A federal court judge last Wednesday (Sept. 30) granted the Tunkhannock Area School District a motion to dismiss a former school principal’s claims against it.
The case originated with a pair of DUI arrests which Joseph Patrick Moffitt had been charged with over a period of four years.
At the time of his arrests in 2010 and 2014, Moffitt was principal of Evans Falls and Mill City Elementary schools, which were roughly seven miles apart.
With the first arrest, the charge was resolved through his participation in the county’s Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition program, which allowed him to avoid a criminal record for the offense.
But in 2014, Moffitt was arrested again for DUI and entered a guilty plea, which resulted in 90 days of house arrest, fines and five years of probation.
Moffitt was terminated from his position with the district on Sept. 12, 2016, based on the two incidents.
This termination decision was made following a Loudermill hearing that occurred on May 26, 2016, and June 9, 2016. He then appealed the district’s termination decision to Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, who upheld the termination.
Moffitt then appealed that decision to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which upheld his termination on August 13, 2018.
A 3-judge state panel noted “We find no basis in the record to conclude that Moffitt’s employment was terminated for any other reason than that annunciated by the school board and the secretary, nor is there evidence he was discriminated against due to his alcoholism or the fact that he engaged the school district in unrelated litigation.”
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed a civil rights complaint by Moffitt on April 15, 2020.
Three weeks later, on May 5, Moffitt filed an amended complaint focused on individual defendants in their individual capacities. He alleged that during the Loudermill hearing in the spring of 2016 there were violations of his due process and equal protection rights, a First Amendment retaliation and one count of wrongful suspension and termination.
In its move to dismiss, the school district argued that Moffitt failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
In a 10-page memorandum released last week, Judge Jennifer Wilson concluded that Moffitt’s argument “is based on the erroneous premise that he was required to exhaust state court remedies prior to filing suit in federal court.”
“The court finds that his amended complaint is barred by the issue preclusion doctrine,” Wilson wrote, “For the foregoing reasons, Defendants motion to dismiss is granted.”