United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
AMY TAMASY and JOHN J. BRYAN, Administrators of the Estate of Jordan Bryan, Plaintiffs,
YOUGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.
Nicholas Ranjan, United States District Judge
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.
Discussion & Analysis
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.”).
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.
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].
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.
reviewed the record and the parties' motion, the Court
finds that the proposed settlement and allocation are
The parties' settlement is not
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
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)].
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).
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.
The parties' proposed allocation of settlement ...