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Harrington v. Jamesville Dewitt Central School District

United States District Court, N.D. New York

April 11, 2017


          DECISION & ORDER

          Thomas J. McAvoy, S.U.S.D.J.

         Before the Court is Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings in this case, that alleges violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights in school disciplinary proceedings. See dkt. # 7. The parties have briefed the issues and the Court has determined to decide the matter without oral argument.

         I. Background

         This case arises out of discipline meted out against Plaintiff John A. Harrington by Defendant Jamesville Dewitt Central School District when Plaintiff was a high-school student in 2015. See Complaint (“Complt.”), dkt. # 1. Plaintiff alleges that at the time relevant to this action, he was a student at Jamesville-DeWitt High School. Id. at ¶ 7. He was a member of the National Honor Society, an Honor student, and “well-regarded and well-liked by his teachers and peers alike.” Id. He had no history of academic discipline and faced no allegations of academic dishonesty during his twelve years in the School District. Id. at ¶ 8.

         In 2013, Plaintiff received a medical diagnosis of severe depression and anxiety. Id. at ¶ 9. He also suffered from severe allergies and “other debilitating medical conditions. Id. Plaintiff was required to take several extended leaves of absence from school. Id. In 2014, Plaintiff underwent hospitalization for suicidal thoughts. Id. at ¶ 10. Plaintiff alleges that he informed the District and his teachers of his illnesses, including his emotional state. Id. The District was also aware of the frequent absences he suffered in 2014-2015 because of his symptoms. Id. The District had also received updated medical information from Plaintiff's physician. Id. at ¶ 11. Plaintiff does not allege that he requested any accommodations for his disability from the District or that he used any programs available to disabled students at the High School.

         This lawsuit arises out of Plaintiff's participation in a high school course titled “Writing 105: Practices of Academic Writing, ” which was a course offered through Syracuse University's “Project Advance” (“SUPA”) program. Id. at ¶ 12. Students who enrolled in SUPA classes could gain both high-school and college credit. Id. Their high school teachers taught the classes. Id. Plaintiff alleges that the District represented that Connie Myers-Kelly, who taught the class in question, had been trained and approved by Syracuse to teach the course. Id. at ¶¶ 13-14. Course materials promised that any writing assignments would involve extensive editing and input form the instructor, and would involve several revisions. Id.

         Plaintiff submitted Myers-Kelly an essay on January 26, 2015. Id. at ¶ 15. Plaintiff alleges that “[a] portion of the paper contained quotations from an outside source, which were clearly attributed in the paper to their original speaker, but were not properly cited.” Id. He contends that he turned the paper in “without realizing that the required citations were missing, but with no intention to claim the outside material as his own work.” Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that he had been experiencing a great deal of school-related stress at this time, which exacerbated his underlying health issues and made completing schoolwork more difficult. Id. at ¶ 17. Plaintiff's anxiety made him unable “to . . . complete [properly] the SUPA assignment without constructive assistance from the course instructor and the District.” Id. at ¶ 19. Plaintiff's preparations to perform a lead role in the school play was also occurring at this time. Id. at ¶ 18. Participation in theater “provided him with a significant and necessary therapeutic outlet for him to cope with his condition.” Id.

         Plaintiff turned in the essay. Id. at ¶ 20. His teacher, Myers-Kelly, “accused Plaintiff of plagiarism and reported it to the High School's administration.” Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff alleges that Myers-Kelly failed to confront him directly with her allegation. Id. He had no knowledge that she had informed administrators of her charge. Id. Plaintiff contends that his essay did not violate the District's rules on plagiarism in his assignment. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. He also contends that he “was also never given a hearing or opportunity to respond to these allegations of plagiarism or to clear his name or defend himself against this false allegation.” Id. at ¶ 22. The District, he insists, “basically found [him] guilty of plagiarism, even before they had ever met with him or his parents” without due process of law. Id. The “false allegation” that Plaintiff had plagiarized “went viral and spread throughout the school and local community almost instantly.” Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that on February 3, 2015, Assistant Principal David Nylen summoned him to his office. Id. at ¶ 23. Myers-Kelly was also there. Id. Myers-Kelly and Nylen “summarily” informed Plaintiff that he was being disciplined for intentional plagiarism. Id. They had not spoken to Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff was not provided any prior notification of this accusation, and he had no chance to contest it. Id. at ¶ 24. No one called Plaintiff's parents to inform them of the accusation or disciplinary action. Id. The punishment assigned to Plaintiff was an “F” grade on the written assignment and two days of after-school detention. Id. at ¶ 25. Administrators also barred Plaintiff from participating in the school play. Id. The play was scheduled to open on February 5th. Id.

         Plaintiff's parents spoke with Principal Paul Gasparini. Id. at ¶ 26. Gasparini claimed “he understood the magnitude of the situation.” Id. He recognized the “consequences that could occur from the humiliation and embarrassment that Plaintiff suffered.” Id. Gasparini nevertheless “affirmed” the punishment Plaintiff was to receive. Id. Plaintiff further alleges that Gasparini's statement that “‘[n]o one will remember this in two weeks” demonstrates his deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's plight. Id.

         On February 3, 2015, shortly after learning of his punishment, Plaintiff went to his chorale class. Id. at ¶ 27. There, Ms. Quackenbush, who taught the class and “was in charge of” the play, “escorted” Plaintiff from the class. Id. Quackenbush “compelled” Plaintiff to give up his role in the play because of the plagiarism accusation. Id. Plaintiff's fellow students and others in the community became aware of Plaintiff's removal from the play on that day. Id. at ¶ 28. Two days later, when the play opened, audience members could be heard discussing the plagiarism charges against Plaintiff; the “accusation of academic dishonesty and punishment had quickly spread from the school throughout the local community and amongst Plaintiff's peers.” Id.

         Plaintiff alleges that this damage to his reputation continued even after high-school graduation in the spring of 2015. Id. at ¶ 29. On September 15, 2015, a teacher at the school, Joe DeChick, used Plaintiff's experience as an example of the consequences of plagiarism. Id. DeChick did not use Plaintiff's name, but Plaintiff alleges that “there was no question in the minds of the students that these comments referred to Plaintiff[.]” Id. Many students, after all, “had been made aware by District personnel that Plaintiff was accused of and disciplined for plagiarism earlier that year.” Id. Plaintiff alleges that DeChick told the class that “last year someone got caught! It was pretty messy. People were relying on him for the play but he couldn't participate! Now there are lawyers involved. Don't plagiarize kids. We thought he was a reliable student.” Id. at ¶ 30.

         Plaintiff contends that his treatment by the school district resulted in “embarrassment, humiliation, and severe emotional distress.” Id at ¶ 32. The District's conduct “exacerbated” Plaintiff's depression and anxiety, and he was forced to obtain additional medical care, medication and counseling. Id. at ¶ 33. Plaintiff's physician recommended that he be excused from school for 60 days. Id. at ¶ 34. When his condition did not improve during that time, Plaintiff did not return to school for the remainder of his senior year. Id. Plaintiff does not allege that the District ordered his absence from school at that time as punishment.

         Plaintiff filed the instant Complaint on January 18, 2017. The Complaint contains seven causes of action under New York and federal law. Count One, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleges a violation of Plaintiff's 14th Amendment due process rights. Count Two raises a Section 1983 equal protection claim under a “stigma plus” theory. Count Three raises the same claim under the New York Constitution. Count Four is a procedural due process claim under the New York Constitution. Count Five alleges that Defendants committed a Federal constitutional due process violation by discriminating against Plaintiff on the basis of his disability. Count Six asserts that Defendant violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 by discriminating against Plaintiff because of a disability. Count Seven alleges that Defendant violated the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), Executive Law § 296.

         Defendants answered the Complaint and then filed the instant motion for judgment on the pleadings. The parties then briefed the issue, bringing the case to its present posture.

         II. Legal Standard

         Defendants move for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). “Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate where material facts are undisputed and where on the judgment on the merits is possible by considering the contents of the pleadings.” Selters v M.C. Floor Crafters, Inc., 842 F.2d 639, 642 (2d Cir. 1988). Courts “employ the same standard applicable to Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss[.]” Vega v. Hempstead Union Free School Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 78 (2d Cir. 2015). Under that standard, “‘a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Fink v. Time Warner Cable, 714 F.3d 739, 741 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2007)). In evaluating a 12(c) motion, “the court considers ‘the complaint, the answer, any written documents attached to them, and any matter of which the court can take judicial notice for the factual background of the case.'” L-7 Designs, Inc. v. Old Navy, LLC, 647 F.3d 419, 422 (2d Cir. 2011) (quoting Roberts v. Babkiewicz, 582 F.3d 418, 419 (2d Cir. 2009)). The Complaint also includes “‘any written instrument attached to it as an exhibit, materials incorporated in it by reference, and documents that, although not incorporated by reference, are ‘integral' to the complaint.'” Id. (quoting Sira v. Morton, 380 F.3d 57, 67 (2d Cir. 2004)).

         III. ...

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