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Bartnicki v. Scranton School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 8, 2019

STEVE BARTNICKI, Plaintiff
v.
SCRANTON SCHOOL DISTRICT, and ALEXIS KIRIJAN, Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          MALACHY E. MANNION UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court is the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's second amended complaint. (Doc. 26). Based upon a review of the motion and related materials, the motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         By way of relevant background, the plaintiff filed the instant action on September 5, 2018. (Doc. 1). The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the original complaint on September 27, 2018. (Doc. 7). Prior to any ruling by the court on the defendants' motion to dismiss, on November 19, 2018, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint. (Doc. 18). The defendants responded on December 3, 2018, with a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. (Doc. 21). Rather than oppose the defendants' motion to dismiss the amended complaint, on December 18, 2018, the plaintiff filed a second amended complaint. (Doc. 23). On January 2, 2019, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiff's second amended complaint (Doc. 26) followed by a supporting brief on January 16, 2019 (Doc. 30). The plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the defendants' motion on January 28, 2019 (Doc. 31), which was followed by the defendants' reply brief on February 11, 2019 (Doc. 32).

         The defendants' motion to dismiss is brought pursuant to the provisions of Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). This rule provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated, Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005), and dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true, the plaintiff has failed to plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) (abrogating “no set of facts” language found in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). The facts alleged must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. 544. This requirement “calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of” necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id. Furthermore, in order to satisfy federal pleading requirements, the plaintiff must “provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, ” which “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (brackets and quotations marks omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. 544).

         In considering a motion to dismiss, the court generally relies on the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record. See Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2007). The court may also consider “undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the [attached] documents.” Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, “documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically attached to the pleading, may be considered.” Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002). However, the court may not rely on other parts of the record in determining a motion to dismiss. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994).

         Generally, the court should grant leave to amend a complaint before dismissing it as merely deficient. See, e.g., Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2007); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). “Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility.” Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

         According to the general allegations in the plaintiff's second amended complaint, the plaintiff is employed as a high school teacher for the defendant Scranton School District (“School District”). Defendant Alexis Kirijan was the Superintendent for the School District. The plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan was an official policymaker of the School District and, pursuant to Scranton School District Policy 309, she was responsible for assignment, reassignment, or transfers of district employees.

         In the first of three counts in the second amended complaint, the plaintiff sets forth a First Amendment retaliation claim. In support of this claim, the plaintiff alleges that, in the summer of 2015, he was appointed to an executive position with the Union and, in that position, he represents employees who have been accused of misconduct. Throughout 2017-2018, the plaintiff alleges that he represented many employees.

         In his position, the plaintiff alleges that he has been a vocal critic of defendant Kirijan and has appeared in the newspaper and on television criticizing the handling of various school district matters. On or about November 14, 2017, the plaintiff alleges that he gave a televised speech at a school board meeting criticizing the school administration. In or around December 2017, the plaintiff alleges that he spoke out at a school board meeting criticizing defendant Kirijan, specifically mentioning her corruption and gross malfeasance. After this, in or about February or March of 2018, defendant Kirijan is alleged to have mentioned the plaintiff at a school board meeting at which adult bullying was being discussed.

         On or about March 20, 2018, the plaintiff appeared on the front page of the Scranton Times in relation to an article regarding his protesting the school administration. Shortly thereafter, around the Easter holiday, the plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan went outside the work site and interfered with his volunteer activities for his church. Specifically, defendant Kirijan is alleged to have told the plaintiff's priest that she did not want the plaintiff to be a reader during mass stating that he attends school board meetings and upsets her and that she finds him offensive because of his speech.

         On or about June 4, 2018, the plaintiff spoke out against the School District with respect to the furloughing of 99 employees. In the same month, the plaintiff alleges that he requested to teach an Honors class for the Fall 2018-2019 school year and was denied the same. The Scranton School District listed the Honor classes “TBA, ” even though the plaintiff has 14 years of experience and an unblemished work record.

         In August 2018, the plaintiff applied for a soccer coaching position. He had been a soccer coach in the past. There were only two candidates for the position, the plaintiff and another individual, who was not a teacher. The plaintiff was not selected for the position, even though he alleges he was more qualified than the other applicant. The plaintiff alleges that he lost money because he was not selected for the position.

         According to the plaintiff, he has no official duty to report school district and officials' misconduct, and he was acting as a citizen when he spoke out at school board meetings and appeared on television and in the newspaper. The plaintiff alleges that he was acting as a citizen when he represented the union and that his free speech is a matter of public concern since it has been publicized and is of interest to the community.

         In count two of his second amended complaint, the plaintiff sets forth a state law defamation claim. In support of this claim, the plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan called him “offensive” to his parish priest. The plaintiff alleges that he is not offensive and, therefore, that fact is false. The plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan knew that calling him offensive was false. In calling him offensive, the plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan was not expressing her opinion, but rather the fact that the plaintiff was offensive, and that she was motivated by ill will and malice when she stated this to the priest. The plaintiff alleges that defendant Kirijan intended to harm his reputation and deter the priest and others from associating with him and, specifically, that defendant Kirijan intended to have the priest stop the plaintiff from helping in parish activities such as reading at mass. The plaintiff alleges that defendant ...


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