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Watters v. Board of School Directors of City of Scranton

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 22, 2019

JOSHUA WATTERS, MOLLY POPISH, and LAURIE BURDETT, Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF SCHOOL DIRECTORS OF THE CITY OF SCRANTON and SCHOOL DISTRICT OF THE CITY OF SCRANTON, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROBERT D. MARIANI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint (Doc. 4) is pending before the Court. Defendants removed Plaintiffs' five-count Complaint (Doc. 1 at 8-22) from the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, on November 2, 2018. (Doc. 1.) They did so pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 asserting federal question jurisdiction based on the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim contained in Plaintiffs' Complaint. (Doc. 1 at 2-3.) When Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in the Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas on September 28, 2018, they were all tenured teachers in the Scranton School District who had been furloughed on August 30, 2018.[1] (Compl. ¶¶ 11, 39, 41.) Plaintiffs describe the action as "a hybrid" of an appeal of determinations made in a local agency adjudication pursuant to 2 Pa. C.S. § 752 and a constitutional challenge to provisions of the School Code of 1949 ("School Code") pursuant to the Contract Clauses of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. (Compl. Introduction (Doc. 1 at 8).) For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes Defendants' motion is properly granted as to Count III and the Court has no basis to retain jurisdiction of Plaintiffs' remaining state law claims.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Allegations

         The Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton ("the Board") held a "Special Meeting for General Purposes" on January 25, 2018. (Compl. ¶ 25.) At the meeting, the Personnel Committee presented "Resolution of the Intent to Suspend of the Scranton Board of Education" ("Resolution") for vote by the Board. (Id.) The Superintendent of the Scranton School District ("the District"), Dr. Alexis Kirijan, told the members of the Board that the Resolution did not include program cuts with the exception of the library. (Id. ¶ 26.) Before the January 25, 2018, meeting, the Board had neither approved nor authorized the curtailment or elimination of any programs or the furlough of any employees. [Id. ¶ 27.) The Board voted unanimously to pass the Resolution. [Id. ¶ 28.)

         On January 28, 2018, the District's Chief Human Resources Officer issued correspondence to twenty-eight tenured teachers, including Plaintiffs, which stated the following in relevant part:

It is with the utmost regret that the Board of Education and the Scranton School District has approved a resolution of intent to suspend you and directed that you be notified pursuant to Sections 1124 and 1125.1 of the Public School Code of 1949, as amended, and the Local Agency Law (2 Pa. C.S. § 101 et seq.). This correspondence will formally notify you that this is the intent of the Board that you will be suspended from employment effective August 31, 2018 due to the economic reasons that require a reduction of professionals and/or the curtailment and/or alteration of the District's educational programs in order to conform with standards of organization and/or educational activities required by law and/or recommended by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and for economic reason. The Board of Education has approved the Resolution of Intent to Suspend at a public meeting held on January 25, 2018.

(Compl. ¶ 29.) Approximately seventy-one notices of non-renewal were issued to temporary employees (non-tenured) teachers on the same date. (Id. ¶ 30.)

         Consistent with the School Code, each of the twenty-eight suspended tenured teachers submitted a timely written request to initiate a hearing before the Board for the purpose of challenging the suspensions. (Id. ¶ 32.)

         On March 28, 2018, the District passed a final budget which included the suspension of teachers, (Id. ¶ 33.)

         In May and June 2018, the District engaged in a posting and bidding process designed to benefit displaced, tenured teachers. (Id. ¶ 34.) As a result of the process and additional resignations, the District was able to "call-back" a number of tenured teachers who had previously received furlough notices. (Id.) By June 22, 2018, the District determined that seven tenured teachers, including Plaintiffs, would be furloughed. (Id.)

         In response to Plaintiffs' challenges to their suspensions, the Board held evidentiary hearings on July 19, 2018, and July 25, 2018. (Id. ¶ 35.) On August 25, 2018, the Board convened a special meeting "to vote on the Resolution in order [t]o approve suspended professional employees of the Scranton School District effective August 30, 2018, in accordance with the provisions of Section 1124 and 1125.1 of the Public School Code.'" (Id. ¶ 36.) Six of nine members of the Board were present. (Id. ¶ 37.) The vote was split three-three, and, therefore, the vote failed. (Id. ¶ 38.) The Board reconvened on August 30, 2018, to conduct another vote on the Resolution presented at the August 25th meeting. (Id. ¶ 39.) The Resolution passed nine-zero. (Id. ¶ 40.) As a consequence of the vote, the District's physical education, music, art, family and computer science, and industrial arts programs were curtailed. (Id. ¶ 42.)

         The District's solicitor, who had served as the Hearing Officer during prior evidentiary hearings, issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in which he concluded that the Resolution "satisfied the district's statutory obligation." (Id. ¶ 43.) The Hearing Officer further concluded that the "proposed suspension should be sustained for both economic and non-economic (curtailment or alteration) of programs." (Id.)

         Four of the seven tenured teachers who received furlough notices either found work outside the District or were called back by the District. (Id. ¶ 41.) Thus, Plaintiffs were the only tenured professional employees furloughed by the District. (Id.)

         B. Relevant Statutory Provisions

         At the time they were suspended, Plaintiffs had all achieved tenure status as defined by the School Code, 24 Pa. S.A. § 11-1101(1) because each had completed at least three years of service, 24 Pa. S.A. § 11-1108: Plaintiff Popish had been employed by the District as a professional employee since August of 2013; Plaintiff Watters had been employed since September 2014; and Plaintiff Burdett had been employed since September 2015. (Compl. ¶¶ 8-11.) As such, the School Code provision titled "Contracts; execution; form" regarding required contracts between a school district and its professional employees, 24 P.S.§ 11-1121, is relevant.

         Section 11-1121 of the School Code, last amended in 1996, requires that school districts enter into contracts as follows:

(a) In all school districts, all contracts with professional employes shall be in writing, in duplicate, and shall be executed on behalf of the board of school directors by the president and secretary and signed by the professional employe.
(b)(1) Each board of school directors in all school districts shall hereafter enter into contracts, in writing, with each professional employe initially employed by a school district prior to June 30, 1996, who has satisfactorily completed two (2) years of service in any school district of this Commonwealth.
(2) Each board of school directors in all school districts shall hereafter enter into contracts, in writing, with each professional employe initially employed by a school district, on or after June 30, 1996, who has satisfactorily completed three (3) years of service in any school district of this Commonwealth.
(c) Contracts under subsection (b) shall contain only the following:
"IT IS AGREED by and between..........Professional Employe, and the Board of Directors (or Board of Public Education) of the school district of.........., Pennsylvania, that said professional employe shall, under the authority of the said board and its successors, and subject to the supervision and authority of the properly authorized superintendent of schools or supervising principal, serve as a professional employe in the said school district for a term of ... months, for an annual compensation of $...........payable monthly or semimonthly during the school term or year, less the contribution required by law to be paid to the Public School Employes' Retirement Fund, and less other proper deductions for loss of time.
"This contract is subject to the provisions of the 'Public School Code of 1949' and the amendments thereto.
"AND IT IS FURTHER AGREED by the parties hereto that none of the provisions of this act may be waived either orally or in writing, and that this contract shall continue in force year after year, with the right of the board of school directors (or board of public education) to increase the compensation over the compensation herein stated, from time to time, as may be provided under the provisions and proper operation of the established salary schedule, if any, for the school district, subject to the provisions of law, without invalidating any other provision of this contract, unless terminated by the professional employe by written resignation presented sixty (60) days before resignation becomes effective, or by the board of school directors (or board of public education) by official written notice presented to the professional employe: Provided, That the said notice shall designate the cause for the termination and shall state that an opportunity to be heard shall be granted if the said professional employe, within ten (10) days after receipt of the termination notice, presents a written request for such hearing."

24 P. S. § 11-1121.

         Plaintiffs each executed separate contracts ("Tenure Contracts") with the Board upon their attainment of tenure. (Compl. ¶ 15.) The contracts were in "substantially the same form" as provided in 24 Pa. S.A. § 11-1121. (Compl. ¶ 15.)

         Because Plaintiffs' allegations relate to the rationale for the Board's suspension decision, the School Code's "Causes for suspension" provision, 24 P.S. § 11-1124, is relevant. Until November 2017, § 11-1124 provided as follows:

(a) Any board of school directors may suspend the necessary number of professional employes, for any of the causes hereinafter enumerated:
(1) substantial decrease in pupil enrollment in the school district;
(2) curtailment or alteration of the educational program on recommendation of the superintendent and on concurrence by the board of school directors, as a result of substantial decline in class or course enrollments or to conform with standards of organization or educational activities required by law or recommended by the Department of Public Instruction;
(3) consolidation of schools, whether within a single district, through a merger of districts, or as a result of joint board agreements, when such consolidation makes it unnecessary to retain the full staff of professional employes;
(4) when new school districts are established as the result of reorganization of school districts pursuant to Article II., subdivision (i) of this act, and when such reorganization makes it unnecessary to retain the full staff of professional employes.

24 Pa. C.S. §11-1124.

         In November 2017, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed what is known as Act 55 of 2017 ("Act 55") which, inter alia, added subsection (a)(5) to § 11-1124 allowing for suspension based on "economic reasons that require a reduction in professional employes." 24 Pa. C.S. § 11 -1124(a)(5). Suspensions under §11-1124(a)(5) are subject to specific statutory mandates. 24 Pa. C.S. § 11-1124(c) and (d). The 2017 amendments to § 11-1124 directed that "[a] school district may not use an employe's compensation in determining which professional employes to suspend, but shall use the procedures in section 11-1125.1 to determine the order in which professional employes are suspended." 24 Pa. C.S. § 11-1124(a.1)(1).

         Pursuant to § 11-1125.1, as amended by Act 55, the order of suspension of professional employees is guided by the results of the employee's two most recent performance evaluations.[2] 24 Pa. C.S. § 11-1125.1(a). Section 11-1125.1 also provides "[a] school entity shall realign its professional staff so as to ensure that more senior employes are provided with the opportunity to fill any positions within the school entity for which they are certificated and which are being filled by less senior employes, subject to the order specified in subsection (a)," 24 Pa. C.S. § 1125.1(d).[3]

         C. Procedural Background

         Plaintiffs' Complaint contains the following counts: Count I- Local Agency Code Appeal Failure to Comply with Section 1124(a)(2) of the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949; Count II - Local Agency Code Appeal Failure to Comply with Section 1124(a)(2) of the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949 (Act 55); Count III - Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -Substantial Impairment of Contractual Rights in Violation of the United States Constitution, Article I, Section 10, Clause 1; Count IV - Impairment of Article I, Section 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution; and Count V - Declaratory and Injunctive Relief. (Compl. (Doc. 1 at 15-22).)

         With Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint filed pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 81(c) and 12(b)(6), they request that the Court dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint with prejudice. (Doc. 4 at 1-2.) In their supporting brief, they specifically assert that Plaintiffs' demand for a jury trial as to Counts I and II should be stricken (Doc. 11 at 17) and Counts III, IV, and V should be dismissed in their entirety (id. at 18-38). Defendants' motion is now fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A complaint must be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

         "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations, alterations, and quotations marks omitted). A court "take[s] as true all the factual allegations in the Complaint and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts, but... disregard[s] legal conclusions and threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ethypharm S.A. France v. Abbott Labs., 707 F.3d 223, 231 n.14 (3d Cir. 2013) (internal citation, alteration, and quotation marks omitted). Thus, "the presumption of truth attaches only to those allegations for which there is sufficient 'factual matter' to render them 'plausible on [their] face.'" Schuchardt v. President of the U.S., 839 F.3d 336, 347 (3d Cir. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). "Conclusory assertions of fact and legal conclusions are not entitled to the same presumption." Id.

         "Although the plausibility standard 'does not impose a probability requirement; it does require a pleading to show 'more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'" Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp.,809 F.3d 780, 786 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal citation omitted) (first quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556; then quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). "The plausibility determination is 'a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court ...


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