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P.K. v. Melleby

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 28, 2019

P.K., by and through his legal guardians ELEFTHERIA KOUTZIS and KYRIACOS KOUTZIS, Plaintiffs,

          LILIA LONDAR DANIEL EDWARD RYBECK GEORGIOS FARMAKIS WEIR & PARTNERS LLP Attorneys for Plaintiff P.K., by and through his legal guardians, Eleftheria and Kyriacos Koutzis.

          RICHARD L. GOLDSTEIN, EDWARD J. PARK, MARSHALL, DENNEHEY, WARNER, COLEMAN & GOGGIN, PA Attorneys for Defendants Harold Melleby, Jr., Eastern Regional High School, Eastern Camden County Regional School District, Eastern Camden County Regional Board of Education, and Robert M. Tull.


          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case is an Individual with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case concerning whether a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) was given to a minor plaintiff, P.K., and whether an allegedly false police report made by school officials violated Plaintiff's constitutional or statutory rights. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff's Cross-Motion to Amend the Complaint (“Motion to Amend”), and Plaintiff's Amended Cross-Motion to Amend the Complaint (“Amended Motion to Amend”). For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, deny without prejudice Plaintiff's Motion to Amend, and grant in part and deny in part without prejudice Plaintiff's Amended Motion to Amend.


         We take our brief recitation of the facts from Plaintiff's Complaint and proposed Amended Complaint. Plaintiff, P.K., was a freshman at Defendant Eastern Regional High School (“Eastern”) in 2017. His parents are Kyriacos and Eleftheria Koutzis (respectively, “Mr. Koutzis” and “Mrs. Koutzis”). Defendant Eastern is within the Defendant Eastern Camden County Regional School District (the “District”) and is included within the purview of Defendant Eastern Camden County Regional School District Board of Education (the “Board”). Defendant Robert M. Tull, Jr. is the Principal of Eastern and Harold Melleby, Jr. is the Superintendent of the District.

         On August 29, 2017, Mrs. Koutzis sent a letter to Defendants detailing that P.K.'s psychiatrist, Adam D. Hauser, M.D., diagnosed P.K. with (1) panic disorder, (2) agoraphobia, and (3) generalized anxiety disorder. The letter also stated that Dr. Hauser indicated P.K. expressed symptoms consistent with autism spectrum disorder. Defendants did nothing in response to this letter. Mrs. Koutzis sent another letter on October 24, 2017. In that letter, Mrs. Koutzis indicated that Dr. Hauser had additionally diagnosed P.K. with (a) autism spectrum disorder and (b) attention-deficit disorder and requested Defendants prepare a Section 504 Individual Accommodation Plan (an “IAP”). Plaintiff alleges Defendants created a “sham” IAP in November 2017, which did not address either P.K.'s autism or his anxiety. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 15.)

         On December 4, 2017, Defendant Tull found P.K. and another student in the bathroom at Eastern. The other student was smoking an electronic cigarette. Defendant Tull ordered the two students to come with him to his office. Defendant Tull alleged while the three were walking to his office that P.K. called Defendant Tull a “bitch.” (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 22.) P.K. denies calling Defendant Tull a “bitch.” A search of P.K.'s belongings revealed he did not possess an electronic cigarette. Defendant Tull suspended P.K. for two days.

         Mrs. Koutzis was told that P.K. had received a two-day suspension, asked to pick him up, and advised the suspension could be appealed to Defendant Melleby. She appealed. The appeal was set for December 8, 2017. In advance, Mrs. Koutzis wrote a letter to Defendant Melleby stating the following:

• P.K.'s suspension was without justification;
• P.K.'s suspension was discriminatory; and
• Defendants had not accommodated P.K.'s autism, specifically the social communication disorder aspect, which “prevents P.K. from processing intimidating language appropriately.”

(Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 30.a.-c.)

         P.K., his parents (Mr. Koutzis by phone), and Defendants Melleby and Tull were present at the meeting on December 8, 2017 (the “Appeal”). According to Plaintiff's allegations, the meeting was unproductive. Plaintiff claims Defendant Melleby was unprofessional and raised his voice, interrupted Mrs. Koutzis, and slammed books. P.K. allegedly called Defendant Melleby a “baby, ” but did not threaten him. (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 38.) Defendant Melleby ordered Plaintiff and Mrs. Koutzis to “vacate the premises and stated the police were being called.” (Pl.'s Compl. § 41.) P.K. left, Mrs. Koutzis stayed. After Defendants Melleby and Tull threatened to call the police a second time, Mrs. Koutzis left the office. Plaintiff and Mrs. Koutzis exited the building, but could not leave the premises because their car was “intentionally blocked by Defendants' employee's car.” (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 45.)

         The alleged argument between Defendant Melleby and Mrs. Koutzis continued outside. Defendant Melleby allegedly insulted both Plaintiff and his mother. Shortly thereafter, the Voorhees Police Department (“VPD”) arrived and stated they were responding to a call that Plaintiff had a gun. Plaintiff was put on the ground, searched, handcuffed, and detained. No. gun was found. Plaintiff was released from police custody and allowed to return home. The VPD did not file any criminal charges against Plaintiff at that time.

         On December 12, 2017, Defendant Melleby sent a letter to Plaintiff and his parents advising them that Plaintiff was to start homebound instruction immediately because of his “misconduct and actions.” (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 54.) Further, Defendant Melleby stated Plaintiff's “enrollment status w[ould] be reviewed following the adjudication of charges filed with the [VPD].” (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 55.) Plaintiff claims this was a knowingly false and malicious statement, as no charges had been filed at that time.

         Defendant Melleby also advised Plaintiff and his parents that Plaintiff had the right to appeal this decision at the Board's meeting of December 20, 2017 (the “Board Meeting”). On December 19, 2017, Plaintiff's counsel advised Defendant Melleby that Plaintiff would be appealing this decision at the Board Meeting. On December 20, 2017, Plaintiff's counsel appeared on his behalf at the Board Meeting. Plaintiff claims his counsel was limited in his ability to cross-examine Defendant Tull by the Board's solicitor, Anthony Padovani. Plaintiff also claims that Defendant Tull stated Plaintiff did not have a gun and that aggravated assault charges had been filed on December 8, 2017. Defendant Tull stated he believed there was “some sort of miscommunication with the police.” (Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 66.)

         On December 22, 2017, the VPD called Mrs. Koutzis and notified her that Defendant Melleby had filed a criminal citizen's complaint against P.K. for third-degree terroristic threat. P.K. was processed on December 26, 2017 and formally charged. According to Defendants, Plaintiff “through his counsel, accepted a plea deal analogous to a pretrial intervention in adult criminal proceedings.” (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss 7.) No. party provides documentation evidencing this assertion.

         On December 8, 2017, Plaintiff was banned from school premises and received homebound instruction. Plaintiff complains of the adequacy of homebound instruction, as it did not include in-person lessons, devices compatible with the software used for homebound instruction, or an IAP.

         On January 12, 2018, Mr. and Mrs. Koutzis filed a complaint on behalf of Plaintiff P.K. against Defendants. The Complaint alleges ten counts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - including a Monell claim, (Counts I, II, and VIII), 42 U.S.C. § 1985 (Count III), the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (Count IV), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. (Count IX), the Rehabilitation Act, referred to here also as Section 504 (Count X), common law false arrest (Count V), and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count VI and VII).

         That same day, Plaintiff requested the Court to enter a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction requiring Defendants to reinstate him to Eastern immediately. This Court held a hearing on this application on January 23, 26, and 29 2018 as well as on February 26, 2018. During those hearings, representations were made by counsel, but no live testimony was taken. Testimony was submitted in the form of affidavits as requested by the Court. Of relevance to the matters presently under consideration, the Court preliminarily determined that Defendants had not complied with statutory requirements as to Plaintiff's indefinite suspension and that, as a result, exhaustion of administrative remedies was excused as to that claim. As a result of these proceedings, the parties agreed to reinstate Plaintiff to Eastern immediately and agreed to prepare an IEP for Plaintiff, subject to certain steps which Defendants claim Plaintiff has yet to take. (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss 7.) Defendants state Plaintiff is still currently enrolled in Eastern. (Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss 7.)

         On November 30, 2018, Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss. On January 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed the Motion to Amend. On March 25, 2019, Plaintiff filed the Amended Motion to Amend. All motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication.


         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         This Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367.

         B. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

         When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005). It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do . . . .” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (citations omitted) (first citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957); Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry & Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994); and then citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

To determine the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must take three steps. First, the court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Second, the court should identify allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Third, “whe[n] there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.”

Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011) (alterations in original) (citations omitted) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 664, 675, 679 (2009)). A court may “generally consider only the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint and matters of public record.” Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)).

         A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks “not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563 n.8 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhoades, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)); see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 684 (“Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for ‘all civil actions' . . . .”); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (“Iqbal . . . provides the final nail in the coffin for the ‘no set of facts' standard that applied to federal complaints before Twombly.”). “A motion to dismiss should be granted if the plaintiff is unable to plead ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Malleus, 641 F.3d at 563 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         C. Motion to Dismiss

         Defendants' Motion to Dismiss can be categorized into three overall arguments. First, Defendants argue Plaintiff's IDEA and Section 504 claims should be dismissed because of Plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Second, Defendants argue Plaintiff's claims stemming from the alleged false arrest should be dismissed because of application of the Heck doctrine or because no state action was involved. Third, Defendants argue Plaintiff's state law tort claims should be dismissed because ...

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