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A school principal’s letter of reference that helped a pedophile secure a teaching job in 1975 has come back to haunt him now that a federal judge has ruled that a West Virginia man who was allegedly molested more than two decades later may pursue a claim against a Pennsylvania school district under the “state-created danger” doctrine. In his 23-page opinion in Pascocciello v. Interboro School District, U.S. District Judge John R. Padova rejected the school district’s argument that the reference letter could not be deemed the cause of the plaintiff’s harm due to the lengthy passage of time. In the suit, Michael Vincent Pascocciello claims that he would never have been molested by Edgar Friedrichs in 1997 if Robert J. Castle, a former Interboro principal, had not written a letter that helped Friedrichs get a new teaching job in Fayette County, W.Va. The suit alleges that Castle was aware that Friedrichs had molested numerous children while employed at Interboro, but never reported it to authorities. More than two decades later, the suit says, Friedrichs sexually abused Pascocciello, then 12 years old, and killed his friend, Jeremy Bell, while the two boys were on a camping trip with Friedrichs. Plaintiff’s attorney William V. DePaulo of Charleston, W.Va., said Friedrichs was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence, but was never charged in connection with the alleged sexual assault on Pascocciello. DePaulo originally filed the suit in state court in West Virginia. Named as defendants in the suit were Friedrichs, who was the principal at Pascocciello’s elementary school in Fayette County; the Interboro School District; and Castle, the former principal at Interboro’s Prospect Park, Pa., Elementary School. The suit was later removed to U.S. District Court in West Virginia and the claims against Interboro and Castle were transferred to U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. In the claims against Interboro and Castle, the suit alleges that Interboro officials concealed alleged acts of pedophilia Friedrichs had committed against his students while working as a teacher in the early 1970s. DePaulo argued that it was foreseeable to Interboro in 1974, when Castle wrote his letter, and in 1975, when the Interboro superintendent wrote another letter, that, if given access to children, Friedrichs would abuse again. But Interboro’s lawyer, Andrew W. Bonekemper of Fox Rothschild, argued that all of the claims should be dismissed. Bonekemper succeeded in several of his arguments – winning dismissal of all claims against Castle, a RICO claim, as well as all claims for punitive damages. But DePaulo also won several key rulings that allow him to proceed with the heart of his case – a substantive due process claim against Interboro for allegedly creating the danger that led to Pascocciello’s molestation and witnessing his friend’s murder. “Based on the allegations in the complaint, Interboro was aware of Friedrichs’ dangerous proclivities. In the court’s view, it was foreseeable that Friedrichs might abuse children again if given the chance,” Padova wrote. Padova found that, if all of the allegations in the complaint are true, Pascocciello has a valid claim under the state-created danger doctrine. Citing a string of decisions from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Padova found that plaintiffs pursuing a state-created danger claim must satisfy a four-prong test by showing that: The harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; The state actor acted in willful disregard for the safety of the plaintiff; There existed some relationship between the state and the plaintiff; and The state actors used their authority to create an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed for the third party’s crime to occur. Bonekemper argued that the plaintiff could not meet the first or third prongs of the test because the harm was not foreseeable and because Interboro had no contact with him and therefore had no “relationship” at all. Padova disagreed, saying “the question for the state-created danger theory of liability is whether plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant’s acts in a tort sense.” To satisfy the test, Padova said, the plaintiff must be “a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions.” DePaulo argued that the risk of harm Interboro created was limited to a discrete class – namely young students who would unknowingly be exposed to Friedrichs’ future pedophilia. But Bonekemper argued that the required contact did not exist because Pascocciello was not born at the time Interboro acted. He also argued that Interboro could not be held liable because it owed no duty to an out-of-state student and because Pascocciello never had any knowledge of Interboro’s two letters until after Friedrichs had harmed him. Padova disagreed, saying “Interboro’s arguments misunderstand the relationship requirement. What is required is that the complaint allege that Michael was part of a discrete class of persons subject to the potential harm brought about by Interboro’s actions.” The potential harm, Padova said, “was that Friedrichs would abuse other children who were his students. Michael was one of those unfortunate students. Thus, Michael was part of the relevant discrete class.” Padova also found that the plaintiff satisfied the fourth prong of the test by showing that Interboro had created an opportunity which otherwise would not have existed for the specific harm to occur. DePaulo argued that Interboro clearly created a danger by concealing Friedrichs’ pedophilia and aiding Friedrichs in finding a new teaching position. The suit alleges that the Fayette County school district relied upon the 1974 and 1975 letters from Interboro officials when it hired Friedrichs. Padova concluded that the allegations were sufficient. “That correspondence failed to disclose Friedrichs’ prior pedophilia. Plaintiffs argue that, if Interboro had revealed Friedrichs’ pedophilia, Friedrichs would not have been hired by the Fayette County school district, let alone any other school district. In the court’s view, the allegations in the complaint allow for the reasonable inference that Friedrichs was hired by the Fayette County school district because Interboro concealed his past pedophilia,” Padova wrote. (Copies of the 23-page opinion in Pascocciello v. Interboro School District , PICS No. 06-0685, are available from The Legal Intelligencer . Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information. Some cases are not available until 1 p.m.)

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