Judge allows suit by HIV-positive student against Harrisburg's Milton Hershey School to remain in Phila.

By Jon Campisi | Jun 11, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia recently denied a bid by a central Pennsylvania boarding

A federal judge in Philadelphia recently denied a bid by a central Pennsylvania boarding

school to transfer a lawsuit against it by a prospective student and his parent to the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg.

In a June 1 ruling, U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones, II denied a motion by the Milton Hershey School to transfer venue to the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The private residential school is being sued by a plaintiff identified only as “Mother Smith,” who is suing on behalf of her minor son, “Abraham Smith.”

The lawsuit centers around the allegation that the school denied the younger Smith’s admittance based on his HIV-positive status.

The complaint was filed late last year by attorney Ronda B. Goldfein of the nonprofit AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

Soon after the lawsuit’s filing, the Milton Hershey School filed a motion to transfer venue to the federal court in Harrisburg.

Goldfein filed a memorandum in opposition to the defendant’s motion in mid-February at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The plaintiffs wanted the case to play out in Philadelphia because the low-income family has limited resources, and a trial in Harrisburg, which is two-plus hours away from Philadelphia, would be burdensome to the plaintiffs and their witnesses, they claim.

In his June 1 ruling, Jones sided with the plaintiffs, saying the court finds that the defendant failed to carry its burden of proving that the interests of justice would be better served by a transfer to the Middle District.

Jones wrote that the school would “clearly be less physically and financially strained by litigating this case in the Eastern District, than Plaintiffs would be by doing so in the Middle District.”

The plaintiffs reside in Delaware County, which is right outside of Philadelphia County, and is considered within the Eastern District’s boundaries.

The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that attending a trial in Harrisburg would burden the already-strapped family.

“Abraham Smith is a thirteen year-old minor from a low-income family, who attends school on weekdays,” Jones wrote. “Arrangements for him and/or his mother to travel to the Middle District and be present at proceedings related to this case would impose undue hardship upon both individuals.”

Jones disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that having the litigation played out in Philadelphia would cause such a “profound interruption of the school’s operations.”

“This Court is [sic] cannot fathom how a long standing institution of Defendant’s size and stature would be unable to function, merely because a few of its numerous employees might have to appear – one at a time – to provide deposition testimony and possibly to testify at trial,” Jones wrote in his ruling.

In her February memorandum in opposition to the venue change request, plaintiff’s attorney Goldfein had written that the Milton Hershey School is in a better position to bear “any inconvenience associated with the commute.”

The school, in its venue transfer request, had stated that a site visit would be necessary for jurors to get a clearer picture of the nature of the civil action.

Goldfein, however, countered that the concept of a boarding school is “not so unusual,” and that the defendant would surely be able to explain its residential setting to the jury through testimony and other evidence.

In his order, Judge Jones agreed with Goldfein.

“With respect to Defendant’s argument that a site visit will be necessary, this Court is simply unable to conclude – based upon Defendant’s Answer to the Amended Complaint and probable defense – that a site visit would necessarily assist the jury in its assessment of Defendant’s decision regarding admission of Abraham Smith to the school,” the ruling states.

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