Judge tosses Flood lawsuit

Family sued SV district

September 4, 2019 Cranberry Local News

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PITTSBURGH — A lawsuit against the Seneca Valley School District and four local families has been dismissed from federal court following a judge's order Friday.

The suit, brought by the Flood family of Zelienople on behalf of their son, T.F., dealt with the fallout of alleged false sexual assault claims. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The suit listed the district as a defendant along with David and Christy Sherk as parents of minor K.S.; David and Christine Seaman as parents of C.S.; Cris and Kimberly Salancy as parents of minor E.S.; and David and Lynn Reina, both individually and as parents of H.R.

The three-count complaint states K.S., C.S., E.S. and H.R. falsely accused T.F. of criminal conduct, including sexual assault. As a result, T.F. was bullied at school and suffered a “loss of his liberty, psychological and physical injuries.”

It also took aim at the district's “gender-biased” selective enforcement of bullying and sexual assault policies.

In his order, Chief Judge Mark Hornak granted a motion by the school district to dismiss the suit based on the Floods' failure to state a claim. That charge — that the district violated T.F.'s 14th Amendment rights — was dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be brought against them again.

In his order, Hornak also dismissed the first two counts of the lawsuit — defamation against the girls and their families — without prejudice, meaning they can be filed again. That was based on the lack of federal claims remaining in the case, with Hornak and the court declining to exercise “supplemental jurisdiction” to keep the case at the federal level.

Hornak wrote that through its analysis of the claims against Seneca Valley, “the court emphasizes that the court is expressing no opinion nor drawing any conclusions ... as to whether the minor defendants' accusations against T.F. were falsely and/or maliciously made.”

The charges could be brought again against the families in common pleas court. The Floods' attorney, Craig Fishman, was out of the office Friday, his secretary said. The district also did not comment on the lawsuit.

In his opinion on the matter, Hornak summarized that the lawsuit dealt with the defendants' accusations of sexual assault, and the school district's decision not to punish them for making allegedly false statements.

He wrote that the suit failed to state a claim or show that a “final policymaker” in the district took action toward T.F.

Additionally, no such policymaker could have been “deliberately indifferent” about such treatment.

The suit intended to state the principal served as that final policymaker, and noted T.F. was not permitted to play baseball and had his schedule changed to be placed away from the defendants in conjunction with a law enforcement investigation.

However, Hornak wrote that state law is clear in stating that the district's school board is the final policymaker, and any action by school officials toward T.F. would have been done without an official ruling or policy made by the board. He cites case law indicating “decision making authority does not equate to final policymaking authority.”

He also notes that an appeal process exists for any person who is “dissatisfied” with their punishment from a building principal, further showing they are not the final decision-maker.

Hornak also took issue with the suit focusing on the discipline for T.F. and the lack of discipline for the girls. Even if the girls were punished for their alleged false statements, it would have “no effect” on the punishment for T.F.

“Plaintiffs may not think it is fair that the minor defendants were not punished, but this is not enough to satisfy causation here,” Hornak wrote. “The assertion that T.F.'s psychological and physical harms are being exacerbated by 'enduring the injustice' of knowing that his accusers have not been punished ... is too attenuated from any school district action to demonstrate proximate causation.”

The lawsuit outlines other instances in which punishment for similar cases was unfair on a gender basis, attempting to show a common theme of gender-based enforcement. However, Hornak again wrote that those cases did not show that the board was aware of such actions, and noted Fishman admitted during oral arguments last week that “he had no facts that would support any of those things.”

Hornak notes an amended complaint has already been filed in the case, and allowing for an additional amendment would be “futile” as Fishman admitted there were no additional details to add.

As for the jurisdiction, Hornak noted all of the remaining claims deal with “Pennsylvania residents against Pennsylvania residents.” That includes the countersuits filed by the Sherk and Seaman families.

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J.W.  Johnson Jr.

J.W. Johnson Jr.

J.W. Johnson Jr. is the bureau chief of the Cranberry Eagle. Johnson is a native of Bellaire, Ohio, and graduated from Bellaire High School in 2004. He is a 2009 graduate of Ohio University in Athens with a bachelor of specialized studies degree in English and journalism. While there, he served as a reporter and editor at The Post, the university’s student-run, independent newspaper. In 2009, he was hired as a reporter for The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in Wheeling, W.Va. Over the course of eight years, he also served as Marshall County bureau chief, city editor and news editor. He also won two first place West Virginia Press Association Awards for his reporting and design work. He and his wife, Maureen, live in Carnegie.