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Two lawyers from Eastburn & Gray got quite a lecture from a federal judge for filing a motion to dismiss an employment discrimination suit that the judge found to be poorly researched and premised on a misreading of the statutes and outdated and overruled case law. “If the motion to dismiss and the accompanying brief in support had displayed but a single example of less than exemplary research or analysis, it would have gone unaddressed here inasmuch as occasional oversights, while disappointing, are understandable, generally innocent, and sometimes unavoidable,” U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter wrote in her 16-page opinion in Spirk v. Centennial School District. “However, here, the incidents of deficiencies are too numerous to ignore and too fundamental to excuse,” Pratter wrote. In her opening paragraphs, Pratter said she was “not so much ruling on the potential merits of the claims (for it remains to be seen the extent to which Ms. Spirk will be able to prove her claims), as reaching the conclusion that the motion was ill-conceived due, it seems, to a puzzling failure on the part of the movants to review, much less appreciate, the governing judicial opinions and statutory provisions applicable to the claims presented in the complaint.” In a statement issued Wednesday in response to Pratter’s opinion, Eastburn & Gray said: “It is not this firm’s practice to file baseless motions and we pride ourselves on the quality of our work product. While we disagree with Judge Pratter’s conclusions regarding the issues raised in the motion to dismiss, we appreciate and take seriously her criticisms of the work product and can assure the court that we will meet the standard of excellence for which we are known. We are also confident that our client will prevail in this case.” In the suit, plaintiff Janice Spirk, 49, claims she was fired from a post as a middle school principal she had held for 15 years soon after she requested a child-rearing leave to care for a newly adopted daughter she brought back from China. The suit alleges claims of age and sex discrimination as well as a claim of retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act and violations of the First and 14th amendments. Named as defendants in the suit are the Centennial School District, its board of directors and David P. Blatt, its superintendent. Plaintiffs attorney Anita F. Alberts of Doylestown outlined events that began in June 2001 when Spirk, who was principal of the Klinger Middle School, was assigned to develop a “master schedule” for both of the district’s middle schools, involving over 1,600 students and 150 teachers. The suit says Spirk had no assistant principal at the time and was forced to work up to 80 hours per week, and that Blatt refused to allow her any flexibility in her schedule, despite allowing it for other principals. The following year, after a male in his 30s was hired as Spirk’s assistant, the suit alleges that Blatt told Spirk to “retire, take a medical sabbatical, or ‘go out on disability,’ stating there was ‘no leadership’ at Klinger.” Spirk claims she was “shocked and reduced to tears.” When Spirk filed a formal complaint, the suit alleges that Blatt denied asking her to resign or retire. But privately, the suit says, the pressure continued as Blatt “called plaintiff at home repeatedly. His bullying made plaintiff afraid to answer her phone.” In May 2004, the suit says, Spirk traveled to China to adopt a child and returned in early June with a baby girl. Soon after, the suit says, Blatt told Spirk that termination proceedings would begin if she did not return to work by July 15. Spirk claims she requested family and medical leave and that she later made a formal request for a one-year child-rearing leave that is provided by contract to Centennial employees. The request was denied, the suit alleges, and Spirk was “discharged without notice, without hearing and without cause.” In December 2004, Centennial’s lawyers — Jay H. Karsch and Joanne D. Sommer of Eastburn & Gray in Doylestown — moved for dismissal of four of the six counts in the suit, challenging all but the age discrimination claim. Now Pratter has ruled that the motion to dismiss suffered from numerous flaws. The defense team, Pratter said, argued that in civil rights cases, the standard for pleading is more stringent than in other types of cases, citing a 1993 Eastern District of Pennsylvania decision in Parsons v. City of Philadelphia Coordinating Office of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Programs. Pratter found that Parsons was overruled the same year it was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Leatherman v. Tarrant County, which held that no heightened pleading standard exists for civil rights suits brought under �1983. “While such a heightened pleading standard may have existed in this circuit prior to Leatherman, the Parsons decision cannot and should not be relied upon by either litigants or courts in the face of the clarity of Leatherman’s statement of the pleading standards,” Pratter wrote. “The court presumes that more diligent research prior to submission of their motion would have permitted the movants to discover the seminal Leatherman decision and reconsider their arguments accordingly,” Pratter wrote. Pratter found the defense team also botched its efforts to seek dismissal of Spirk’s claim under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act by arguing that Spirk had no standing to bring a claim of discrimination on the basis of “familial status.” The motion failed, Pratter said, because the lawyers ignored the “plain wording” of the statute, which clearly includes “familial status” among its protected categories. Pratter also found the defense team ignored a second seminal Supreme Court decision — the 1978 ruling in Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, which “unequivocally held that a municipal government is to be considered a ‘person’ for the purposes of a Section 1983 complaint.” The defense team cited two later decisions in arguing that “neither a school district nor its board of directors, when acting in their individual capacities, is a ‘person’ for purposes of suit under Section 1983.” Pratter found that the argument “glosses over the independent concepts of state liability and municipal liability, a topic of debate that was squarely discussed by the Supreme Court … and such argument was either missed or ignored by counsel.” After reviewing all of the Supreme Court case law, Pratter concluded that “the law could not be any clearer — a municipal subdivision, such as the school district, is considered a ‘person’ for the purposes of a Section 1983 complaint.” The defense team also argued that Spirk does not have a private cause of action, for damages, for an alleged violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment. Pratter denied that motion, too, finding that although it is unclear whether a plaintiff can sue for damages under the ERA, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held in its 1990 decision in Pfeiffer v. Marion Center Area School District that “a private right of action is available for cases of gender discrimination under the Pennsylvania ERA.” Although the defense team may be right that there is no right to seek damages under the ERA, Pratter said, “at this juncture, the court believes it to be appropriate to heed the pronouncement of the … 3rd Circuit that a private right of action is available for allegations of gender discrimination under the Pennsylvania ERA.”

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