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.

Wartluft v. The Milton Hershey School and School Trust

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2019

JULIE ELLEN WARTLUFT et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
THE MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL AND SCHOOL TRUST et al., Defendants,

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          John E. Jones III United States District Judge.

         Presently pending before the Court are two motions for judgment on the pleadings filed by Defendants the Milton Hershey School and the Hershey Trust Company (“the Motions”). (Docs. 240, 242). Both matters have been fully briefed, (Docs. 241, 242, 251, 252, 261, 262), and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Motions shall be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The underlying facts of this case have been discussed at length in several previous Memoranda and Orders issued by this Court. (Docs. 62, 216, 230, 258). To reiterate, Defendants the Milton Hershey School and the Hershey Trust Company, as Trustee for the Milton Hershey School Trust (collectively, “Defendants” or “the School”), operate a cost-free, not-for-profit, residential academy. Plaintiffs Julie Wartluft (“Wartluft”) and Frederick Bartels, Jr. (“Bartels”) are the parents of Abrielle Kira Bartels (“Abrielle”), a former student.

         In their amended complaint, Plaintiffs allege that, despite knowing that Abrielle suffered from depression and suicidal ideations, Defendants discharged her from their care under a “shadow policy” which mandated that students be expelled from the School after two mental health hospitalizations, even if those hospitalizations were recommended by school staff. (Doc. 29 at ¶ 108). Abrielle committed suicide shortly after her discharge. Wartluft and Bartels, in their individual capacities and in their capacities as administrators of the Estate of Abrielle Kira Bartels (“the Estate”), sought damages.[1]

         Following several rulings from this Court, [2] the following counts alleged in Plaintiffs' amended complaint remain viable. In Count I, Plaintiffs contend that Defendants violated several provisions of the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) by dismissing Abrielle from the School and by barring her from entering what had been her home for several years and from participating in various school functions on the basis of her mental disability. In Count III, Plaintiffs aver that Defendants were negligent in dismissing Abrielle from their care thereby forcing her into an unstable environment resulting in her death. In Count V, Plaintiffs Wartluft and Bartels in their individual capacities (collectively, “Individual Plaintiffs”) allege a wrongful death action, and in Count VI, the Estate, represented by the Individual Plaintiffs in their capacities as administrators of the Estate, alleges a survival action. In Counts IX and X, Plaintiffs allege intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. In Count XI, Plaintiffs allege a civil conspiracy amongst the Defendants to endanger children under Pennsylvania law. In Count XII, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants breached their fiduciary duty of care and of good faith. In Count XIII, Plaintiffs aver that Defendants were negligent per se predicated upon asserted violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the FHA.

         On April 18, 2019, Defendants filed two motions for judgment on the pleadings. The first sought judgment on the pleadings as to Wartluft and Bartels in their individual capacities. (Doc. 240). The second sought judgment on the pleadings as to the Estate. (Doc. 242). Both matters have been fully briefed, (Docs. 241, 242, 251, 252, 261, 262), and are ripe for disposition. As aforestated, and for the reasons that follow, the Motions shall be granted in part and denied in part.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). When, as here, the basis of the moving party's Rule 12(c) motion is that the plaintiff has allegedly failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the motion is properly analyzed under the same standard of review applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss. See Revell v. Port Authority, 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010) (“A motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defense that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim is analyzed under the same standards that apply to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.”).

         In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, courts “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. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In resolving a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider only the allegations in the complaint, as well as “documents that are attached or submitted with the complaint, . . . and any matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case.” Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a). Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, “in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss need not contain detailed factual allegations, it 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). To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that “raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .” Victaulic Co. v. TIeman, 499 F.3d 227, 235 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Accordingly, to satisfy the plausibility standard, the complaint must indicate that defendant's liability is more than a “sheer possibility.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Because the instant Motions overlap as to several lines of inquiry, for purposes of at least a modicum of brevity, we group relevant argument together and identify divergent issues where appropriate. We address Defendants' arguments as to each count in Plaintiffs' amended complaint seriatim.

         a. Count I - Fair Housing Act

         Defendants first argue that Count I should be dismissed as to both the Individual Defendants and the Estate. We first address Defendants' arguments as to the Individual Plaintiffs and then address Defendants' arguments as to the Estate.

         1. Individual Plaintiffs' Claims under the Fair Housing Act

         In their first issue, Defendants argue that the Individual Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that they have Article III standing to pursue their claim under the FHA and that Count I must be dismissed to the extent it seeks a remedy on their behalf. Specifically, Defendants contend, although Plaintiffs' amended complaint outlines the harms that Abrielle allegedly suffered as a result of her dismissal from the School, Plaintiffs have failed to plead that Wartluft or Bartels suffered any injury sufficient to confer upon them Article III standing. (Doc. 241 at 11 (citing Fair Hous. Council v. Main Line Times, 141 F.3d 439, 441 (3d Cir. 1998) (holding that a plaintiff must allege a “distinct and palpable' injury sufficient to satisfy Article III standing requirements under the Fair Housing Act”); O'Malley v. Brierley, 477 F.2d 785, 789 (3d Cir. 1973) (“[O]ne cannot sue for the deprivation of another's civil rights.”)).

         In response, the Individual Plaintiffs do not address Article III standing specifically. Rather, the Individual Plaintiffs contend that they are “aggrieved persons” under the Fair Housing Act who “have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice.” (Doc. 252 at 16 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 3613(a)) (“An aggrieved person may commence a civil action in an appropriate United States district court or State court not later than 2 years after the occurrence or the termination of an alleged discriminatory housing practice.”); 42 U.S.C. § 3602(i)(1) (“‘Aggrieved person' includes any person who-(1) claims to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice; or (2) believes that such person will be injured by a discriminatory housing practice that is about to occur.”)). The Individual Plaintiffs further argue that “[t]he Supreme Court has held that the definition of ‘aggrieved person' reflects a congressional intent to expand standing under the FHA to the full extent permitted by the Constitution's Article III, ” (Doc. 252 at 16 (citing Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. 170, 176 (2011)), and that the Fair Housing Act was intended to be “liberally construed.” (Id. (citing San Pedro Hotel Co. v. City of Los Angeles, 159 F.3d 470, 475 (9th Cir. 1998)). In this case, Individual Plaintiffs conclude, Wartluft and Bartels were “aggrieved persons” because they suffered the loss of Abrielle's companionship and services as a result of the School's discriminatory conduct and, therefore, they have Article III standing to pursue their claims under the FHA. (Doc. 252 at 16-17 (citing Doc. 29 at ¶¶ 200-202)).

         In their Reply, Defendants challenge Plaintiffs' contention that simply being an “aggrieved person” under the FHA confers Article III standing. Moreover, Defendants explain, the sparse factual assertions related to Plaintiffs' alleged loss-of-services injury is discussed under their wrongful death claim, not their FHA claim. Thus, because “‘a plaintiff must demonstrate standing for each claim he seeks to press,' and here, the Amended Complaint does not contain a single allegation regarding injury directly suffered by [the Individual] Plaintiffs that is ‘fairly traceable to a ‘discriminatory housing practice, '” the Individual Plaintiffs' FHA claim fails as a matter of law. (Doc. 262 at 14 (citing DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno, 547 U.S. 332, 335 (2006)). We agree with Defendants' conclusion but base our decision upon a different rationale.

         “Absent Article III standing, a federal court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to address a plaintiff's claims, and they must be dismissed.” Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 188 (3d Cir. 2006). “The sole requirement for standing to sue under the Fair Housing Act is the [Article] III minima of injury in fact: that the plaintiff allege that as a result of the defendant's actions he has suffered ‘a distinct and palpable injury.'” Fair Hous. Council of Suburban Philadelphia v. Montgomery Newspapers, 141 F.3d 71, 75 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363, 372 (1982)). “[S]o long as this requirement is satisfied, persons to whom Congress has granted a right of action, either expressly or by clear implication, may have standing to seek relief on the basis of the legal rights and interests of others, and, indeed, may invoke the general public interest in support of their claim.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975).

         In 2011, in the context of Title VII, our Supreme Court narrowed the scope of who is entitled to seek relief considered an “aggrieved person” in Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP. In short, the High Court held that, in order to constitute an “aggrieved person” under Title VII, a claimant must allege an injury in fact that falls “within the ‘zone of interests' sought to be protected by the statutory provision whose violation forms the legal basis for his [or her] complaint.” Thompson, 562 U.S. at 177. In other words, a claimant is only considered an “aggrieved person” with Article III standing if they assert the violation of an interest “arguably [sought] to be protected by the statute” at issue. Id. at 178.

         In so holding, the Court expressed disapproval with the Third Circuit's discussion in Hackett v. McGuire Bros., 445 F.2d 442, 446 (3d Cir. 1971) which referenced in dicta that Congress' use of the term “aggrieved person” in the context of the Fair Housing Act “showed ‘a congressional intention to define standing as broadly as is permitted by Article III of the Constitution.'” Hackett, 445 F.2d at 446. The Supreme Court reasoned in Thompson that the Third Circuit's reading of Congress' intent “was too expansive” and the Court signaled that future decisions should utilize the “zone of interests” analysis discussed therein. Thompson, 562 U.S. at 176.

         Recently, in Bank of America Corp. v. City of Miami, Fla., ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 1296 (2017), the Supreme Court applied the “zone of interests” analysis outlined in Thompson to address standing under the FHA. Id. at 1305. In Bank of America, the Court held that the City of Miami had standing to pursue claims against Bank of America under the FHA because the City's claims “arguably fall within the FHA's zone of interests.” Id. at 1304-1305 (citing Trafficante v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 409 U.S. 205 (1972) (allowing suit by white tenants claiming that they were deprived benefits when discriminatory rental practices kept minorities out of their apartment complex); Gladstone Realtors v. Vill. of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91 (1979) (allowing suit by a village that alleged that it had lost tax revenue and had the racial balance of its community undermined by racial-steering practices); Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982) (allowing suit by a nonprofit organization that spent money to combat housing discrimination)). Specifically, the Court reasoned, Bank of America “intentionally targeted predatory practices at African-American and Latino neighborhoods and residents, ” which “led to a ‘concentration' of ‘foreclosures and vacancies' in those neighborhoods, ” which, in turn, “caused ‘stagnation and decline in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, '” “hindered the City's efforts to create integrated, stable neighborhoods, ” and “reduced property values, diminishing the City's property-tax revenue and increasing demand for municipal services.” Id. Finding that these injuries were within the zone of interests contemplated by the FHA, the Supreme Court held that the City of Miami had Article III standing to pursue its claims as an “aggrieved person” under the statute.

         In a dissent joined by Justices Kennedy and Alito, Justice Thomas disagreed, arguing that the City of Miami's injuries fell outside the FHA's zone of interests because those injuries were only “marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes” of the FHA, which, in the Dissent's view, was not “concerned about decreased property values, foreclosures, and urban blight, much less about strains on municipal budgets that might follow.” Id. at 1308-1310. Thus, according to the Dissent, the City of Miami was not similarly situated to the plaintiffs in Trafficante, Gladstone, or Havens, and the City's injuries fell outside the FHA's zone of interests.

         In light of Bank of America, it is clear that a plaintiff has standing to pursue claims under the FHA provided he or she can demonstrate that he or she suffered an injury in fact that falls within the zone of interests contemplated by the FHA. That is, “that as a result of the defendant's actions [he or she has] suffered ‘a distinct and palpable injury, '” Fair Hous. Council of Suburban Philadelphia, 141 F.3d at 75 (quoting Havens Realty Corp., 455 U.S. at 372), and that said injury falls within the zone of interests implicated by the FHA. Bank of America Corp., ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. at 1305.

         In their amended complaint and as noted in their briefs before this Court, the Individual Plaintiffs aver that they suffered “loss of support, loss of aid, loss of services, loss of companionship, loss of consortium and comfort, loss of counseling and loss of guidance” as a result of Defendants' actions. (Doc. 29 at ¶ 200). While we acknowledge that Plaintiffs did not technically incorporate this provision by reference into Count I's FHA claim because these loss-of-services allegations were discussed in Count V under Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim, we find that Plaintiffs' allegations as to Count V can be imputed to Count I for purposes of establishing standing. In our view, Plaintiffs' allegations were sufficient to place the Defendants on notice of all of the factual predicates upon which Plaintiffs' thirteen counts were based, whether those factual predicates were outlined in Count I or Count V. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (2007) (finding that Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, “in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.”).

         Even were we inclined to favor form over substance and find fatal Plaintiffs' failure to include their allegations concerning loss of services within Count I, we note that the ordinary remedy in such a case would be an amended filing. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e); Wagner v. First Horizon Pharm. Corp., 464 F.3d 1273, 1280 (11th Cir. 2006) (“[W]e disagree that dismissal was the appropriate course of action for the district court to take at this juncture in the litigation. As the district court concluded, ‘the problem was not that Plaintiffs did not allege enough facts, or failed to recite magic words; the problem lay in the fact that while Plaintiffs introduced a great deal of factual allegations, the amended complaint did not clearly link any of those facts to its causes of action.' We disagree with the dismissal of this case because these observations sound more clearly in Rule 12(e)'s remedy of ordering repleading for a more definite statement of the claim, rather than in Rule 12(b)(6)'s remedy of dismissal for failure to state a claim.”); Cates v. Int'l Tel. & Tel. Corp., 756 F.2d 1161, 1180 (5th Cir. 1985) (finding that pleadings that are “extremely conclusory, confused, and unclear” are normally subject to amendment rather than dismissal); Belizaire v. Whitecap Inv. Corp., No. CV 2013-66, 2014 WL 4961599, at *3 (D.V.I. Oct. 3, 2014). Because this case has been pending since 2016 and because the instant case comes before us on a motion for judgment on the pleadings which necessitates a deferential standard of review, rather than demanding repleader, we simply find that Plaintiffs have stated sufficient facts in their amended complaint to demonstrate that they have suffered an injury in fact.

         However, we also find that the Individual Plaintiffs have failed to plead that their injuries fall within the zone of interests contemplated by the FHA and we are thus constrained to conclude that they lack standing to pursue those claims.

         As noted by Justice Thomas in his dissent in Bank of America:

The FHA permits “[a]n aggrieved person” to sue, § 3613(a)(1)(A), if he “claims to have been injured by a discriminatory housing practice “ or believes that he “will be injured by a discriminatory housing practice that is about to occur.” §§ 3602(i)(1), (2) (emphasis added). Specifically, the FHA makes it unlawful to do any of the following on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin”: “refuse to sell or rent . . . a dwelling, ” § 3604(a); discriminate in the “terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith, ” § 3604(b); “make, print, or publish . . . any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination, ” § 3604(c); “represent to any person . . . that any dwelling is not available for inspection, sale, or rental when such dwelling is in fact so available, ” § 3604(d); “induce any person to sell or rent any dwelling by representations regarding the entry or prospective entry into the neighborhood of a person or persons of” certain characteristics, § 3604(e); or discriminate in the provision of real estate or brokerage services, §§ 3605, 3606. The quintessential “aggrieved person” in cases involving violations of the FHA is a prospective home buyer or lessee discriminated against during the home-buying or leasing process. Our cases have also suggested that the interests of a person who lives in a neighborhood or apartment complex that remains segregated (or that risks becoming segregated) as a result of a discriminatory housing practice may be arguably within the outer limit of the interests the FHA protects.

Bank of America, 137 S.Ct. at 1308-1309 (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, the Individual Plaintiffs have failed entirely to explain how “loss of support, loss of aid, loss of services, loss of companionship, loss of consortium and comfort, loss of counseling and loss of guidance, ” (Doc. 29 at ¶ 200), is in any way within the zone of interests contemplated by the FHA-a statute designed to combat discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. At bottom, the Individual Plaintiffs' claims sound in tort and are entirely untethered to the FHA specifically or Abrielle's housing situation generally. Although we understand Plaintiffs' argument that, but for Abrielle's dismissal from the School (and her housing therein) she would not have been forced to return home and thereby would not have died and, in turn, the Individual Plaintiffs' would not have suffered their loss of services, the relationship between Abrielle's housing claim and the Individual ...


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.