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K.L. v. Scranton School District

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 3, 2020

K.L. and J.R. Jr., individually and as guardians of J.R. III, an incapacitated person, Plaintiffs,
v.
SCRANTON SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          JENNIFER P. WILSON JUDGE

         Before the court is Defendant Scranton School District's Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss. (Doc. 4.) Defendant argues that the gravamen of Plaintiffs' complaint concerns the right to a free appropriate public education requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Applying the standard established by the Supreme Court in Fry v. Napolean Community Schools, this court finds that the gravamen of Plaintiffs' complaint is intentional discrimination based on allegedly intentional and/or deliberate indifference toward Plaintiff J.R. III's disability. As such, administrative exhaustion is unnecessary. Accordingly, for the reasons that follow, the court will deny the motion. (Doc. 4.)

         Factual Background and Procedural History

         Plaintiffs K.L. (“Plaintiff K.L.”) and J.R. Jr. (“Plaintiff J.R.”), individually and as guardians of their child, J.R. III, (“Plaintiff Student”) an incapacitated person (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), initiated this action via complaint on April 18, 2019, against Defendant Scranton School District (“District”). (Doc. 1.) The complaint sets forth two causes of action: Count I for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794; and Count II for Pennsylvania common law negligence.[1] (Id.)

         The following facts are gleaned from Plaintiffs' complaint and are taken as true for the purpose of ruling on the District's motion to dismiss. Plaintiff Student is eligible for special education services as he is a handicapped person with impairments that substantially limit his life activities. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-27.) He began attending the Monticello School within the District during the 2016-2017 school year. (Id. ¶ 28.) On or about October 25, 2018, Plaintiff Student's grandmother, Eleanore Gaffney (“Ms. Gaffney”), arrived at the Monticello School for dismissal pickup. (Id. ¶ 30.) During this pickup, Ms. Gaffney witnessed a school aid (“the school aid”), who was a District employee, violently grab and forcefully push Plaintiff Student into a straight-backed office chair pinning Plaintiff Student's upper body and head to restrain him. (Id. ¶ 31.) In restraining Plaintiff Student, the school aid yelled, “Are we done yet? Are you done?” or other similar language while Plaintiff Student cried and screamed in pain. (Id. ¶ 32.) As a result of this incident, it was discovered that Plaintiff Student had sustained severe bruising and contusions on his head and neck. (Id. ¶ 33.)

         On October 26, 2018, Plaintiff K.L. told Dennis Engles, Director of the Monticello School, that she did not want the school aid to have any further contact with Plaintiff Student and requested a meeting to discuss the October 25, 2018 incident. (Id. ¶¶ 34.) In mid-January 2019, Plaintiffs K.L. and J.R. met with several representatives of the District at the Monticello School including, Dennis Engles; Sharon Battick, the District's Director of Special Education; Cathy Opshinksi; Deborah Demming; and Ashley Richards. (Id. ¶ 35.) The October 25, 2018 incident was discussed at length, and Plaintiffs K.L. and J.R. were told that the school aid would have no further contact in any manner with Plaintiff Student going forward. (Id. ¶ 36.) The District also promised to contact Plaintiffs K.L. and J.R. if any specific issue arose with Plaintiff Student that would involve some type of physical restraint. (Id. ¶ 37.)

         Subsequent to the meeting, on February 14, 2019, Ms. Gaffney arrived at the Monticello School around 2:30 p.m. to pick up Plaintiff Student and was informed by a District representative that “[Plaintiff Student] had a behavior and is in the safe room now.” (Id. ¶ 38-39.) Ms. Gaffney was escorted to the safe room where she found Plaintiff Student sitting on the floor with his coat also on the floor next to him, leaning forward, crying, and holding his right arm with his left hand. (Id. ¶ 40.) Ms. Gaffney informed Ashley Richards and the school nurse that Plaintiff Student's right arm was injured, but was told that “there was nothing wrong with his arms, ” and that his “blood pressure was fine.” (Id. ¶ 41.) That same day, Plaintiff Student was taken to the emergency room at Geisinger-CMC where he was diagnosed with a dislocated right shoulder. (Id. ¶ 42.) Following the February 14, 2019 incident, Plaintiff K.L. viewed surveillance video of the incident which showed the school aid violently and aggressively attempting to restrain Plaintiff Student by holding his right arm and forcibly moving it upward behind his back while simultaneously pushing Plaintiff Student up against a desk. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         On May 14, 2019, the District filed the present motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint, along with a supporting brief. (Docs. 4-5.) Plaintiffs filed a brief in opposition on May 28, 2019. (Doc. 6.) This motion is now fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         Jurisdiction

         Because this case raises federal questions under the ADA and Section 504, the court has original jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). Further, venue is appropriate as all the actions detailed in the complaint occurred within the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

         Standard of Review

         The District seeks dismissal of the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court, in determining whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction, must decide “whether the allegations on the face of the complaint, taken as true, allege facts sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the district court.” Taliaferro v. Darby Twp. Zoning Bd., 458 F.3d 181, 188 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Licata v. U.S. Postal Serv., 33 F.3d 259, 260 (3d Cir. 1994)). Rule 12(b)(1) challenges may be “facial” or “factual.” See Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A facial attack challenges whether jurisdiction has been properly pled and requires the court to “only consider the allegations of the complaint and documents referenced therein and attached thereto, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891.) Conversely, when a defendant sets forth a factual attack on subject-matter jurisdiction, “the Court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself whether it has power to hear the case. . . . ‘no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims.'” Carpet Group Int'l v. Oriental Rug Importers Ass'n, Inc., 227 F.3d 62, 69 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891).

         In this case, the District challenges Plaintiffs' alleged failure to exhaust administrate remedies and, thus, presents a factual attack on subject-matter jurisdiction. See Rohrbaugh by & through Rohrbaugh v. Lincoln Intermediate Unit, 255 F.Supp.3d 589, 592 (M.D. Pa. 2017). As a result, the court will weigh the allegations in the complaint ...


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