Hawa v. Coatesville Area Sch. Dist.

Decision Date09 September 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 15-4828
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Before this Court are Motions to Dismiss Third-Party Plaintiff Coatesville Area School District's ("CASD") First Amended Joinder Complaint (Doc. No. 73) ("Joinder Complaint") filed by Third-Party Defendant James Ellison, Esquire ("Ellison") (Doc. No. 87) and by Third-Party Defendant Rhoads & Sinon LLP ("R&S") (Doc. No. 88). Ellison and R&S (collectively, the "Attorneys") ask this Court to dismiss CASD's Joinder Complaint in its entirety. For the reasons that follow, the Motions will be granted as to the federal-law claims in Counts I and II, and the Court will exercise its discretion not to retain supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claims in Counts III-V. Accordingly, Counts III-V will be dismissed without prejudice so that they may be brought in state court.


On August 26, 2015, Plaintiffs Abdallah Hawa ("Hawa") and Teresa Powell ("Powell") (collectively, the "Plaintiffs") commenced this action against CASD, alleging federal civil rights claims and state-law claims arising from their discovery of racist text messages about them sent between CASD administrators, and from various retaliatory actions allegedly taken by CASD in the aftermath of that discovery.1 Plaintiffs' current Second Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 70) ("Plaintiffs' Complaint") alleges claims against CASD and its former Superintendent, Angelo Romaniello ("Romaniello"), arising under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983; Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e) et seq.; the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.; the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 951 et seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 794; the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.; and the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1421 et seq.

CASD has filed third-party claims against the Attorneys, who represented it in connection with some of the events that are the subject of Plaintiffs' lawsuit, based on the allegedly deficient advice the Attorneys gave to CASD in connection with its employment of the Plaintiffs and their conduct in the course of that representation. In Counts I and II of the Joinder Complaint, CASD asserts that if it is found liable to the Plaintiffs for violations of their civilrights, the Attorneys are "liable over to [CASD] by way of contribution and/or indemnity" and are "jointly and/or severally liable with CASD to [Plaintiffs]." Joinder Compl. ¶¶ 61-62, 75-76. In Count III of the Joinder Complaint, CASD asserts that if it is liable to the Plaintiffs for violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, then the Attorneys are "liable over to [CASD] by way of contribution and/or indemnity" and are "jointly and/or severally liable with [CASD] to Hawa and Powell." Id. ¶¶ 84-85. In Counts IV and V of the Joinder Complaint, CASD asserts that the Attorneys are liable to it for malpractice, under tort law and contract law, respectively. Id. ¶¶ 86-106. Both Ellison and R&S move to dismiss CASD's Joinder Complaint in its entirety on a variety of grounds. However, because it is dispositive of the federal-law claims in Counts I and II, the Court will address first the issue of whether the Attorneys can be held liable for indemnity or contribution based on their alleged conduct and advice in their representation of CASD with respect to the Plaintiffs.

A. CASD has Failed to State a Claim for Indemnification or Contribution for the Alleged Federal Civil Rights Violations
1. Indemnification

In Counts I and II of the Joinder Complaint, CASD alleges that the Attorneys are liable to it for indemnification for any liability it may have to the Plaintiffs for the federal civil rights violations. The law is well-settled that:

The right of indemnity rests upon a difference between the primary and the secondary liability of two persons each of whom is made responsible by the law to an injured party. It is a right which enures to a person who, without active fault on his own part, has been compelled, by reason of some legal obligation, to paydamages occasioned by the initial negligence of another, and for which he himself is only secondarily liable.2
. . . .
Thus, unlike comparative negligence and contribution, the common law right of indemnity is not a fault sharing mechanism between one who was predominantly responsible for an accident and one whose negligence was relatively minor. Rather, it is a fault shifting mechanism, operable only when a defendant who has been held liable to a plaintiff solely by operation of law, seeks to recover his loss from a defendant who was actually responsible for the accident which occasioned the loss.

Sirianni v. Nugent Bros., 506 A.2d 868, 870-71 (1986) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis omitted); Builders Supply Co. v. McCabe, 77 A.2d 368, 370 (Pa. 1951).

CASD cannot meet these requirements for indemnification because, if it is found liable to the Plaintiffs for the civil rights violations, it will not be liable "through no fault of [its] own" or "solely by operation of law." Sirianni, 506 A.2d at 870-71. The alleged conduct that could give rise to that liability is conduct committed by CASD personnel. For example, Plaintiffs' Complaint alleges that CASD's former Superintendent, Romainello, "eliminated Plaintiff Powell's job duties as Acting Assistant Superintendent," Plaintiffs' Compl. ¶ 79, that Romaniello's successor Superintendent, "Dr. Taschner[,] abruptly stripped Powell of several of her job duties," id. ¶ 152, and that "Romaniello eliminated Plaintiff Hawa's job duties and responsibilities," id. ¶ 122. While CASD claims that it acted on the advice of the Attorneys, asthe party who committed the alleged retaliatory actions, it "cannot claim to be passively liable and, therefore, entitled to indemnity from [the Attorneys]." Kohn v. Sch. Dist., No. 1:11-CV-09, 2012 WL 1598096, at *5 (M.D. Pa. May 7, 2012) ("Kohn I").3

2. Contribution

CASD also asserts in Counts I and II of the Joinder Complaint that it is entitled to contribution from the Attorneys for any liability it may have to the Plaintiffs for the alleged civil rights violations. Contribution is available under Pennsylvania law only among joint tortfeasors.4 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8324(a); Walton v. Avco Corp., 610 A.2d 454, 461 (Pa. 1992). "Joint tortfeasors are 'two or more persons jointly or severally liable in tort for the same injury to persons or property.'" Morris v. Lenihan, 192 F.R.D. 484, 490 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (quoting 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8322). For parties to be joint tortfeasors, they must be liable for the same injury to the same party because of a violation of the same duty. Voyles v. Corwin, 441 A.2d 381, 383 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1982); Lasprogata v. Qualls, 397 A.2d 803, 805 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1979); Kohn I, 2012 WL 1598096, at *3-4. In providing legal advice to CASD, the Attorneys had no duty to the Plaintiffs. See Kohn I, 2012 WL 1598096, at *5. The general rule is that an attorney will beheld liable only to his or her client; "[i]n the absence of special circumstances, he [or she] will not be held liable to anyone else." Mentzer & Rhey, Inc. v. Ferrari, 532 A.2d 484, 486 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987); accord Smith v. Griffiths, 476 A.2d 22, 26 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1984): see also Heffernan v. Hunter, No. CIV. A. 97-6041, 1998 WL 633694, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 12, 1998), aff'd on other grounds, 189 F.3d 405 (3d Cir. 1999). A plaintiff "'must show an attorney-client relationship or some specific undertaking by the attorney furnishing professional services . . . as a necessary prerequisite for maintaining [a suit].'" Mentzer & Rhey, 532 A.2d at 486 (quoting Guy v. Liederbach, 459 A.2d 744, 750 (Pa. 1983)). Because the Attorneys had no agreement to provide legal services to the Plaintiffs, they had no duty to them with respect to the quality of the legal advice they provided to CASD. Kohn I, 2012 WL 1598096, at *5.

CASD points to Kohn I as its sole authority in support of its attempt to circumvent the privity requirement. CASD Opp. to R&S Mot. to Dismiss (Doc. No. 94) at 15-17; CASD Opp. to Ellison Mot. to Dismiss (Doc. No. 93) at 8-10. In Kohn I, administrators of the Harrisburg School District ("HSD") sued HSD, pursuant to Section 1983 and state contract law, for terminating their employment without due process of law. 2012 WL 1598096 at *1. The administrators were fired through a resolution adopted by the members of the HSD Board of Control, allegedly on the advice of the same attorneys who are the Third-Party Defendants in the present case, Ellison and R&S. Id. HSD filed a third-party complaint against Ellison and R&S, as well as the Mayor of Harrisburg (the "Mayor"), alleging a conspiracy in violation of the federal civil rights laws in which the Attorneys, the Mayor and the elected members of HSD's Board of Control conspired to terminate the administrators' employment without due process in order to advance the Mayor's political position. Id. at *2.

Federal law creates liability for a private party who conspires with a state actor to violate a party's civil rights in violation of Section 1983. Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 941 (1982); Great W. Mining & Mineral Co. v. Fox Rothschild LLP, 615 F.3d 159, 175-76 (3d Cir. 2010). This is because private persons who jointly engage with state officials in the prohibited action, are "state actors" for purposes of Section 1983. Id. at 176 (citing Dennis v. Sparks, 449 U.S. 24, 29 (1980)). The Kohn I court denied the Attorneys' motion to dismiss HSD's third-party claim for contribution based on the Attorneys' potential...

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