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Ann Palagonia and Thomas Palagonia, Parents and Guardians of Their Minor Child v. Sachem Central School District

February 14, 2012

ANN PALAGONIA AND THOMAS PALAGONIA, PARENTS AND GUARDIANS OF THEIR MINOR CHILD,
ERICA PALAGONIA, AND ERICA PALAGONIA, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SACHEM CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, SACHEM SCHOOL BOARD,
DENISE DOLAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND PAUL STELLINO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: E. Thomas Boyle United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Plaintiffs oppose the motion, asserting that there are issues of fact that necessitate a trial. For the following reasons, defendants' motion is granted.

FACTS

The minor plaintiff, Erica Palagonia ("Erica"), began attending Sachem East High School ("Sachem East") in September 2005, at the start of the ninth grade. (Def. R. 56.1 Statement ("Def. 56.1") ¶ 1; Pl. R. 56.1 Statement ("Pl. 56.1") ¶ 1.) In November 2005, Erica began having difficulty attending school due to anxiety. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 2; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 2.) Around this same time, Erica began self-medicating with her mother's Xanax pills, which ultimately resulted in an addiction. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 5-6; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 5-6.)

Erica did not advise her parents of her anxiety until December 2005. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 8; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 8.) Erica's parents told her to do the best she could and that if she was feeling anxious, she should go to the nurse's office and take a deep breath. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 9; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 9.) Erica was not seeing any mental health professionals at this time; nor did she inform her parents that she was using drugs. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 10; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 10.) However, Erica would occasionally speak to the school psychologist, Dr. Fern Miranda, about her anxiety. (E. Palagonia Dep. 43-45.)

By January 2006, Erica was taking two to three Xanax a day while still attempting to attend school. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 6; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 6.) Erica also began taking Vicodin during this time. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 12; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 12.) In February 2006, Erica was hospitalized due to an overdose of Xanax. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 15; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 15.) Erica did not attend school regularly from November 2005 through April 2006. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 14; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 14.)

In March and April 2006, Erica attended an outpatient drug rehabilitation program at Mather Hospital, at which time she did not attend school. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 16; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 16.) Erica was ultimately ejected from the rehabilitation program for continuing to use drugs. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 17; Pl. 56.1 ¶17.) Thereafter, Erica spent three days in the inpatient psychiatric unit at Mather Hospital as part of an inpatient drug rehabilitation program. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 18-19; P. 56.1 ¶¶ 18-19.) Erica also began seeing her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Mala Iyer, and continued to see Dr. Iyer for monthly appointments following her release from the rehabilitation programs. (E. Palagonia 50-h Tr. 23.)

After Erica's release from the inpatient drug rehabilitation program, she was provided home teaching from April through June 2006. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 24-26; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 24-26.) At this time, defendant Paul Stellino ("Stellino") was the director of Special Education at defendant Sachem Central School District (the "District") and was responsible for approving or denying home teaching requests. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 20; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 20.) Pursuant to the District's policies, home teaching must be recommended by an outside medical provider in order to be approved. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 21; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 21.) Home teaching is not approved absent medical documentation unless a student is suspended. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 22; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 22.) According to District policy, even where there is a medical request for home teaching, it will not be approved if it does not include a treatment plan. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 23; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 23.) While receiving home teaching at the end of the 2005/2006 school year, Erica maintained monthly treatment sessions with Dr. Iyer and also began seeing a psychotherapist, Barbara O'Brien, on a weekly basis. (E. Palagonia 50-h Tr. 23-24, 54.)

Erica returned to school in September 2006, at the start of her tenth grade year. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 30; E. Palagonia Dep. 56.) By letters dated August 28, 2006 and September 5, 2006, Dr. Iyer recommended that Erica receive home teaching for the first academic quarter due to her anxiety disorder. (Pl. Ex. 1.)*fn1 Barbara O'Brien, Erica's psychotherapist, also recommended that Erica receive home teaching in a letter dated September 6, 2006. (Pl. Ex. 1.) Dr. Miranda, who conducted one or two home visits to Erica around this time, spoke with Stellino and defendant Denise Dolan ("Dolan"), the Assistant Principal at Sachem East, concerning the recommendations that Erica continue to receive home teaching. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 11, 29, 31; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 11, 29, 31.) Dr. Miranda also attempted to communicate with Dr. Iyer, but her phone calls were not returned. (Miranda Dep. 17-18, 45.) On or about September 18, 2006, Erica began receiving home teaching again. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 32; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 32.)

On or about October 24, 2006, plaintiffs, through a note from Dr. Iyer, requested an additional four weeks of home teaching for Erica. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 33; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 33; Def. Ex. H.) The request was denied by the District and Erica's home teaching was terminated on October 27, 2006. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 32-33; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 32-33.) On or about November 8, 2006, plaintiffs, through a note from Dr. Iyer, again requested additional home teaching for Erica. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 34; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 34; Def. Ex. I; Pl. Ex. 1.) An additional two weeks of home teaching was approved by the District. (Def. Ex. ¶ 34; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 34.) Erica's home teaching was terminated on November 27, 2006. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 35; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 35.)

Erica did not return to school upon the termination of her home teaching. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 36; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 36.) Dr. Miranda and Dolan spoke about contacting Child Protective Services ("CPS") at that point and Dr. Miranda advised plaintiffs that CPS would be called. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 37-38; Pl 56.1 ¶¶ 37-38.) CPS was contacted concerning Erica in November 2006, but they declined to take the case. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 39; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 39.)

Despite the District's attempts to assist Erica in returning to school, she stopped attending completely. (Def. 56.1 ¶¶ 41-42; Pl. 56.1 ¶¶ 41-42; Dolan Dep. 48 (stating that they offered Erica a "truncated day, which was a reduced schedule, so that she could slowly acclimate herself back"); Def. Ex. K ("Strategies for Success" dated September 18, 2006, outlining an approach for reintegrating Erica back to school.)) By letter dated March 7, 2007, Dr. Iyer advised the District that Erica's symptoms "seem to have worsened" and "strongly recommend[ed] temporary home tutoring for the next four weeks." (Def. Ex. L; Pl. Ex. 1.) On March 30, 2007, Stellino approved additional home teaching for Erica, conditioned upon her daily attendance at school for a period of two weeks, during which Erica would be required to make an appearance at school each day, if only for a few minutes. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 43; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 43.) Plaintiff Ann Palagonia, Erica's mother, subsequently telephoned Dr. Miranda to cancel the arrangement because Erica refused to attend school. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 44; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 44.)

On April 19, 2007, the District's attendance officer visited plaintiffs' residence. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 45; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 45.) No one was home at the time so the attendance officer left a note requesting that Erica's parents contact her regarding Erica. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 45; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 45.) The next day, on April 20, 2007, the District again contacted CPS. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 46; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 46.) CPS visited the plaintiffs' home in April 2007 and met with Erica. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 47; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 47.) The CPS caseworker, Luis Polanco, observed the plaintiffs' home and spoke with Erica and her parents. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 47; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 47.) By letter dated June 20, 2007, CPS advised Dolan that the District's report was "deemed 'unfounded.'" (Pl. Ex. 6.)

Erica did not return to school for the remainder of the 2006/2007 school year. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 48; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 48.) By letter dated May 15, 2007, Dr. Iyer again recommended that Erica receive home teaching. (Pl. Ex. 1.) Around the same time, plaintiffs' attorney, David Gordon, sent a letter to the District requesting that a Committee on Special Education ("CSE") be convened to evaluate Erica.*fn2 (Pl. Ex. 8.) On July 9, 2007, a CSE concerning Erica was convened. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 49; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 49.) The CSE found that Erica did not have a disability and plaintiffs were advised of the finding during the CSE meeting. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 50; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 50; Def. Ex. N.) That same day, July 9, 2007, Stellino mailed plaintiffs a copy of the Procedural Safeguards Notice of their Due Process Rights, as provided by 20 U.S.C. § 1415. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 51; Pl. 56.1 ¶ 51; Def. Ex. N.)

Plaintiffs commenced this action on February 26, 2008 and amended their Complaint on April 30, 2009, alleging the following claims against defendants: (1) violation of their equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"); (2) municipal liability, pursuant to Section 1983; (3) disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq.; (3) violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.; (4) retaliation in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. §§ 701 et seq.; (5) violation of the New York State Human Rights Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290 et seq.; (6) violation of Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules ("CPLR"); (7) falsely reporting an incident in violation of New York Penal Law § 240.55 (alleged solely against defendant Dolan); and (8) intentional infliction of emotional distress. During a pre-motion conference with the Court on July 6, 2011, plaintiffs withdrew their causes of action pursuant to New York's CPLR Article 78 and the New York Penal Law. Defendants now move for summary judgment with respect to plaintiffs' remaining claims.*fn3

DISCUSSION

I. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). The burden is on the moving party to establish the lack of any factual issues. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The very language of this standard reveals that an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment will not be defeated because of the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). Rather, the requirement is that there be no "genuine issue of material fact." Id. at 248.

The inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts are to be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 588 (1986). When the moving party has carried its burden, the party opposing summary judgment must do more than simply show that "there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Id. at 586. In addition, the party opposing the motion "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of ...


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