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Jones v. The Board of Education of Putnam County

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

January 9, 2020

TIMOTHY R. JONES and JANIE COLE, Plaintiffs,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF PUTNAM COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA, JOHN HUDSON, individually and in his official capacity as Superintendent of Schools for Putnam County; SHARLA GRIFFITH, individually and in her capacity as Putnam County Director of Exceptional Education, CANDI HATFIELD, individually and in her official capacity as Principal of Winfield Elementary School; ALICIA COEY, a/k/a Alicia Powell, individually and in her official capacity as a Prevention Resource Officer, and EDDIE STARCHER, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of Police of Winfield, West Virginia, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Two motions to dismiss are currently pending before the Court, both filed by a different set of defendants. The first motion argues for dismissal of all claims asserted against the Putnam County Board of Education (“PCBOE”), Superintendent John Hudson, Director of Exceptional Education Sharla Griffith, and Principal Candi Hatfield (collectively “PCBOE Defendants”). PCBOE Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 21. The second motion argues for dismissal of all claims raised against Officer Alicia Coey and Chief Eddie Starcher. Coey/Starcher Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 23. For the reasons set forth herein, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case begins like most school days: with a drop-off at the schoolhouse doors.[1] On August 27, 2018, Plaintiff Timothy Jones-father of Z.S.J., a minor student with Down syndrome-arrived with his son at Winfield Elementary School.[2] Am. Compl., ECF No. 17, at ¶¶ 4, 45. Pursuant to a “streamlined” drop-off policy that had been adopted the previous school year, Jones pulled his car into the designated area, exited the driver's side, and moved to the rear of the vehicle to guide Z.S.J. out of the car “so that he could go in the center doors of the school.” Id. at ¶ 45. While Jones assisted Z.S.J., Officer (and Defendant) Alicia Coey-pregnant, on “light duty, ” and dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals-approached the car and “demanded he put his son back in the car and drive on to the secondary unloading zone defined by [an] unwritten policy that the Board chose to enforce relative to Z.S.J.” Id. at ¶ 46.

         Principal (and Defendant) Candi Hatfield allegedly informed Jones and his wife, Plaintiff Janie Cole, of this “unwritten policy” at some point before August 27. Id. at ¶ 33. Specifically, Jones alleges that Hatfield asked them to wait in the drop-off line, pull forward to the front of the line, and then continue on to a “separate area farther from the doors of the school where Z.S.J. could be unloaded from the vehicle.” Id. at ¶ 34. Rather than follow the unwritten policy, on “a number of occasions” Jones dropped Z.S.J. at the front of the school. Id. at ¶ 35. This “often result[ed] in some unfortunate delay to other parents of nondisabled students because of the time Z.S.J. takes to get out of a car.” Id. Plaintiffs simultaneously began advocating for a “uniform” policy that would allow their son to exit the car at the main drop-off point. Id. at ¶ 37, 40. Jones' objections to Z.S.J.'s specialized drop-off policy were consequently widely known by the time he arrived at Winfield Elementary on August 27. See Id. at ¶¶ 36-38.

         Unsurprisingly given this background, Jones' reaction to Coey's order was less than positive. Unaware he was speaking to a police officer, Jones responded in a “loud, frustrated but nonviolent tone of voice” that “he did not need a lecture.” Id. at ¶¶ 46-47. The relatively brief encounter ended with Coey taking Z.S.J. by the hand to lead him into the school and Jones returning to his vehicle and driving away. Id. at ¶ 48. Nevertheless, the confrontation was sufficiently alarming to Jones that he decided “to take Z.S.J. to school on August 28 by parking near the school's office, having his son's teacher come to the office to take him back to his classroom area[, ] and then seeking someone with whom he could discuss the ongoing issues regarding student drop-off.” Id. at ¶ 49.

         Unfortunately for Jones, the morning of August 28 would be no less confrontational than the previous day. After Jones left Z.S.J. with his teacher, Officer Coey appeared in the office, displayed her badge “for the first time, ” and ordered him to produce a driver's license. Id. at ¶ 52. Jones “questioned why Coey needed to see his driver's license since she clearly knew who he was.” Id. at ¶ 53. Coey responded that “he was being detained in the office area of the school and could not leave until other police personnel appeared, ” and then positioned herself between Jones and the exit. Id. at ¶¶ 54-55. She also informed him that he would receive a citation for the prior morning's incident. Id. at ¶ 52. Minutes later, however, Coey reversed herself and informed Jones that he was free to leave. Id. at ¶ 55.

         Despite Coey's offer, Jones elected to stay in hope of obtaining a meeting with Director of Exceptional Education (and Defendant) Sharla Griffith. Id. at ¶ 56. Cole called Jones to inquire about the morning's drop-off experience, and was understandably alarmed by the turn of events. Id. at ¶¶ 57-58. She followed her call to Jones with a call to the school, where she was put on speakerphone with Principal Hatfield, the assistant principal, Officer Coey, and Chief of Police (and Defendant) Eddie Starcher. Id. at ¶ 60. This conversation quickly grew combative, with Starcher confronting Cole in a “threatening tone” and “telling her that someone was at that moment at the prosecuting attorney's office deciding whether or not to go arrest Mr. Jones.” Id. at ¶ 64. After Cole asked to speak with Hatfield about the drop-off dispute, she alleges that Starcher interjected again and cautioned that “one of two things are going to happen, we are going to issue a citation or haul his ass to jail.” Id. at ¶ 66. Soon after, Hatfield, Coey, and Starcher “abruptly ended the telephone call.”[3] Id. at ¶ 69.

         Following the call with Cole, administrators escorted Jones into a meeting room “where he was confronted by Griffith and Starcher.” Id. at ¶ 72. Jones felt “threatened, intimidated and coerced” by the presence of Starcher, who was armed. Id. at ¶ 73. Griffith repeatedly informed Jones that he should refrain from driving his son to school and that Z.S.J. should ride the “special needs bus” instead. Id. at ¶ 74. Starcher contributed to the conversation as well, informing Jones “that he was confronted with choices and that there was no need to cater to his concerns about his son, that warrants or criminal complaints were going to be obtained, ” and that an accommodated drop-off plan would not “happen at this school or any school here in Putnam County.”[4] Id. at ¶ 76. The meeting ended without a resolution.

         After the meeting, Griffith texted Starcher to thank him “for your help this morning!” Id. at ¶ 79. Starcher replied “any time girl u know that. Glad I can help. That guys [sic] can't be pleased. We are getting warrants today. I wasn't too harsh was I on him?” Id. Griffith dispelled his concerns, responding that Starcher was “not too harsh at all.” Id. Later that afternoon, Griffith informed Starcher of several options for Z.S.J.'s drop-off, to which Starcher responded that “We will support whatever you want.” Id. at ¶ 80. At various points in their exchange, Griffith and Starcher referred to Jones as “non-stable” and a “crazy.” Id. at ¶ 81.

         That afternoon, Coey traveled to the Magistrate Court of Putnam County and obtained two criminal complaints against Jones. In particular, the complaints accused Jones “of stopping, parking or leaving his vehicle upon a highway outside a business or residence district, forcibly or illegally hindering or obstructing a law enforcement officer in her official capacity[, ] and failure to have a driver's license in his possession at all times while operating a motor vehicle.” Id. at ¶ 82. Plaintiffs allege that Coey obtained the complaints by making materially false statements to the Magistrate Court, and that she had actual knowledge they were false at the time. Id. at ¶ 83. They also claim that the same knowledge was later conveyed to Starcher, Hudson, and Hatfield. Id. In response, Plaintiffs claim Hudson ordered a “confidential audit” of records relating to Plaintiffs and Z.S.J. to conceal any wrongdoing. Id. at ¶ 85. While Jones hired counsel and appeared in court on several occasions, the charges were dismissed on his motion without objection by the prosecutor on January 4, 2019. Id. at ¶ 85.

         Approximately nine months after the charges against Jones were dismissed, Plaintiffs filed suit in this Court. Id. at 1. At some point before initiating their lawsuit, it appears that Plaintiffs removed Z.S.J. from Putnam County schools and established a new residence in Kanawha County, West Virginia. Id. at ¶ 91. Plaintiffs allege that the entire course of conduct recounted above was “in retaliation and reprisal . . . for [Plaintiffs'] protected activities in advocating vigorously on behalf of their disabled son to secure for him the rights guaranteed by federal and state law.” Id. at ¶ 88. Plaintiffs raise claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1991 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12203, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794, and the West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”), W.Va. Code § 5-11-9(c).[5] The PCBOE Defendants filed their first Motion to Dismiss on September 20, 2019, which was mooted by Plaintiffs' decision to file an Amended Complaint on October 3, 2019. See Order, ECF No. 20. The PCBOE Defendants filed a second Motion to Dismiss addressing the Amended Complaint on October 17, 2019. See PCBOE Mot. to Dismiss, at 1. On October 25, 2019, Coey and Starcher followed with their own Motion to Dismiss. See Coey/Starcher Mot. to Dismiss, at 1. The issues have since been fully briefed and are ripe for resolution.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint need only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In turn, Rule 12(b)(6) provides an avenue for a party to challenge a complaint for failure to meet this threshold, and authorizes courts to dismiss complaints that fail “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Though plausibility is not always a bright line, it is well established that 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.” Id. Mere “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. Similarly, courts are not required to consider “unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusion, or arguments.” Wahi v. Charleston Area Med. Ctr., Inc., 562 F.3d 599, 615 n. 26 (4th Cir. 2009).

         Nevertheless, the purpose of a motion to dismiss is to test the formal sufficiency of a claim for relief-not to resolve the facts or merits of a case. 5A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (3d ed. 1990). It follows that a court may only grant a motion to dismiss if, “after accepting all wellpleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to ...


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