filed motion, the Court may treat the motion as uncontested. E.D. Pa. Local R. Civ. P. 7.1(c). In the case of a motion for summary judgment, however, the Court “may not grant an uncontested summary judgment motion without an independent determination that the movant is entitled to judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.” B&B Fin. Servs. LLC v. Kallock, No. CIV. A. No. 05-1277, 2006 WL 2869529, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 4, 2006); see Hitchens v. County of Montgomery, 98 Fed. App'x 106, 110 (3d Cir. 2004) (providing the same). Still, “[b]y failing to respond . . . ‘the nonmoving party waives the right to respond to or to controvert the facts asserted in the summary judgment motion.'” Kallock, 2006 WL 2869529, at *1 (citing Reynolds v. Rick's Mushroom Serv., 246 F.Supp.2d 449, 453 (E.D. Pa. 2003)). Thus, when a party fails to respond, the court may consider the facts stated in the motion for summary judgment “undisputed for the purposes of the motion.” Goodwin v. Kope, CIV. A. No. 13-1290, 2016 WL 3087389, at *2 (E.D. Pa. June 2, 2016).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A motion for summary judgment will not be defeated by ‘the mere existence' of some disputed facts, but will be denied when there is a genuine issue of material fact.” Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009)(quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986)). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the litigation, and a dispute is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         In undertaking this analysis, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. “After making all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, there is a genuine issue of material fact if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party.” Pignataro v. Port Auth. of N.Y. and N.J., 593 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Reliance Ins. Co. v. Moessner, 121 F.3d 895, 900 (3d Cir. 1997)). While the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, meeting this obligation shifts the burden to the non-moving party who must “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250.

         STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS

         Since Plaintiff has failed to respond to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the Court will consider the facts stated in the motion as unopposed. Out of an abundance of caution, the Court nevertheless verified each of the Defendants' factual suppositions. The following comprise the Court's statement of undisputed facts (“SUF”):

         1. Plaintiff, Lauren Smith is 28 years old and resides with her parents. (Deposition of Lauren Smith, ECF 33-1, at p. 12.)

         2. Prior to becoming employed as a kindergarten teacher for PASD, Plaintiff obtained an associate's degree at Lehigh Carbon Community College, and a bachelor's degree from East Stroudsburg with a dual certification in elementary education and special education. (Id. at p. 14.)

         3. Plaintiff has never worked as a special education teacher. (Id. at p. 15.)

         4. Plaintiff was employed by the PASD as a kindergarten teacher after having worked for the District as a student teacher. (Id. at pp. 12-13; 15-16.)

         5. Plaintiff's mother, Lori Smith, who had been employed at the PASD for many years, taught children with learning disabilities. (Compl., at ¶ 12; ECF 8, at ¶ 12.)

         6. Defendant, Scot Engler (Engler) was (and is) the Superintendent of PASD, Defendant, Shanna Mathews Koscinski (Koscinski) was (and is) employed as a teacher in the PASD, and Defendant, Lisa Ward (Ward) was (and is) a teacher at the Towamensing Elementary School (“Towamensing”) and a union representative for the teachers at the school. (Compl., at ¶¶ 1-4; ECF 8, at ¶¶ 1-4; Deposition of Thomas Smelas, ECF 33-2 at pp. 9-10; Deposition of Lisa Ward, ECF 33-3, at pp. 7-8.)

         7. Koscinski had been a special education teacher in the PASD who was assigned to assist students with IEPs inside of regular classrooms taught by other teachers. (Compl., at ¶ 14; ECF 8, at ¶ 14; Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, ECF 33-4, at pp. 8-10.)

         8. The PASD is in compliance with teacher-student ratio for special education caseloads. (Deposition of Scot Engler, ECF 33-5, at pp. 13-14.)

         9. Engler testified that he has met with parents about their complaints concerning their special education students and resolved their concerns. (Id., at pp. 19-20.)

         10. Engler testified that he has met with teachers about parents' complaints regarding their students. (Id., at pp. 21-22.)

         11. Plaintiff often drew caricature illustrations while teaching kindergarten classes. (Deposition of Lauren Smith, at p. 34.)

         12. Towamensing is a public school. (Id., at p. 40.)

         13. Plaintiff was a public school teacher at Towamensing. (Id.)

         14. Plaintiff frequently interacted with parents of students while working at Towamensing. (Id., at p. 45.)

         15. As a kindergarten teacher, Plaintiff's responsibilities included classroom instruction, testing, observation and data collection. (Id., at pp. 47-48.)

         16. Plaintiff also worked with students with IEPs. (Id., at p. 48; Compl., at ¶ 13.)

         17. On June 25, 2013, Plaintiff signed a three-year Temporary Professional Employee's Contract that constituted an agreement between Plaintiff and the Board of School Directors of the PASD. (Deposition of Lauren Smith, at pp. 320-323; Temporary Professional Employee's Contract, ECF 33-6.)

         18. The contract noted that it was subject to the provisions of the Public School code of 1949 and amendments thereto, regarding all qualifications and certification as required therein, and that the term "Temporary Professional Employee" as used therein meant the same thing as the term was defined in the School Code, as amended. (Id.)

         19. The contract provided that "if said Temporary Professional Employee shall have served the Palmerton Area School district for a period for [sic] three years and shall have received a satisfactory rating during the last four months of the third year from the properly authorized Superintendent of Schools, the above employee thereafter shall be considered a professional employee and shall be tendered forthwith a professional employee's contract as provided in the School Code." (Id.)

         20. The contract further stated that: "the said temporary employee shall for all purposes, except tenure status, be viewed in law as a full-time employee and shall enjoy all the rights and privileges of regular full-time employees." (Id.).

         21. According to the contract, the Temporary Professional Employee could terminate the contract by written resignation presented sixty (60) days before the resignation becomes effective, or by the school board in accord with the provisions of Sections 1108, 1122 and 1123 of the School Code for the dismissal of unsatisfactory temporary professional employees. (Id.)

         22. On December 22, 2014, during a school Christmas party, Plaintiff gave her assistant teacher, Kelly Heimrich (“Heimrich”), a gift consisting of a book of drawings that she had prepared. (Compl., at ¶ 18.)

         23. Engler testified that Plaintiff claimed that the book contained drawings, allegedly intended to be humorous, about "people" Plaintiff and Heimrich knew and classroom situations they had experienced. (Id.;Deposition of Scot Engler, at pp. 44-45.)

         24. There is no dispute that there was a book that had been prepared by Plaintiff and that there were images in the book. (Id., at p. 71.)

         25. There is no dispute that a certain number of students were depicted in the book. (Id., at p. 71.)

         26. Plaintiff contends that there were six drawings/caricatures in the book, including one of a mutual friend of Plaintiff and Heimrich, and of students in Plaintiff's classroom. (Compl., at ¶ 18.)

         27. Later in the day on December 22, 2014, while Heimrich was showing the book to another teacher, Eileen Long, (Long), Koscinski "observed" the contents of the book. (Id., at ¶ 19; Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at pp. 49-50; Deposition of Lauren Smith, at pp. 122-123.)

         28. Koscinski testified that the book was a three-ring binder with a flimsy plastic red cover. Underneath the red cover, there was a page that had a large heart on it that said, "[E]verything I need to know in life I learned in kindergarten." Around the heart were illustrations of syringes, needles, alcohol bottles, and sex toys. On the next page was a warning that said, "This is a breach of confidentiality." The following page was a letter to Heimrich that essentially said thank you for being in my classroom and keeping me sane. Towards the end, it mentioned being in Christine's office or dungeon panic room. It also mentioned Plaintiff "licking Uncle Darrell's asshole." (Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at pp. 75- 76.)

         29. "Uncle Darrell" was a friend of Christine Steigerwalt (“Steigerwalt”), the Principal of Towamensing. Deposition of Christine Steigerwalt, ECF 33-7, at p. 12, who had been to Towamensing several times to help out as a volunteer. (Deposition of Kelly Heimrich, ECF 33-8, at pp. 63-64.)

         30. Koscinski testified that, on the following pages, in no particular order, there were drawings of Mrs. G, which Koscinski believed referred to Mrs. Gebhardt from the cafeteria since the drawing was of a heavyset woman wearing a sweatband around her head, a student named “M.B.” drooling with food all over his clothing and a speech bubble that said “asshole, mumble, mumble bitch.” His name was on the paper. There was also an illustration of a student named “J.” He is a mixed race student and also overweight, who was drawn to look like Fat Albert with a pudding container in the background. His name was written as well. (Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at pp. 76-77; Deposition of Lauren Smith, at pp. 113-116.)

         31. According to Koscinski, there was a picture of a student named “K”, depicted as very dirty, with wild hair with little bugs like lice crawling in her hair. K was depicted wearing a backpack containing items that Plaintiff wrote were items that K. had stolen from school. There was also a picture of a student named “D”., drawn with a speech bubble that said "I'm gifted, " while he was holding a sensory wedge seat and instead of his name, "asshole" was written at the bottom of the picture. (Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at p. 77.)

         32. Finally, Koscinski testified that there was a picture of “A”, “a little boy sitting on a toilet seat holding a piece of poop in his hands with a speech bubble that said ‘it was just so long.'" There was a picture of C., who has difficulty communicating. He was drawn to be sitting in a pile of urine and feces with flies flying around him. (Id., at p. 77.)

         33. Plaintiff alleges that, "[u]pon information and belief, [Koscinski] . . . went to defendant Lisa Ward and/or to other local union officials and complained that the book of drawings made fun of students and teachers in a demeaning, derogatory way." (Compl. at ¶ 20.)

         34. Koscinski sought out Ward, the building representative, and told Ward what she had seen. Later, Ward came into Koscinski's classroom with Jody Kocher (“Kocher”) - Ward's mentor. They recommended calling Thomas Smelas (“Smelas”), the union president. (Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at p. 52; Deposition of Lisa Ward, at pp. 18-20.)

         35. Kocher suggested that Koscinski speak with Meghan Garrett (“Garrett”), the PASD psychologist, which Koscinski did. (Deposition of Shanna Koscinski, at p. 54.)

         36. Plaintiff learned that the book became a problem later that day (December 22, 2014) when taking her students out of the cafeteria. (Deposition of Lauren Smith, at pp. 132-133.)

         37. At the same time, Lauren's mother, Lori Smith, was taking her class out of their room, and said to Lauren, "[t]hey're up there talking about you and this book." (Id., at p. 136.)

         38. At that time, Ward, at the suggestion of Smelas, approached Plaintiff and Heimrich and requested the book of drawings. (Compl., at ¶ 21. See also, Deposition of Lauren Smith, at p. 136; Deposition of Lisa Ward, at pp. 22-24.)

         39. Heimrich went to her classroom to retrieve the book, but Plaintiff's mother, Lori Smith, told Heimrich that she did not want her to give the book to Ward. (Compl., at ¶ 21; Deposition of Lauren Smith, at pp. 137-138, 142-144; Deposition of Thomas Smelas, at p. 37; Deposition of Lisa Ward, at pp. 24-30.)

         40. Ward testified that even though she indicated to Plaintiff that she was only trying to help her and that Plaintiff should give her the book, Plaintiff, with the book in her left hand, looked to her mother, raised her right hand and said "I don't want to get fired. I don't know what to do. I don't want to get fired." (Id., at pp. 29-30.)

         41. Ward testified that Lori Smith got "pissed off, " grabbed the book out of Plaintiff's hands, walked to her car, put the book in her car, walked back, looked at Ward and said, "now it's on private property." (Id., at p. 30. Deposition of Lori Smith, Exhibit "I, " at p. 84.)

         42. As a result, Ward informed Lori Smith that she was going to let Smelas know that Mrs. Smith refused to turn over the book. (Compl., at ...


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