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Smith v. Mid-Valley School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 19, 2019

TAMMY SMITH, individually and on behalf of a minor, S.S., Plaintiff,



         Presently before me is a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 31) filed by Defendant Mid-Valley School District (“Defendant” or “the District”). The District contends that Plaintiff Tammy Smith (“Plaintiff” or “Smith”), individually and on behalf of a minor, S.S., has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted on three separate claims under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Individuals with Disability Education Act (“IDEA”), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504"or “Rehabilitation Act”). Because the Plaintiff has failed to allege certain elements necessary to sustain claims under the Fourteenth Amendment and the IDEA, but has stated all necessary elements under Section 504, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         The facts from Smith's Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 29), taken as true and viewed in the light most favorable to Smith are as follows:

         Plaintiff Tammy Smith is the mother of S.S., a minor. (Doc. 29 at ¶ 2). S.S. is a nonverbal autistic student who was enrolled in the District's Special Education Program with an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) for behavioral support. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-10). The District referred S.S. to Salisbury Behavioral Health, Inc. d/b/a New Story (“New Story”), a private education entity working with the District, for attempted IEP support classes. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 7, 10-11).

         On February 16, 2016, the Throop Police Department received a report of “suspected child endangerment and neglect” at New Story. (Id. at ¶ 12). Three days later, after interviewing staff members, the police officer assigned to the matter determined this report involved S.S.'s placement in a “quiet room” for behavioral problems on February 9, 2016. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14). According to New Story employees who observed the incident, S.S. took off all his clothes, urinated on the floor, “stoop[ed] to the ground on his hands and knees[, ]” and “drank his own urine from the ground.” (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16). These employees witnessed but did not attempt to stop S.S.'s behavior. (Id. at ¶ 16). The Throop Police Department also found that a similar incident occurred the day before, on February 8, 2016, during which New Story employees watched as S.S. took off his clothes, played in, and drank his own urine. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18).

         Although the District's Special Education Director was informed about both incidents each day they occurred, Smith was not informed of these incidents until the police who investigated the incidents contacted her. (Id. at ¶¶ 19, 31-33, 39). Upon being informed of these events, Smith immediately requested IEP meetings with the District and New Story. (Id. at ¶¶ 34, 41). During the first such meeting, Smith learned that “the quiet room was still being utilized” to manage students. (Id. at ¶ 35). The use of the “quiet room” only ceased after a subsequent meeting and engagement with legal counsel. (Id. at ¶ 36). Around the same time, S.S. was removed from New Story at Smith's direction. (Id. at ¶ 42). Following these events, S.S. “regressed in his mental progression and development” and was placed in a full-time institution that provides him with educational and living support. (Id. at ¶¶ 45-46).

         Plaintiff filed a complaint in February of 2018 against the District and New Story (collectively “Defendants”) alleging various violations of Federal Constitutional and statutory rights as well as a state law contract claim, with all claims being removed to this Court on February 27, 2018. (Doc. 1). Following the submission of a Motion to Dismiss by the District (Doc. 5), on March 23, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (Doc. 10). Both Defendants submitted motions to dismiss the amended complaint. (Docs. 11, 12). I granted the District's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 11) as to all Counts against the District on June 22, 2018 because Plaintiff failed to exhaust her administrative remedies before bringing her claims. (Docs. 23, 24).

         On January 10, 2019, while New Story's Motion to Dismiss was still pending, Plaintiff filed a separate action against the District alleging the same violations that were previously dismissed, including Title IX, Fourteenth Amendment, IDEA, and Section 504 claims. (Smith v. Mid-Valley School District, 3:19-cv-00064, Doc. 1). In this Complaint, the Plaintiff alleged that they had since exhausted all their administrative remedies. (Id.). The District then filed a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint for failing to state a claim. (Smith v. Mid-Valley School District, 3:19-cv-00064, Doc. 6). On April 2, 2019, while both Motions were still pending, I consolidated the two cases. (Doc. 25). I subsequently granted in part and denied in part New Story's Motion (see Doc. 26) and dismissed all the Plaintiff's claims against the District for: failure to allege disparate treatment based on sex for Plaintiff's Title IX claim; failure to allege deliberate indifference or existence of a policy for Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim; and failure to allege a “deliberate choice” by the District which would support compensatory damages for a Rehabilitation Act claim. (See Doc. 27). Plaintiff was then given further opportunity to amend the complaint. (Id.)

         On July 31, 2019, the Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, dropping the Title IX claim, and asserting only the Fourteenth Amendment claim, the IDEA claim, and the Section 504 claim against the District. (Doc. 29).[1] The District then filed the instant Motion to Dismiss on August 13, 2019 contending that the Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because she fails to plead the type of intentional or deliberate conduct which rises to the level of a constitutional violation under the Fourteenth Amendment and further fails to properly claim either deviation from an IEP under the IDEA or discrimination under Section 504. (See Doc. 32). Moreover, even if she did properly make these claims, the District contends that she would otherwise be preempted from bringing her Constitutional claims by the terms of the IDEA or would not be entitled to compensatory damages for any claim. (See id.). The District's Motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, my role is limited to determining if a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of her claims. See Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000). I do not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

         A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. However, mere conclusory statements will not do; “a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Instead, a complaint must “show” this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 664 (2009). As such, “[t]he touchstone of the pleading standard is plausibility.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012).

         The inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage is “normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the ...

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