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Aponte v. Pottstown School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 11, 2019




         This case concerns a years-long dispute between pro se Plaintiff Shanicqua Aponte and Defendants-the Pottstown School District and various individuals employed by or affiliated with it-over the education of Plaintiff's minor, special-needs child, D.H. The dispute came to a head in early 2018 when Plaintiff initiated a due process hearing with Pennsylvania's Office for Dispute Resolution (“ODR”), complaining that the School District had failed to meet its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et seq. (“IDEA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 19 U.S.C. § 794(a) (“Section 504”). The ODR's Hearing Officer ultimately denied Plaintiff's request for relief. Plaintiff now appeals that decision to this Court and, in addition, brings various other constitutional and common law claims. Defendants have filed motions to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim, which, for the reasons that follow, will be granted in part and denied in part.


         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “Threadbare” recitations of the elements of a claim supported only by “conclusory statements” will not suffice. Id. at 683. Rather, a plaintiff must allege some facts to raise the allegation above the level of mere speculation. Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 176 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In analyzing a motion to dismiss, legal conclusions are disregarded, well-pleaded factual allegations are taken as true, and a determination is made whether those facts state a “plausible claim for relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009).


         As discussed below, three threshold issues must be addressed before reaching the merits of Defendants' motions, for which a bit of procedural history will prove helpful. On July 27, 2018, Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a Complaint and a motion to proceed in forma pauperis. The Complaint raised various causes of action on behalf of both Plaintiff and D.H. On July 31, 2018, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis, but in light of the Third Circuit's decision in Osei-Afriyie ex rel. Osei-Afriyie v. Med. Coll. of Pa., 937 F.2d 876, 882-83 (3d Cir. 1991), informed Plaintiff that she “may not bring claims on behalf of her minor child because a pro se litigant who is not an attorney may not pursue claims on behalf of anyone other than herself.” The Court gave Plaintiff sixty days to retain counsel “in the event she seeks to pursue claims on behalf of D.H., ” and explained that if Plaintiff “would prefer to proceed only on her claims, she may notify the Court at any time before the sixty . . . day period expires.”

         On August 2, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint bringing claims on her own behalf only. In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserted “claims”[1] for: (1) retaliation, pursuant to Section 504, (2) neglect, (3) punitive damages, (4) compensatory damages, (5) retaliation, (6) assault, (7) emotional distress, (8) “civil action for deprivation of rights, ” (9) “civil rights discrimination, ” (10) “violation [of] Fourteenth Amendment Due Process, ” and (11) “violation [of the] Privacy Act.” Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failing to state a claim, and on January 7, 2019, following a hearing held with the parties, the Court granted Defendants motions, dismissing the Amended Complaint without prejudice.

         Plaintiff then filed her Second Amended Complaint on January 31, 2019, again bringing claims on her behalf only. The Second Amended Complaint does not set out specific causes of action; instead, it states that “[a]ll claims and damages for claims from original/initial complaint are the same and to be added to this amended complaint.” Plaintiff also attached several exhibits to the Second Amended Complaint, including a copy of the ODR Hearing Officer's decision on Plaintiff's due process petition. Defendants moved again to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint for failing to state a claim.


         Before analyzing Defendants' motions, the Court must resolve three issues, all of which concern what may be considered in evaluating those motions. First, in her Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff seeks to incorporate the “claims and damages” from her earlier complaints, raising the question of whether the Court may consider the allegations contained in the Complaint and Amended Complaint in resolving Defendants' motions. Second, attached to the Second Amended Complaint is a copy of the ODR Hearing Officer's decision on Plaintiff's due process petition, which contains factual findings, raising the question of whether the Court may consider those findings in resolving the motions. Third, in her briefing in opposition to Defendants' motions, Plaintiff introduces new factual allegations, raising the question of whether the Court may consider those allegations in resolving the motions.

         Start with the incorporation issue. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 10(c) provides that “[a] statement in a pleading may be adopted by reference elsewhere in the same pleading or in any other pleading or motion.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c). Defendants complain, however, that the incorporation is “confusing” because Plaintiff does not specify which portions of the earlier complaints she seeks to incorporate, instead stating generally that “[a]ll claims and damages for claims from original/initial complaint are the same and to be added to this amended complaint.” As Defendants correctly note, “[c]ourts have historically been reluctant to allow an incorporation by reference if it fails to provide adequate notice of the incorporating party's claims, defenses, or factual allegation.” Cooper v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 2002 WL 31478874, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 7, 2002). At the same time, “[a] document filed pro se is ‘to be liberally construed,' and ‘a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelee v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)) (internal citation omitted). Here, although Plaintiff's incorporation of the earlier pleadings was not the model of clarity, it nevertheless put Defendants on notice that they would be required to address the claims and allegations raised there. And, indeed, Defendants did address those earlier claims in their motions to dismiss, notwithstanding their protestations that the “obtus[ity]” of the incorporation made it impossible to do so. Accordingly, Plaintiff adequately incorporated the claims and allegations from her earlier pleadings-the Court will consider those allegations and address those claims in deciding Defendants' motions to dismiss.

         The factual findings from the ODR Hearing Officer's report presents a trickier issue. Generally, in resolving a motion to dismiss a district court may consider “exhibits attached to the complaint, ” Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010), “[a]nd if . . . exhibits contradict . . . allegations in the complaint, the exhibits control, ” Vorchheimer v. Philadelphian Owners Ass'n, 903 F.3d 100, 112 (3d Cir. 2018). But here, Plaintiff's suit is, at heart, a challenge to the Hearing Officer's conclusions regarding Defendants' compliance with the IDEA and Section 504, which includes a challenge to the factual findings upon which the ODR Hearing Officer based those legal conclusions. Thus, to treat the Hearing Officer's factual findings as true and determine whether those findings contradict Plaintiff's allegations would be to put the cart before the horse: what weight to afford the hearing officer's factual findings is at the very core of Plaintiff's claim. Thus, the Court will not consider the Hearing Officer's factual findings in resolving Defendants' motions to dismiss.

         Lastly, there is the issue of the new factual allegations contained in Plaintiff's briefing. Here, the procedural flexibility afforded to pro se filings finds an end point. Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 245 (3d Cir. 2013) (“At the end of the day, [pro se litigants] cannot flout procedural rules-they must abide by the same rules that apply to all other litigants.”). “[I]t is axiomatic that the complaint may not be amended by the briefs in opposition to a motion to dismiss.” Com. of Pa. ex rel. Zimmerman v. PepsiCo, Inc., 836 F.2d 173, 181 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Car Carriers, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 745 F.2d 1101, 1107 (7th Cir. 1984)). And, while “a pro se complaint . . . must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, ” Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94, such leniency does not permit a pro se litigant to “rely on new facts in submission in response to a motion to dismiss to defeat the motion, ” Dade v. Gaudenzia DRC, Inc., 2013 WL 3380592, at *2 (E.D. Pa. July 8, 2013). The Court will therefore not consider the new factual allegations contained in Plaintiff's briefing in resolving the motions to dismiss.

         To summarize, in resolving Defendant's motions to dismiss, the Court will consider the claims and allegations contained not only in the Second Amended Complaint but also those in the Complaint and Amended Complaint. The Court will not, however, consider the factual findings of the Hearing Officer, nor the new allegations in Plaintiff's briefing.

         IV. FACTS

         Plaintiff resides in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and is the mother of D.H., a minor child identified as having special needs. Defendants are the Pottstown School District (the “District”), individual employees of the District-namely, Ryan Oxenford, the Principal of Barth Elementary School; Matthew Moyer, the Principal of Rupert Elementary School; Stephen Rodriguez, Superintendent of the District; as well as Kim Stillwell, Erin Jacobs, and Joseph Schroeder, other District employees (the “District Defendants”)-and Bret Wade, the Principal of Cottage Seven Academy, a private school that contracted with the District to provide educational services to students with certain disabilities.

         D.H. entered the District in 2013 as a first-grader at Barth Elementary School. Through his first year at Barth, D.H. had no behavioral issues. In the spring of 2014, Plaintiff moved and D.H. transferred to Rupert Elementary School, another school in the District. Soon after arriving at Rupert, D.H. “was assaulted and restrained by principal Moyer and others.” The incident had a significant negative impact on D.H.'s behavior-the child began to display “PTSD like symptoms, ” ran away from school, and had violent outbursts. The behavior continued throughout the remainder of D.H.'s first-grade year and into the child's second-grade year at Rupert.

         Although the timeline is murky, a series of events occurred after the incident with Moyer. Plaintiff reached out to District personal, seeking to have D.H. transferred out of Rupert and to have Moyer investigated, but to no avail. Also during this time, though it is not entirely clear when, D.H. was identified as an individual with a disability for purposes of the IDEA. Additionally, at some point, Moyer called the police on Plaintiff, leading her to unilaterally remove D.H. from Rupert. Finally, in April 2015, following a meeting with Moyer and members of Rupert's special education team, D.H. was transferred back to Barth.

         In the fall of 2015, D.H. began third grade at Barth, where the problematic behaviors continued, leading to several formal and informal suspensions from school. Then, at a meeting to discuss D.H.'s behavior in December 2015, Pam Bateson, the head of Barth's Special Education Department, [2] requested D.H. be sent to “an institution.” Plaintiff refused, at which point Bateson “suggested that [D.H.] be put on medication for [the child's] behavior or [else D.H.] would be placed out of [the] district.” Plaintiff, afraid of what she perceived to be an ultimatum, took D.H. to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed the child medication. For a few months, D.H.'s performance in school improved, but Plaintiff was upset with the medication's effect on D.H.'s personality and appetite. By the summer of 2015, D.H.'s “issues” at school returned, and, on the advice of another medical professional, Plaintiff took D.H. off the medication. When, at some point in 2016, Plaintiff informed school officials at Barth of her decision to take D.H. off medication, the school called the Office of Children and Youth Services (“CYS”), claiming Plaintiff was neglecting her child's medical needs. CYS found the claims unsubstantiated.

         After the events of 2015 and 2016, Plaintiff's narrative then jumps to March 2017, when Barth prohibited D.H. from returning to school. On April 17, 2017, after contacting Oxenford and Rodriguez about D.H.'s suspensions without any success, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education (“the Bureau”). On June 1, 2017, the Bureau found in Plaintiff's favor, and, as a result, the District agreed to place D.H. in an approved private school-the Martin Luther School in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania- and cover all tuition and transportation costs.

         The parties agreed that D.H. would start at Martin Luther on October 23, 2017. However, due to the District's failure to complete certain paperwork on time, D.H. was unable to enroll at the school. Instead, the District arranged for D.H. to enroll at Cottage Seven Academy, another private school with which the District contracted, starting on October 24, 2017. On D.H.'s first day, Plaintiff claims Wade-the principal of Cottage Academy- inappropriately “restrain[ed]” D.H. Plaintiff sought to have D.H. transferred, but the District refused to do so and threatened to find D.H. truant if the child did not report to Cottage Academy. After the first day, ...

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