Callahan v. Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13

Decision Date05 December 1994
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 93-CV-4250.
PartiesJohn T.P. CALLAHAN and Linda R. Callahan, husband and wife, Plaintiffs, v. LANCASTER-LEBANON INTERMEDIATE UNIT 13, Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency, Dr. Richard Sherr, individually and as Executive Director of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, Stephen Sohonyay, individually and as Director of Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency, Kerry Stauffer, Curtis Elledge, Lisa Lantz, individually and in their official capacities as employees of Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, Greg Landis and James Laughman, individually and in their official capacities as employees of Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

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Steven P. O'Day, Lancaster, PA, for plaintiffs.

Stuart L. Knade, Harrisburg, PA, for defendants Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, Sherr, Stauffer, Elledge, and Lantz.

Paul E. Smith, Wilkes-Barre, PA, for defendants Lancaster County Children & Youth Social Service Agency, Sohonyay, Landis and Laughman.

OPINION AND ORDER

VAN ANTWERPEN, District Judge.

On August 6, 1993, plaintiffs, John and Linda Callahan, filed this action, individually and on behalf of their son Michael, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983") and various state law tort claims1 against all defendants. The gravamen of their charges is that they were temporarily wrongly deprived of custody of Michael because of unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. The allegations were based on information obtained primarily through facilitative communication, a method of communicating with autistic children. The defendants are the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, Dr. Richard Sherr, Executive Director of School; Kerry Stauffer, teacher; Lisa Lantz, teacher; and Curtis Elledge, teaching assistant. Other defendants are the Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency; Stephen Sohonyay, Director of Agency; Greg Landis, caseworker supervisor; and James Laughman, caseworker. All individual defendants are being sued both in their individual and official capacities. On November 15, 1993, Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, and the individual teacher defendants, filed a Motion to Dismiss all charges against them, which this court denied in an order dated December 10, 1993. Presently before the court are the Motions of all defendants for Summary Judgment, filed on September 9 and 12, 1994, and the plaintiffs' responses to these motions, filed on September 20 and 26, 1994. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Discovery in this matter is complete, and the essentially undisputed facts are as follows.2

Plaintiffs' son, Michael C. Callahan ("Michael"), has been diagnosed with severe autism and mental retardation. He is almost completely nonverbal in his communication. At the time of the events in question, Michael was 16 years of age and a student at defendant Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 ("IU 13"). Defendant Lantz was Michael's teacher during the summer of 1992 and defendant Stauffer had been Michael's school year teacher since fall 1990. Defendant Elledge was the teaching assistant assigned to Michael during the 1992-93 school year while Michael was in Stauffer's class.3

In early 1992, several of the teachers and teaching assistants at IU-13, including defendants Lantz, Stauffer, and Elledge, received training in a technique for working with persons suffering from autism called "facilitated communication" ("FC").4 At the June 1992 Individualized Education Plan meeting, plaintiffs approved the use of FC with Michael.

During the summer of 1992, Michael's teacher, defendant Lantz, utilized FC to communicate with him. She believed during this time that Michael communicated to her through FC that his father was abusing him. During the fall of 1992, through further communication with Michael utilizing FC, Lantz came to believe that the alleged abuse was sexual in nature. At some point in the fall, she relayed her thoughts to Rita Foster, the school social worker, who relayed the information to defendant Stauffer. Stauffer apparently thought that there was not enough information at that point to warrant a report to the Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency ("Agency") pursuant to the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6311(a) and (b).5 At Stauffer's direction, the teaching assistant, defendant Elledge, became the primary facilitator with Michael when FC was used with him. Defendants maintain that Elledge's facilitation with Michael led Elledge also to suspect, by early 1993, sexual abuse of Michael by his father, although the statements Michael made to Elledge were apparently somewhat inconsistent with those made to Lantz.6

Near the end of 1992, because other teachers at IU 13 had received reports of child abuse through FC from other students, Rita Foster contacted the defendant Lancaster County Children and Youth Social Service Agency to request clarification on when reports of abuse, particularly those obtained through FC, should be made pursuant to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 6311. An Agency representative advised school personnel that information received through FC regarding possible abuse should be reported provided that it met several criteria. She indicated first that the communication should describe the alleged abuse in a somewhat detailed manner with regard to such particulars as time, place, or body parts involved. Second, the child should be able to convey the information consistently through more than one facilitator. The Agency also provided the school with anatomically correct drawings so school personnel could attempt to confirm any allegations of abuse independent of FC.

On February 9, 1993, Michael apparently came to school in an agitated state. In an attempt to elicit information from him through FC about what was troubling him, defendants Elledge and Lantz7 came to believe that Michael was distressed because he was in pain and that the cause of the pain allegedly was sexual abuse by Michael's father.8 School personnel decided it was time to report the allegations, and Rita Foster relayed them to the Agency that day.

After receiving the phone call from Foster, Agency personnel discussed the situation with Judge James P. Cullen of the Lancaster County Juvenile Court.9 Pursuant to the telephone conference, defendant caseworker James Laughman filed an emergency petition for Temporary Custody/Custody with Judge Cullen, and it was approved that same day. Michael was taken from his parents' home and into protective custody that evening.10

On February 11 and 12, 1993, at a hearing conducted by Judge Cullen, the court received testimony from defendants Lantz and Elledge and observed them facilitate with Michael. A medical examination conducted soon after Michael was taken into custody did not indicate any signs of abuse. The court decided, however, that Michael would remain in the custody of the Agency, pending another hearing. On April 13, 1993, the court conducted a hearing, at the request of the plaintiffs, to determine the admissibility of statements made through FC. Plaintiffs presented expert testimony challenging the validity of FC. At the close of the hearing, with the agreement of all parties, the Agency's petition for temporary custody was withdrawn and Michael was returned to the custody of his parents.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for summary judgment where the:

pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

"The party moving for summary judgment must demonstrate that, under the undisputed facts, the non-movant has failed to introduce evidence supporting a necessary element of his case." In Re Phillips Petroleum Sec. Litig., 881 F.2d 1236, 1243 (3d Cir.1989). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must respond with facts of record that contradict the facts identified by the movant and may not rest on mere denials. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 321 n. 3, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 n. 3, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)); see also First Nat'l Bank v. Lincoln Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 824 F.2d 277, 282 (3d Cir.1987). The non-moving party must demonstrate the existence of evidence that would support a jury finding in its favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510-11, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

III. DISCUSSION

Section 1983 provides for the imposition of liability on any person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. To state a claim under § 1983, the plaintiffs must show both that (1) the offending conduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law, and (2) that such conduct deprived the plaintiffs of rights secured by the Constitution of the United States. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 1912-13, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 106 S.Ct. 662, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986). In this case, no party disputes that defendants were acting under color of state law.

As an initial matter, we note that plaintiffs have brought claims against the individual defendants in both their official and individual capacities. Individual capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official; damages are recoverable from the official's personal assets. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 3105, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985). To the extent that pla...

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