Behavioral health contractor has wrongful firing complaint against agency, Phila. School Dist. dismissed

A judge has agreed to dismiss a wrongful termination claim against the School District of Philadelphia and Children’s Crisis Treatment Center that had been lodged by a former behavioral health specialist who claimed he was fired from his job in retaliation for filing criminal charges against a student who injured the plaintiff during a fight.

Yusuf Saleem had sued the defendants seeking damages for claims relating to the termination of his employment.

The plaintiff had worked as a behavioral health specialist, mobile therapist and school clinician for CCTC from 2003 until his firing on June 18, 2010, background information on the case shows.

The school district contracts with CCTC to provide its schools with therapeutic and intervention services for students.

Saleem was outsourced as a clinician to General F. Reynolds Elementary School, where, on June 2, 2010, he had an encounter with a male student who was suspected of physically assaulting one of the plaintiff’s female classmates.

Saleem was physically attacked by the male student following a brief verbal exchange, the complaint had stated.

Police officers were eventually called to the scene, although CCTC’s lead clinician at the school had asked Saleem to discuss the altercation with his supervisor before filing any police reports, the background information on the case shows.

Saleem, however, was called into the principal’s office before he got a chance to speak with his supervisor, after which Saleem was asked to accompany the officers to the police station to give a further statement to detectives.

After meeting with the detectives, Saleem decided to press charges against the male student who attacked him.

Saleem soon advised his supervisor that he had pressed charges against the students, after which the supervisor informed Saleem that the school’s principal didn’t want Saleem to return to the school because of the conflict between him and the male student.

Several days later, the record shows, Saleem was discharged for “unprofessional conduct, because he filed criminal charges against the student,” the complaint had stated.

Saleem subsequently applied for unemployment compensation benefits, which CCTC opposed citing the plaintiff’s “willful misconduct.”

After a year-and-a-half of unemployment compensation litigation, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court held that Saleem was indeed eligible for the benefits because his actions didn’t amount to willful misconduct.

Saleem ultimately sued the district and CCTC at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, asserting that the school’s principal required CCTC to terminate Saleem’s employment in retaliation for making statements to the police about the incident and for filing a police report and pressing charges against the student who assaulted him.

Saleem brought four claims against the school district, alleging that the district conspired and retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights, that the district violated public policy by wrongfully terminating his employment in retaliation for “carrying out legal duties and following the directives of law enforcement officials, that the district’s actions violated Saleem’s right to free speech under the Pennsylvania Constitution, and that the district engaged in an “interference with contract,” since the district allegedly had pressured CCTC to discharge the plaintiff.

In his Jan. 11 memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Thomas N. O’Neill, Jr., of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, determined that Saleem’s lawsuit could not move forward for a number of reasons.

First, the judge ruled that Saleem has failed to state a First Amendment retaliation or conspiracy claim because to do so would require him to show that the school district had a policy or custom that caused him to suffer a constitutional violation.

“Saleem does not allege that the School District has a formal policy or standard operating procedure mandating that clinicians be discharged if they file a police report against a student,” the ruling states. “Nor does Saleem claim that a particular official with authority ratified the unconstitutional actions of a subordinate.”

Instead, the judge wrote, Saleem alleged that the actions of the school’s principal constituted a state action pursuant to his civil rights claim.

The judge wrote that to succeed on this claim, Saleem would have to further allege that the principal was the “final policy making authority” on hiring or firing third-party clinicians, such that the principal’s decision on the matter rendered it an act of official municipal policy.

“In the present case, Saleem does not allege that the principal was the final policy maker with regards to decisions on discharging third party clinicians such as himself,” the judge wrote.

O’Neill also determined that Saleem’s public policy and interference with contract claims are precluded by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, a law that gives government entities immunity from certain civil claims.

O’Neill wrote that none of Saleem’s state law claims fall within the eight enumerated exceptions to the PSTCA.

On whether or not the defendants violated Saleem’s right to free speech under the state constitution, O’Neill wrote that he would reserve judgment on this claim and require an additional memorandum from Saleem addressing whether there is legal authority that permits such a claim to move forward.

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