Risser v. Steelton-Highspire School District
MEMORANDUM (Order to follow as separate docket entry) re: 24 MOTION to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint filed by Lisa Crum, Ellen Castagneto, Rachel Montiel, Steelton-Highspire School District. (See memo for complete details.)Signed by Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner on 11/22/17. (ki)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
DISTRICT, DR. ELLEN
CASTAGNETO, LISA CRUM, and
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:17-CV-357
(Chief Judge Conner)
Plaintiff Mark Risser (“Risser”) commenced this action against his employer
and several former supervisors asserting claims of discrimination, harassment,
hostile work environment, and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act
(“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act
(“PHRA”), 43 PA. STAT. AND CONS. STAT. ANN. §§ 951-963. (See Doc. 13).
Defendants Steelton-Highspire School District (the “School District”), Dr. Ellen
Castagneto (“Castagneto”), Lisa Crum (“Crum”), and Rachel Montiel (“Montiel”)
move to dismiss Risser’s amended complaint in part, pursuant to Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Doc. 24).
Factual Background & Procedural History
The School District hired Risser on August 12, 2013 to teach fourth grade at
Steelton-Highspire Elementary School. (Doc. 13 ¶¶ 9, 11, 20). Risser notified the
School District of his disability1 during the hiring process. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 24-25). At the
time of Risser’s hire, Castagneto was the superintendent for Steelton-Highspire
School District, Crum was principal of the elementary school, and Montiel was the
assistant principal of the elementary school. (Doc. 13 ¶¶ 6-8). Montiel replaced
Crum as principal in September of 2014. (Id. ¶ 20).
Several days before the start of classes, the School District informed Risser
that the fourth grade position was being filled by another teacher and that he would
now be teaching either second or sixth grade. (Id. ¶ 13). In September of 2013,
Risser personally notified Principal Crum and Assistant Principal Montiel of his
disability and took time off work for treatment. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 26-28). Risser returned
to work in early November of 2013. (Id. ¶ 28). The School District required Riser to
undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation before returning to the classroom. (Id. ¶ 30).
The evaluation occurred five months later, in April of 2014. (Id. ¶ 31). In the
interim, Risser served in other capacities including cafeteria duty and various
administrative tasks. (Id. ¶ 33(d)). The evaluation determined that Risser was fit for
duty but recommended a brief transition period with a gradual return to full-time
status. (Id. ¶ 32).
Upon his return to work in November of 2013, the School District allegedly
engaged in “regular and intentional discrimination against and harassment of”
The factual background that follows derives primarily from Risser’s
partially redacted amended complaint. (See Doc. 13). The court cites to this filing
in the interest of protecting Risser’s privacy. Citations to the unredacted amended
complaint filed under seal are used sparingly. (See Doc. 12). The redacted material
relates to the nature of Risser’s disability, a detailed discussion of which is not
necessary to disposition of the instant motion. (See Docs. 24, 25, 28).
Risser because of his disability. (Doc. 13 ¶ 33). The School District purportedly
initiated a series of “unsupported and flawed” classroom observations and
evaluations of Risser. (Id. ¶ 33(a)). Principal Crum observed Risser teaching a
second grade class on June 2, 2014. (Id. ¶ 33(e)). Risser had no prior experience
teaching second grade and was given no time to prepare. (Id. ¶ 33(e)-(f)).
Unsurprisingly, Crum assigned him an “unsatisfactory” teacher observation score.
(Id. ¶ 33(e)).
Despite this negative evaluation, and despite fourth grade teacher vacancies,
defendants subsequently notified Risser that he would be teaching second grade for
the 2014-2015 school year. (Id. ¶ 40). An additional performance evaluation ensued.
In his November 20, 2014 classroom evaluation, Risser received a “proficient” score
in 19 of 21 classroom observation components. (Id. ¶ 33(p)). Risser filed his first
administrative charge against the School District with the Pennsylvania Human
Relations Commission (“PHRC”) on November 25, 2014. (Doc. 24-2 at 2-9).2 This
administrative charge addressed defendants’ alleged discriminatory conduct
beginning in August of 2013. (Id. at 3).
The court is generally limited in its review to the allegations contained in
the complaint, any exhibits attached thereto, and matters of public record. Schmidt
v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014). However, the court may consider
documents “integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint” without
converting the motion into one for summary judgment. Id. (quoting In re
Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997)). Thus, under
this narrow exception, the court may consider the scope of administrative charges
referenced in Risser’s complaint, (Doc. 13 ¶¶ 79, 83, Ex. A), and attached to
defendants’ brief, (see Doc. 24-2).
Risser now alleges that defendants initiated an investigation against him in
retaliation for filing this initial administrative complaint. (Doc. 13 ¶ 81).
Superintendent Castagneto’s investigation included teaching evaluations and
interviews of students and faculty. (Id. ¶ 33(k), 33(o)-((n)). Risser alleges that
contemporaneous with the investigation, Principal Montiel harassed him regarding
his classroom set-up and lesson plans and conducted sham observations designed
to “intimidate and harass” him. (Id. 13 ¶ 33(j)). Risser also avers that defendants’
conduct forced him to resign from a head junior varsity coaching position at a local
high school and cost him other teaching opportunities. (Id. ¶¶ 49-50, 59, 74, 89).
Castagneto conducted a mid-year evaluation of Risser on January 19, 2015
and found that Risser “needs improvement.” (Id. ¶ 33(o)). Castagneto placed Risser
on suspension without pay as a result of her investigation. (Id. ¶¶ 34, 41, 45). Risser
filed his second administrative charge with the PHRC on March 26, 2015, again
naming only the School District as a respondent. (Doc. 24-2 at 10-15). Following
additional negative evaluations, Castagneto informed Risser that she was
recommending his termination. (Doc. 13 ¶¶ 43, 45). The School District terminated
Risser’s employment on October 26, 2015. (Id. ¶ 46). Risser filed his third
administrative charge with the PHRC on March 24, 2016. (Doc. 24-2 at 16-21).
Risser filed a grievance regarding his termination pursuant to a collective
bargaining agreement. (Doc. 13 ¶ 56). An arbitrator reinstated him with back pay
and benefits. (Id.) On September 12, 2016, the board of directors reinstated Risser
“under protest” in light of the arbitrator’s decision. (Id. ¶ 57). Risser avers that
defendants thereafter engaged in a concerted effort to obtain Risser’s resignation or
create false bases for his dismissal. (Id. ¶ 48). As an example, Risser alleges that
defendants deliberately disclosed his disability to students and faculty at a school
assembly on March 2, 2017. (Id. ¶ 85).
The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”)
issued Risser right-to-sue letters for each of his three administrative complaints on
December 2, 2015, February 15, 2017, and February 22, 2017, respectively. (Id. at
Ex. A). Risser commenced the instant action on February 27, 2017, (Doc. 1),
subsequently filing an amended complaint, (Docs. 12, 13), on March 28, 2017. Risser
advances claims of disability discrimination, harassment, and hostile work
environment under the ADA (Count I) and the PHRA (Count II) as well as a claim
for retaliation under both statutes (Count III). (Doc. 13 at 4, 13, 15).3 Defendants
move to dismiss the amended complaint in part under Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Doc. 24). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for
The amended complaint styles the retaliation claim as “Count IV.” (Doc. 13
at 15). The court will refer to the retaliation claim as Count III for clarity since only
three counts are alleged.
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the
dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the
court must “accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light
most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable
reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.” Phillips v. Cty. of
Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd.,
292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).
Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the
defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.”
Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts
a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir.
2010). In the first step, “the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must
Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(1) on the grounds that Risser failed to exhaust administrative remedies as to
certain defendants. (Doc. 25 at 6). The Third Circuit has clarified that “questions of
whether a plaintiff has timely exhausted administrative remedies in Title VII
actions are in the nature of statutes of limitation” and do not affect the district
court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Francis v. Mineta, 505 F.3d 266, 268 (3d Cir.
2007) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting Robinson v. Dalton, 107 F.3d 1018, 1021
(3d Cir. 1997)); see also Wilson v. MVM, Inc., 475 F.3d 166, 174 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing
Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393 (1982)); but see Vnuk v.
Berwick Hosp. Co., No. 3:14-CV-01432, 2015 WL 4984974, at *3 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 19,
2015) (quoting First Jersey Sec., Inc. v. Bergen, 605 F.2d 690, 700 (3d Cir. 1979))
(citing Rosetsky v. Nat’l Bd. of Med. Examiners of U.S., Inc., 350 F. App’x 698, 703
(3d Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential)). Therefore, Rule 12(b)(6) is the proper vehicle for
defendants’ exhaustion arguments.
plead to state a claim.’” Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal,
556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be
separated; well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions
may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32; see Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203,
210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual allegations, it
must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. A
claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts “that allow the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Courts should grant leave to amend before dismissing a curable pleading in
civil rights actions. See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc.,
482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108
(3d Cir. 2002). Courts need not grant leave to amend sua sponte in dismissing noncivil rights claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fletcher-Harlee Corp., 482 F.3d at 25253, but leave is broadly encouraged “when justice so requires.” FED. R. CIV. P.
Defendants assert three principal arguments in support of their motion to
dismiss: first, that Risser failed to exhaust administrative remedies under the ADA
and PHRA; second, that defendants Castagneto, Crum, and Montiel cannot be held
liable in their individual capacities; and third, that Pennsylvania’s high public
official immunity doctrine shields Castagneto from suit in her official capacity as
superintendent of the School District.
As a threshold matter, defendants contend that the amended complaint is
properly read as bringing suit against Castagneto, Crum, and Montiel in their
official capacities alone. (Doc. 25 at 11, 15-16). Complaints need not state explicitly
whether individual defendants are sued in their official or individual capacities.
See Gregory v. Chehi, 843 F.2d 111, 119 (3d Cir. 1988). When a complaint is unclear
on this issue, courts are instructed to look to both the complaint and the “course of
proceedings” to determine the liability the plaintiff seeks to impose. Melo v. Hafer,
912 F.2d 628, 635 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 167 n.14
(1985)); Gregory, 843 F.2d at 119. Risser’s pleading does not explicitly state whether
Castagneto, Crum, and Montiel are sued in their individual capacities. However,
Risser correctly observes that claims against defendants in their official capacities
are redundant when, as here, the employing entity is also sued. (See Doc. 26 at 2223). The court will construe Risser’s amended complaint as asserting claims under
the ADA and PHRA against defendants in their individual capacities. The court
will construe Risser’s amended complaint as asserting claims under the ADA and
PHRA against defendants in their individual capacities.
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies Under the ADA and PHRA
The ADA adopts the enforcement procedures of Title VII of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964. 42 U.S.C. § 12117. Thereunder, a plaintiff seeking redress for alleged
discrimination must exhaust all administrative remedies before seeking relief in
federal court. Watson v. Eastman Kodak Co., 235 F.3d 852, 854 (3d Cir. 2000). A
complainant must file a charge of discrimination within 180 days after an allegedly
unlawful employment practice occurs. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). This deadline
extends to 300 days if a complainant files similar charges in a state with a parallel
agency such as the PHRC. Id.; Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 165
(3d Cir. 2013). If the EEOC fails to resolve the matter within 180 days after
investigating the charges, the EEOC notifies the complainant with a right-to-sue
letter. Burgh v. Borough Council, 251 F.3d 465, 469-70 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Waiters
v. Parsons, 729 F.2d 233, 237 (3d Cir. 1984)). Receipt of a right-to-sue letter is a
prerequisite to filing a private action. Id. (citations omitted). Courts analyze
disability discrimination claims under the PHRA and the ADA coextensively.
Capps v. Mondelez Glob., LLC, 847 F.3d 144, 150 n.1 (3d Cir. 2017). Accordingly, the
following ADA analysis applies equally to Risser’s PHRA claims unless otherwise
Exhaustion as to Montiel
A complainant may ordinarily only bring an action in federal court against a
party previously named in the relevant administrative charge. Schafer v. Bd. of
Pub. Educ., 903 F.2d 243, 252 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(f)(1)); Glus v.
G.C. Murphy Co., 562 F.2d 880, 885 (3d Cir. 1977) (“Glus I”) (collecting cases). This
exhaustion rule serves two purposes: to notify the charged party, and to facilitate
resolution without the need for formal litigation. Glus I, 562 F.2d at 888. The Third
Circuit recognizes a narrow exception to this rule, which excuses technical
noncompliance when an unnamed party receives adequate notice and has a shared
commonality of interest with the named parties. Schafer, 903 F.2d at 252 (citing
Glus v. G.C. Murphy Co., 629 F.2d 248, 251 (3d Cir. 1980) (“Glus II”), vacated on
other grounds, 451 U.S. 935 (1981)).
Courts considering the notice requirement have concluded that when a
plaintiff fails to name a party in the body of an administrative charge, that party is
not on notice that they could be sued in their individual capacity. Jankowski v.
Fanelli Bros. Trucking Co., No. 13-2593, 2014 WL 690861, at *4-8 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 24,
2014); Hills v. Borough of Colwyn, 978 F. Supp. 2d 469, 480-81 (E.D. Pa. 2013)
(collecting cases); Kunwar v. Simco, 135 F. Supp. 2d 649, 654 (E.D. Pa. 2001); but see
Lowenstein v. Catholic Health East, 820 F. Supp. 2d 639, 642 (E.D. Pa. 2011). When
an unnamed party is aware of the charge’s existence solely by virtue of her
employment position, the party is only on notice that she may be sued in her official
capacity. Hills, 978 F. Supp. 2d at 480-81; cf. Diep v. Southwark Metal Mfg. Co., No.
00-6136, 2001 WL 283146, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 19, 2001).
A plaintiff must also establish that the unnamed party shares a commonality
of interest with parties named in the administrative charge. Courts consider the
following four factors to assess commonality of interest: (1) whether the
complainant could reasonably have ascertained the unnamed party’s role at the
time the charge was filed; (2) whether the named and unnamed parties share such
similar interests that including the unnamed party would be unnecessary; (3)
whether the unnamed party’s absence from the administrative proceedings caused
actual prejudice; and (4) whether the unnamed party has indicated to the
complainant that their relationship is to be conducted via the named party.
Schafer, 903 F.2d at 252 n.7 (quoting Glus II, 629 F.2d at 251).
Defendants submit that Risser failed to exhaust administrative remedies
appertaining Montiel by failing to name her as a party in the agency proceedings or
to mention her at all in the agency charges. (Doc. 25 at 7-8). We agree. In his
amended complaint, Risser alleges that, during the 2014-2015 school year, Montiel
harassed him concerning classroom set-up and lesson plans. (Doc. 13 ¶ 33(i)).
Risser also alleges that Montiel conducted unnecessary evaluations as a means of
intimidating him. (Id. ¶ 33(j)). Yet Montiel’s alleged conduct is nowhere referenced
in Risser’s three administrative charges.5 (See Doc. 24-2).
Risser concedes that his administrative filings are silent as to Montiel. (Doc.
26 at 18-19). Risser relies on a decision of our sister court, Lowenstein v. Catholic
Health East, 820 F. Supp. 2d 639 (E.D. Pa. 2011), in support of his request that we
overlook his omission. (See id.). In Lowenstein, the court permitted plaintiff to
proceed with his claims against an unnamed defendant because there was a factual
question as to whether that defendant had received notice. 820 F. Supp. 2d at 646.
Citing her “important role in the events at issue,” the court emphasized that the
unnamed defendant was the principal employee taking negative action toward the
plaintiff. See id. at 642, 646. Risser’s allegata do not sustain a similar conclusion. It
is Castagneto and Crum—not Montiel—who feature prominently in the amended
complaint sub judice. (See, e.g., Doc. 13 ¶¶ 29, 33(e), 33(o)-(p), 34, 41, 45). Hence,
Lowenstein does not excuse Risser’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
The court observes that Risser deliberately excluded Crum from his second
and third administrative charges in light of her departure as principal, but chose
not to include the purported discriminatory actions of Crum’s successor, Montiel.
(See Doc. 24-2).
The agency filings are devoid of reference to Montiel or her alleged actions.
Montiel was not on notice of a potential lawsuit against her in an individual
capacity. See Schafer, 903 F.2d at 252. Therefore, we will dismiss Risser’s claims
against Montiel for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
Failure to Exhaust Harassment and Hostile Work
A plaintiff generally must exhaust administrative remedies with respect to
each of his claims, but a court may assume jurisdiction over claims not technically
exhausted if they are reasonably within the scope of the complainant’s charges and
would be encompassed by the EEOC investigation. Mandel, 706 F.3d at 163; Howze
v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 750 F.2d 1208, 1212 (3d Cir. 1984). There must be a
“close nexus” between the facts alleged in the administrative charge and any newlyraised claim. Hicks v. ABT Assocs., Inc., 572 F.2d 960, 967 (3d Cir. 1978); see also
Antol v. Perry, 82 F.3d 1291, 1295 (3d Cir. 1996). The relevant test is whether the
alleged acts in the federal lawsuit are fairly encompassed within the scope of the
prior agency charge and related investigation. Antol, 82 F.3d at 1295 (quoting
Waiters, 729 F.2d at 237). In determining whether a claim is contemplated in an
underlying charge, courts liberally interpret the administrative filing. Anjelino v.
N.Y. Times Co., 200 F.3d 73, 94 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Hicks, 572 F.2d at 965).
Defendants contend that Risser’s instant harassment and hostile work
environment claims fall outside the scope of his administrative charges. (Doc. 25 at
8-9). Harassment and hostile work environment claims are closely connected. To
establish a claim of hostile work environment, a plaintiff must show, inter alia, the
existence of unwelcome harassment that is so “severe or pervasive” that it alters the
conditions of employment or creates an abusive working environment. Lowenstein,
820 F. Supp. 2d at 646-47 (citing Walton v. Mental Health Ass’n of Se. Pa., 168 F.3d
661, 667 (3d Cir. 1999)). Courts should construe agency charges as meeting
exhaustion requirements if they contain terms that are interchangeable with those
commonly used in hostile work environment charges, such as “‘abusive,’ ‘hostile,’
‘environment,’ and ‘atmosphere.’” Anjelino, 200 F.3d 73, 94-95 (citations omitted).
Risser’s instant harassment and hostile work environment claims fall outside
the scope of even the most deferential interpretation of his agency filings. The first
two administrative charges focused almost exclusively on a specified number of
classroom observations and performance evaluations. (See Doc. 24-2 at 3-7, 11-14).
Most of these actions were associated with an ongoing investigation initiated by the
superintendent, Castagneto. (See id.) The third charge addressed only Risser’s
termination on October 26, 2015. (Id. at 18-19). The charges do not mention
Risser’s work environment, the existence of an abusive atmosphere, or any other
language that could reasonably be interpreted as indicating harassment or a hostile
work environment. See Barzanty v. Verizon Pa., Inc., 361 F. App’x 411, 414 (3d Cir.
2010) (nonprecedential) (citing Anjelino, 200 F.3d at 94-95). Risser’s work
environment is mentioned only in the context that the performance observations
and reviews occurred in the school classroom. (See Doc. 24-2 at 5, 12, 17).
The gravamen of Risser’s administrative charges is his assertion that
defendants initiated performance reviews and an investigation either on account of
his disability or in retaliation for his filing charges with the PHRC and EEOC. (See
id.) Risser’s harassment and hostile work environment claims are not “fairly within
the scope” of Risser’s administrative charges or any investigation arising therefrom.
Antol, 82 F.3d at 1295. Therefore, the court will dismiss Risser’s harassment and
hostile work environment claims in Counts I and II.
Failure to Exhaust “New Facts”
The Third Circuit has declined to adopt a per se exhaustion rule regarding
events subsequent to the filing of an administrative charge. Robinson, 107 F.3d at
1024; Waiters, 729 F.2d at 237. Subsequent events may be fairly considered as
encompassed within an earlier charge when the event falls within the scope of (1)
the prior charge or (2) the ensuing agency investigation. Robinson, 107 F.3d at 1025
(quoting Waiters, 729 F.2d at 235). Discrete acts that occur after a complainant
receives a right-to-sue letter do not qualify under this rule. See Waiters, 729 F.2d at
237; see also Green v. Postmaster Gen., 437 F. App’x 174, 178 (3d Cir. 2011)
Defendants assert that Risser cannot include “new and distinct facts” in his
amended complaint which were not first alleged in the administrative charges.
(Doc. 25 at 8). Defendants challenge three particular allegations: (1) that Risser’s
disability was disclosed to students and faculty at a school assembly; (2) that he was
forced to resign from a coaching job; and (3) that defendants intentionally hindered
his efforts to seek new employment. (Id. at 9). Defendants aver that these “new
facts” are improperly offered in further support of Risser’s discrimination claim.
(Id. at 8-9).
Two of these “new facts” fall within the ambit of Risser’s prior administrative
charges. The junior varsity coaching job was for the 2014-2015 school year. (Doc. 13
¶ 49). Risser does not specify when he sought other teaching jobs, but he was
unemployed from October 26, 2015 until September 12, 2016 when he was
reinstated by the School District’s board of directors. (Id. ¶¶ 46, 50, 57). Both events
predate the February 22, 2017 right-to-sue letter. (Id. at 22). Risser attributes these
lost job prospects to the discriminating and retaliatory conduct described in his
agency filings. (Id. ¶¶ 46-50; Doc. 24-2 at 13-14, 18-19). The loss of existing and
potential future employment opportunities on account of defendants’ actions falls
squarely within the scope of the administrative charges.6
The only event alleged in the amended complaint that occurred after receipt
of the final right-to-sue letter is the March 2, 2017 assembly at which defendants
purportedly disclosed details of Risser’s disability to students and faculty. (Doc. 13
¶ 85). This event postdates Risser’s final right to sue letter, (id. at 22), and thus
“may [not] be fairly considered as encompassed therein.” Robinson, 107 F.3d at
1025. We find that Risser has not exhausted his administrative remedies with
regard to the alleged discrimination at the assembly. Risser’s discrimination and
retaliation claims will be dismissed to the extent they are premised on this event.
Even if we were to accept defendants’ arguments, both of these allegations
are permissible expressions of damages suffered on account of the alleged
discrimination and retaliation. (Doc. 13 ¶¶ 59, 62-63, 74, 77, 89, 92).
Individual Liability Under the ADA
Title VII does not subject supervisory employees to individual liability.
Emerson v. Thiel Coll., 296 F.3d 184, 190 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Sheridan v. E.I.
DuPont de Nemours & Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1078 (3d Cir. 1996) (en banc)). The Third
Circuit has acknowledged that this prohibition on individual liability extends to
claims for damages under Title I of the ADA.7 Koslow, 302 F.3d at 177-78.
Therefore, Risser cannot maintain an action under Title I of the ADA against
Castagneto and Crum in their individual capacities. The court will dismiss Risser’s
discrimination and retaliation claims against these defendants.
Individual Liability Under the PHRA
Unlike the ADA, individuals may be held liable under the PHRA. See 43 PA.
STAT. AND CONS. STAT. § 955. The PHRA makes it unlawful for “any person” to
“aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce” or “attempt, directly or indirectly, to commit”
any practice proscribed by the statute. Id. § 955(e). An employee is a “person”
under the PHRA, and the statute expressly covers employees of “the
Commonwealth or any political subdivision or board, department, commission or
school district thereof.” Id. § 954(a), (b). Courts have interpreted this statutory
language to mean that the Pennsylvania legislature has waived its sovereign
immunity for PHRA claims. Boone v. Pa. Office of Vocational Rehab., 373 F. Supp.
Risser only cites to the ADA generally in his complaint. (Doc. 13 at 1 (citing
42 U.S.C. § 12101)). Title I of the ADA prohibits certain employers from
discriminating against an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, on
account of that disability. Koslow v. Commonwealth of Pa., 302 F.3d 161, 177 (3d
2d 484, 496 (M.D. Pa. 2005) (citing City of Phila. v. Pa. Human Relations Comm’n,
684 A.2d 204, 208 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1996); Mansfield State Coll. v. Kovich, 407 A.2d
1387, 1388 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1979)). Accordingly, Risser’s PHRA claims may
proceed against Castagneto and Crum.8
High Public Official Immunity
Pennsylvania common law recognizes the doctrine of absolute immunity for
“high public officials.” Smith v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 112 F. Supp. 2d 417, 425 (E.D.
Pa. 2000) (citing Lindner v. Mollan, 677 A.2d 1194, 1195-96 (1996)). High public
is unlimited and exempts a high public official from all
civil suits for damages arising out of false defamatory
statements and even from statements or actions
motivated by malice, provided the statements are made or
the actions are taken in the course of the official's duties or
powers and within the scope of his authority, or as it is
sometimes expressed, within his jurisdiction.
Heller v. Fulare, 454 F.3d 174, 177-178 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Matson v. Margiotti, 88
A.2d 892, 895 (Pa. 1952)). Pennsylvania courts have recognized that school
superintendents qualify as high public officials. Smith, 112 F. Supp. 2d at 425
(citations omitted). However, this doctrine only shields defendants sued in their
official capacities. Heller, 454 F.3d at 177-178 (quoting Matson, 88 A.2d at 895); see
also Durham v. McElynn, 772 A.2d 68, 69 (2001). Defendants concede that this
The individual defendants ostensibly raise qualified immunity as a defense
to all claims against them. (See Doc. 25 at 16-18). The doctrine of qualified
immunity does not apply to state law claims. Betz v. Satteson, No. 4:15-CV-00851,
2017 WL 1474275, at *32 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 25, 2017) (quoting Miller v. New Jersey, 144
F. App’x. 926, 929 (3d Cir. 2005)).
doctrine does not apply to Castagneto in her individual capacity. (Doc. 28 at 12).
Because Risser disclaims all official capacity claims, (Doc. 26 at 22), defendants’
motion invoking high public official immunity will be denied as moot.
Defendants’ motion (Doc. 24) will be granted in part and denied in part. An
appropriate order shall issue.
/S/ CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER
Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge
United States District Court
Middle District of Pennsylvania
November 22, 2017
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