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Tamasy v. Yough School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 8, 2019

AMY TAMASY and JOHN J. BRYAN, Administrators of the Estate of Jordan Bryan, Plaintiffs,


          J. Nicholas Ranjan, United States District Judge

         Before the Court is the parties' joint motion to approve a settlement of Plaintiffs' wrongful death and survival claims against the Yough School District. [ECF 35]. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. Discussion & Analysis

         Under Section 3323 of the Pennsylvania Probate, Estates, and Fiduciaries Code, court approval is needed “to compromise or settle any claim … by or against an estate.” 20 Pa. C.S. § 3323(a). This includes survival actions. See In re Estate of Merryman, 669 A.2d 1059, 1060 n. 1 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1995) (“Since survival actions are intended to preserve the estate and protect the creditors and beneficiaries, court approval is needed for any type of settlement of survival claims.”). Relatedly, “[i]t follows that where wrongful death and survival actions are settled for a single amount, the amount apportioned to the survival action must be approved by a court having jurisdiction.” Moore v. Gates, 580 A.2d 1138, 1141 (Pa. Super. 1990); see also Walsh v. Strenz, 63 F.Supp.2d 548, 551 (M.D. Pa. 1999) (“When the settlement involves both wrongful death and survival claims, court approval of the apportionment … is necessary.”).

         While Section 3323 “expresses no criterion” for deciding whether to approve a settlement, “the statute contemplates a judicial inquiry into the propriety of a proposed compromise or settlement by the estate, whether or not it is contested[.]” Krause v. B & O R.R., 33 Pa. D. & C.3d 458, 466 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1983). The court approval requirement exists “to protect the estate, as well as the creditors and beneficiaries thereof.” Schuster v. Reeves, 589 A.2d 731, 734 (Pa. Super. 1991). To that end, “a court may refuse to approve a settlement of a survival action which is inadequate.” Id. The Court must root its analysis of a settlement's adequacy in “law and established equitable principles, ” and ultimately determine “whether the proposal is fair and reasonable under the circumstances.” Krause, 33 Pa. D. & C.3d at 467.

         Plaintiffs filed this case in the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas on August 20, 2018. The School District then removed the case to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. [ECF 1]. In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that their son, Jordan Bryan, suffered psychological harm, and then tragically committed suicide at age 19, as a result of being sexually abused by a teacher employed by the School District. [ECF 1-1]. In response to the complaint, the School District filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the complaint, which was granted in part by then-presiding Judge Peter J. Phipps. [ECF 9; ECF 19]. Specifically, Judge Phipps dismissed certain of Plaintiffs' requested relief, but Plaintiffs' cause of action under Title IX, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, survived dismissal. [ECF 19].

         The proposed settlement would resolve Plaintiffs' claim for a gross payment of $30, 000.00. The settlement funds would be allocated to Jordan Bryan's wrongful death beneficiaries, and thus paid directly to Plaintiffs, rather than to his estate as survival damages. Plaintiffs' counsel also requests that the Court approve a 30% award of attorneys' fees. [ECF 35 at ¶ 13(b)]. In all, approving the settlement would result in a $20, 000.00 payment to Plaintiffs and a $10, 000.00 payment to counsel.

         Having reviewed the record and the parties' motion, the Court finds that the proposed settlement and allocation are reasonable.

         A. The parties' settlement is not “inadequate.”

         First, the Court finds that, while modest, the total settlement amount is not “inadequate.” Schuster, 589 A.2d at 734. Both parties agree that Plaintiffs face significant issues of proof that could hamstring their efforts to establish liability, and that these issues ultimately diminished the settlement value of this case. For example, the parties say that discovery has uncovered no evidence that School District officials received “actual notice” of its teacher's alleged abuse of Jordan Bryan or other students. This makes the School District's Title IX liability unclear. See Lansberry v. Altoona Area Sch. Dist., 318 F.Supp.3d 739, 750 (W.D. Pa. 2018) (explaining that a Title IX plaintiff “must present evidence that she provided actual notice [of the discriminatory conduct] to an appropriate official at the school.”).

         The parties also suggest that Plaintiffs may be unable to prove the alleged sexual abuse occurred without testimony from Jordan Bryan himself-a concern that apparently led the Westmoreland County District Attorney to conclude that a “criminal conviction was unlikely[.]” [ECF 35 at ¶ 13(c)]. Moreover, even if the abuse could be established through other evidence, Plaintiffs may be unable to show a causal link between the alleged abuse and Jordan Bryan's later suicide-mainly because, according to the parties, Mr. Bryan left a suicide note that pointed to other stressors in his life and “only briefly mentioned” the abuse. [ECF 35 at ¶ 13(b)].

         While these issues may or may not be insurmountable, what is relevant here is that counsel knew of and could account for them when negotiating the proposed settlement. The Court gives “due regard to the advice of the experienced counsel in this case who recommend the settlement [and] … who have negotiated this settlement at arms-length and in good faith.” Collier v. Montgomery Cty. Hous. Auth., 192 F.R.D. 176, 186 (E.D. Pa. 2000). That deference is particularly appropriate here, because the parties reached their proposed settlement through mediation before a third-party neutral. As this Court recently observed in another case, negotiation of a settlement through mediation “suggest[s] reasonableness and neutrality, not incompetence or self-dealing.” Kapolka v. Anchor Drilling Fluids USA, LLC, et al., 2019 WL 5394751, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Oct. 22, 2019).

         In short, given the substantial legal risks faced by Plaintiffs and the arm's length nature of the parties' negotiations, the Court has no reason to conclude that the settlement reached by the parties is somehow “inadequate.” Schuster, 589 A.2d at 734.

         B. The parties' proposed allocation of settlement ...

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