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Cole v. Central Greene School District

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 27, 2019

SAWYER COLE, Plaintiffs,
v.
CENTRAL GREENE SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Cynthia Reed Eddy Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         Presently pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 15) filed on behalf of Defendants. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted.[1]

         I. Procedural History

         On April 3, 2019, Plaintiff Sawyer Cole (“Plaintiff”) initiated this action with the filing of a Complaint against Defendants, Central Greene School District (“the District”), Helen McCracken (Superintendent) (“Superintendent McCracken”), Matthew Blair (Assistant Superintendent) (“Assistant Superintendent Blair”), Andrew Zimmer (School Resource Officer) (“Officer Zimmer”), Justin Stephenson (Vice Principal) (“Vice Principal Stephenson”) and Robert Stephenson (Principal) (“Principal Stephenson”). Plaintiff asserts Defendants violated his constitutional rights after he was suspended and expelled from high school for suspicion of drug use. On June 24, 2019, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for consideration.

         We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         II. Factual Allegations

         The following facts are either alleged in the complaint, which the Court will accept as true for the sole purpose of deciding the pending motion, appear in the public record or are gleaned from documents relied upon and attached to the Complaint. Plaintiff was enrolled as a senior at Waynesburg Central High School ("the school") in the District. (Complaint ("Compl."), ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 4, 11.) On January 24, 2018, Plaintiff, whose parking privileges had been revoked by the school, parked a car at the Big Lots near the school and walked to the school; he arrived late sometime between 10:15 and 10:30 a.m. (Id. ¶ 12.) This was Plaintiff's 40th day being tardy out of the 90 school days of the school year. (Tr. p. 26.)[2] Shortly after his arrival, one of Plaintiff's teachers observed Plaintiff in a deep sleep during his study hall class. (Id. ¶¶ 14-15.) The teacher thought this behavior was suspicious and reported it to the Vice Principal. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) The teacher described the Plaintiff to the Vice Principal as being "out cold."

         In response, the Vice Principal Stephenson, along with the Officer Zimmer, located Plaintiff in his workshop class shortly before noon. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.) Upon entering Plaintiff's workshop class, both the Vice Principal and Officer Zimmer observed the Plaintiff sleeping. (Id. ¶ 19.) When Plaintiff awoke, he had a red mark on his forehead, indicating that his head had been down for some time. (ECF No. 15-4, Transcript of Expulsion Hearing (hereinafter “Tr.”) at 9).

         As a result of this lethargic behavior, Plaintiff was taken to the Central Office where he was allegedly forced to undergo a medical examination in the presence of the Vice Principal and the Officer Zimmer. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21, 110, 118.) According to Plaintiff's testimony at the February 5, 2018 disciplinary hearing, [3] the medical examination consisted of the school nurse checking Plaintiff's pupil dilation, blood pressure and heart rate. (Tr. at 28). The nurse found Plaintiff's "blood pressure to be extremely high, pulse to be very elevated, and pupils to be dilated [and] not reacting to light." (Id. at 10). According to Officer Zimmer, who has training through the Pennsylvania State Police to recognize symptoms of drug use, Plaintiff's symptoms were "definitely indicative of drug use." (Id. at 22-23). Plaintiff was then questioned about whether he had taken drugs. (Compl. ¶¶ 111). Plaintiff denied taking drugs. (Id. ¶114). Based on the medical examination and Plaintiff's lethargic behavior, Vice Principal Stephenson and Officer Zimmer determined that they had enough information to reasonably suspect that Plaintiff was under the influence of drugs. (Id. ¶ 24). Vice Principal Stephenson then consulted with the Principal Stephenson, who then contacted Superintendent McCracken. (Id. ¶ 27). Vice Principal Stephenson also called Plaintiff's parents and left a message to notify them of the situation. (Id. ¶ 26). In response, Plaintiff's father was told by Principal Stephenson that Plaintiff was in the office for suspected drug use. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29). Before Plaintiff's father arrived at the school, Plaintiff was asked to submit to a urinalysis drug test. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 36). Plaintiff refused to take a drug test. (Id. ¶ 36).

         After Plaintiff's refusal, Plaintiff's father arrived at the school and met privately with Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 38). Principal Stephenson then reiterated to Plaintiff's father that they suspected Plaintiff was under the influence of drugs and would be required to take a drug test. (Id. ¶¶ 37, 39). According to the Complaint, Plaintiff and his father were advised that if the Plaintiff refused a urinalysis drug test, his refusal would be considered a positive drug test and corresponding disciplinary action would be taken accordingly. (Id.). Plaintiff again refused to take the drug test. According to the Plaintiff, School District policy requires a saliva drug test -- not a urinalysis test -- when students are suspected to be under the influence of drugs. (Id. ¶ 41). He asserts that the urinalysis drug test offered by Principal Stephenson did not comport with School District policy. (Id. ¶¶ 40-43). Thus, Plaintiff asserts that the statements from the school officials regarding the urinalysis test were false. (Id. ¶ 40). The Complaint does not state whether Plaintiff or his father were aware of the School District policy at the time Plaintiff refused to take the urinalysis drug test. The first time Plaintiff or his father raised any issue with the type of drug test offered to Plaintiff was at the February 5, 2018 disciplinary hearing. (Id. ¶ 51).

         After Plaintiff refused to take the drug test, Plaintiff and his father were notified that Plaintiff was being suspended because under school policy, refusals to submit to a drug test are considered positive drug tests. (Id. ¶¶ 39, 44). That same day, January 24, 2018, Plaintiff and his father were given an official letter from the School District detailing that Plaintiff was being suspended for a period of 10 days. (Id. ¶ 45). The notice also stated that "[d]ue to the severity of this matter, disciplinary action could be taken by the School Directors of Central Greene School District which could include expulsion." (Id. ¶ 46; see also Jan. 24, 2018 Notice of Suspension, Compl., Exhibit B, ECF No. 1-2).

         After giving Plaintiff's father a copy of the Notice of Suspension, Plaintiff's father requested a meeting with Principal Stephenson to appeal the suspension. (Tr. at 12). On January 26, 2018, Plaintiff's father met with the Principal Stephenson again to appeal the suspension, at which time Principal Stephenson explained that the suspension was proper under school policy. (Id.) Principal Stephenson explained to Plaintiff's father that the next step was an expulsion hearing. (Id.)

         Thereafter, on January 29, 2018, Superintendent McCracken sent Plaintiff and his parents a letter detailing the circumstances and sequence of events that led the School to find that Plaintiff was in violation of the High School's drug usage policy, Policy No. 227.1. (ECF No. 15-3 at 1). The letter further notified them that the School Board would be holding a hearing on February 5, 2018 to further adjudicate the matter. (Id.) Also, the letter explained the role of the Board as an impartial tribunal, and that any decision they make is appealable to the appropriate state court. (Id.) Finally, the letter provided Plaintiff with the following list of rights he had with regard to the hearing:

You [(parents)] have the right to appear at the hearing, produce witnesses on [Plaintiff's] behalf, and be represented by legal counsel. You, Sawyer, or your legal counsel shall have a right, upon reasonable request prior to the hearing, to examine written statements about the incident and examine Sawyer's academic and behavioral records.

(Id.) Superintendent McCracken concluded the letter by telling Plaintiff and his parents that if they had any questions, that they could contact her directly. (Id.)

         At the February 5, 2018 disciplinary hearing, Plaintiff's father acknowledged receipt of the Superintendent's January 29, 2018 letter. (Tr. at 3, 6). The school solicitor also reiterated to the Plaintiff and his father that they "are afforded every right to offer testimony, cross-examine witnesses, present any exhibits and make any statements to the Board." (Id. at 4). Thereafter, the January 29, 2018 letter was read into the record. Plaintiff's father gave a short opening statement, stating for the first time that the wrong type of drug test was offered to his son. (Compl. ¶51; Tr. at 7). Thereafter, Vice Principal Stephenson testified as to the events of January 24, 2018. (Tr. at 8-13). Plaintiff's father then testified, stating that the school should not have chosen the "nuclear option of drug testing" because his son was ill on the day in question, attributing his son's behavior to the effects of cold medicine which he himself had given to his son that morning. (Id. at 20). We note that this contradicts the allegation in the complaint that when Plaintiff “was asked if he had used any drugs, he informed the Defendants he had not.” (Compl. ¶ 14). He further stated that he was not surprised of his son's conduct and described his son as being "a little overbearing, rude, cocky, and he doesn't always question authority respectfully." (Id.) Plaintiff testified that he was opposed to the urine test, but not the saliva test. He didn't know about the saliva test option, and had he known, he would have taken it. (Tr. at 28). He further testified that he taught his son to never relinquish his personal privacy even if doing so would result in his expulsion from school because his son knew he did nothing wrong to warrant the drug test. (Id. at 21, 29). Officer Zimmer further explained that on previous instances throughout the school year when Plaintiff arrived tardily he usually came into the building with other students; this had occurred on the day in question.

         After Plaintiff had a full opportunity to testify, call witnesses, cross-examine School witnesses, and present evidence, the School Board deliberated and voted 5-3 to expel the Plaintiff.[4] (Compl. ¶52; Tr. at 33). The School Board further recommended drug and alcohol counseling with random drug testing. (Tr. at 33).

         Plaintiff received an official notice of the expulsion by way of a letter sent by the Assistant Superintendent Blair, on February 6, 2018. (Id.) According to the letter, a cyber school education would be provided to Plaintiff through the District's Cyber School program. (Notice of Expulsion, Compl., Exhibit C, ECF No. 1-36 ("The School District will provide a Cyber School for [Plaintiff]," and Plaintiff's parents should "contact Mr. Matthew Blair for information on beginning this program.")).

         On February 16, 2018, Plaintiff appealed his expulsion to the Court of Common Pleas of Greene County, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 53). The court, in a single page order, overturned the expulsion and reinstated Plaintiff as a student at the High School. (Id. ¶ 55). The court ruled that the District failed to follow its then-existing drug testing policy, Policy Number 227.1. (See March 29, 2018 Court Order on Expulsion Appeal, Compl., Exhibit D, ECF No. 1-4). However, Plaintiff was ordered to undergo a drug and alcohol evaluation and to comply with any and all recommended treatment. (Id.)

         Even though the School District offered Cyber School to Plaintiff, Plaintiff alleges that he was deprived of two months of school as a result of his suspension and expulsion. (Compl. ¶ 56). Plaintiff also alleges that when he returned to school, two of his eight classes were resumed. (Id. ¶¶ 58-59). He further asserts that he was ostracized by his friends due to his time away from school. (Id. ¶ 57). Plaintiff graduated from the High School on time. (Id. ¶ 70).

         The Complaint alleges four counts. Count I asserts a violation of civil rights pursuant to Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983, specifically, a violation of Plaintiff's procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment as to all Defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 71-81.) Count II asserts municipal liability claims under Monell as to the District. (Id. ¶¶ 82-92.) Count II asserts a policy and custom claim as well as claims that the District failed to train and supervise Defendants Superintendent McCracken, Assistant Superintendent Blair, Officer Zimmer, Principal Stephenson and Vice Principal Stevenson. (Id.) Count III asserts a claim for violations of the Fourth Amendment for unreasonable search and seizure against the District, Officer Zimmer and Vice Principal Stephenson. (Id. ¶¶ 93-119.) As to the District itself, Plaintiff asserts the District failed to maintain a policy that respects the civil rights of its students, and that it failed to train and monitor its employees. (Id. ¶¶101-102.) Count III further asserts that Defendants Officer Zimmer and Vice Principal Stephenson subjected Plaintiff to an unreasonable search and seizure by way of a forced medical examination. (Id. ¶¶ 103-119.) Count IV asserts a state claim for malicious use of process claim under the Dragonetti Act against all Defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 120-126.) Count IV asserts that the School Board expulsion proceedings were used maliciously against Plaintiff for "sticking up for his rights." (Id. ¶ 125.) Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages and equitable relief as to all Defendants. (Id. ¶ 17.) The equitable relief consists of the Court ordering the District to undergo training and reform its policies relating to the creation and application of school policy, unreasonable searches and seizures, and understanding the effects and signs of drug use. (Id.) Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in excess of $100, 000. (Id.) Plaintiff also seeks an award of $2, 500 as to legal expenses incurred regarding the expulsion hearings. (Id.) Finally, Plaintiff seeks legal expenses relating to this action. (Id.)

         III. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on whether the plaintiff will likely prevail on the merits; rather, when considering a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and “sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. “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 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement, ” but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.... Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability, it “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. At 556) (internal citations omitted).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit instructs that “a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps.” Connelly v. Lane Constr, Corp., 809 F.3d 780 (3d Cir. 2016). The court explained:

First, it must “tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675. Second, it should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. See also Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 224 (3d Cir. 2011) (“Mere restatements of the elements of a claim are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” (citation and editorial marks omitted)). Finally, “[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

809 F.3d at 876-77. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will ... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (internal citations omitted)

         While a District Court is generally limited to a plaintiff's complaint in assessing a motion to dismiss, it may take judicial notice of public records, including records of judicial proceedings. Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2007). Moreover, when a document is “integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint [, it] may be considered without converting the motion [to dismiss] into one for summary judgment.” In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir.1997) (internal quotations omitted).

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff alleges violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” Tatsch-Corbin v. Feathers, 561 F.Supp.2d 538, 543 (W.D. Pa. 2008) (citing West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)).

         “Section 1983 does not create any rights, but provides a remedy for violations of those rights created by the Constitution or federal law.” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n. 3 (1979)); Puckett v. Miller, No. CV 15-1019, 2018 WL 658926, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 1, 2018) (Fischer, J.) (quoting Morse, 132 F.3d at 907). Accordingly, “[a] plaintiff cannot prevail in an action brought under § 1983 without establishing an underlying violation of a federal constitutional or statutory right.” Ickes v. Borough of Bedford, 807 F.Supp.2d 306, 315 (W.D. Pa. 2011) (Gibson, J.) (citing Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329, 340 (1997)). “The first step in evaluating a section 1983 claim is to ‘identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated' and to determine ‘whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.'” Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 841 n. 5 (1998)); Chavarriaga v. New Jersey Deft of Corr., 806 F.3d 210, 222 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Nicini, 212 F.3d at 806).

         As noted by this court in Davis v. Quaker Valley Sch. Dist., No. 13-1329, 2016 WL 912297, at *11 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 10, 2016) (Conti, J.), aff'd, 693 Fed.Appx. 131 (3d Cir. 2017):

Courts generally afford schools wide discretion with respect to disciplinary decisions. See Z.H. ex rel. Berish v. Penn Hills Sch. Dist., No. C.A. 12-1696, 2013 WL 300753, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 25, 2013) (“Keeping in mind that 'courts are to refrain from second-guessing school administrators' disciplinary decisions”) (quoting C.S. v. Couch, 843 F.Supp.2d 894, 910 (N.D. Ind. 2011)); DT v. Somers Cent. Sch. Dist., 588 F.Supp.2d 485, 496 (S.D. N.Y. 2008), aff'd sub nom., DT v. Somers Cent. Sch. Dist., 348 Fed.Appx. 697 (2d Cir. 2009) (“courts have been skeptical of arguments premised on the degree to which a school punishes its students....The Supreme Court further recognized that '[s]chool administrators will continue to enjoy the flexibility they require' and that 'courts should refrain from second-guessing the disciplinary decisions made by school administrators.' ”) (quoting Davis Next Friend LaShonda D. v. Monroe Cty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 648-49 (1999)).

         Plaintiff has asserted claims under § 1983 for violations of his Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights. ...


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