Judge advises amending lawsuit

Defendants not called ‘mean girls’

April 10, 2019 Cranberry Local News

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PITTSBURGH — The attorney representing a Zelienople family suing five other families, the Seneca Valley School District and Butler County will amend the original lawsuit.

When he does so, attorney Craig Fishman will no longer be permitted to refer to the minor defendants as “mean girls.”

The call for an amendment and the motion on word choice came after a Friday hearing in which U.S. District Court Judge Mark Hornak said he hopes the new filing is “narrowed in focus” and provides more concrete evidence of the allegations.

The original lawsuit filed last fall by Alecia and Michael Flood Jr. claims their minor son T.F. suffered physical torment and psychological trauma as a result of false sexual assault allegations. The Floods allege their son was arrested, wrongfully prosecuted, placed on probation, incarcerated, harassed and defamed in a case of gender-based discrimination as a result of the claims.

The suit names Meghan Villegas and minors K.S., C.S., E.S. and H.R; their parents, George Villegas Jr., Pam Villegas, David and Christy Sherk, David and Christine Seaman, Cris and Kimberly Salancy, and David and Lynn Reina; the Seneca Valley School District; Butler County; and the Butler County District Attorney’s Office as defendants.

During a nearly four-hour hearing Friday in Pittsburgh, Hornak ruled on the motion asking for the words “mean girls” to be stricken from court documents.

Hornak said unless it is demonstrable that the girls referred to themselves or were well known in the community by that moniker, it could not be legally used.

“It doesn’t advance the ball,” Hornak said, adding the word “tormentors” was also discouraged.

Hornak heard other oral arguments from attorneys representing the defendants Friday. Following those discussions, Hornak asked Fishman if any hard evidence existed proving T.F. was treated differently because of his gender by either the county or the school district. He said that information, if it exists, could be both interesting and important, but was not included in the original complaint.

Hornak advised Fishman to consider amending the complaint, and only including the individuals or entities against which he felt he had sufficient evidence.

In granting the amendment opportunity, Hornak said Fishman has two weeks from receiving a transcript of Friday’s hearing to create a draft that will then be sent to attorneys for all defendants included in the revised complaint.

Fishman must then arrange for a sit-down meeting with all involved attorneys and review the complaint to determine if sufficient evidence exists to proceed. He may then file the amendment with the court two weeks later, after which the defense has 30 days to respond.

Fishman said he would talk to the Floods about potentially dismissing some claims.

Hornak advised Fishman to tighten the complaint as much as possible. He cautioned that based on the original complaint and the arguments heard Friday, Fishman would have an uphill battle against some of the defendants.

That battle includes proving the intent of the minors making the accusations, which defense attorneys argue is not firmly proven in the original complaint.

Additionally, attorney Michael Streib, representing the Salancy family and E.S., argued that the parent-child relationship is not enough for a parent to be held liable for a child’s actions, and cited previous cases affirming that.

He said parents have a limited duty to use responsible care to control a child, but in the instances outlined in the lawsuit, they were unaware of the girls’ actions.

Attorneys further pointed out the adults involved did not know about the allegations until they saw it on the news.

Joseph Charlton, representing the Villegas family, also argued that Meghan Villegas was an adult at the time, and her parents have no legal responsibility to supervise her.

The suit accused David and Christine Seaman of negligence involving the second incident, during which minors consumed alcohol at their residence. Their attorney, Stephen Magley, said the law stipulates there must be intent shown that the Seamans purchased and furnished alcohol for the minors. He argued that the state’s “social host liability” laws did not exist in the case, he said.

Also in question is the county and district attorney’s involvement in the suit. Hornak said the District Attorney’s office cannot be sued for the charges presented because it is an entity of the county and does not have policy-making authority.

He said the charges against the office either needed to be dismissed or subsumed into the county charges.

Marie Milie Jones, representing the county, said the equal protection claim had no basis, as the girls were not alleged to have committed a crime. There must be definitive evidence the girls and T.F. were treated differently based on their gender, and the complaint did not prove that, she said.

The same argument was made on behalf of the Seneca Valley School District via attorney Matthew Hoffman.

Hoffman said the district took the allegations against T.F. seriously, and counselors reported the information to ChildLine & Abuse Registry as required by law. He said there was no room for discretion in making that report.

Additionally, Hoffman said while the suit claims T.F. was not permitted to play baseball after the second incident, that was not a district decision. He said T.F. was either incarcerated or on house arrest which did not permit him to be at the school.

No intentional harm was done by the district, according to Hoffman.

He added there was no reference to any of the incidents on T.F.’s records.

Because the complaint will be amended, previous motions to dismiss were “moot,” Hornak said. However, a motion to suppress the district attorney’s investigative file, including recorded interviews with the girls, as well as T.F.’s school file, was not decided upon Friday. Attorneys for all parties said they were concerned about that sensitive information being disseminated if released.

However, Hornak indicated an agreement could be reached to allow parties to review the documents and videos in a secure location without that information being taken off the premises. Attorneys agreed that could be a solution moving forward.

Hornak also said Friday he was unsure as to what would happen with the default judgment against the Rena family, particularly with an amended complaint coming. He advised Fishman to research and indicate how that portion of the case would proceed.

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