Friday, October 2, 2015

Alabama Court Finds Police Officers' Failure to Adequately Decontaminate Students from Pepper Spray Effects and Use of Spray on Nonviolent Students Unconstitutional

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The Northern District of Alabama ruled yesterday that Birmingham police officers (acting as school resource officers) used excessive force when they pepper-sprayed students who were not posing a danger and when officers failed to adequately decontaminate students from effects as recommended by the spray's manufacturer when there were available facilities to do so. discussed the suit earlier this year, The plaintiffs, students from eight of the city's nine high schools,  alleged that local police used excessive force by spraying students with a substance called Freeze +P, a spray made up of Orthochlorobenzalmalonitrile (CS) and Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), that causes “strong respiratory effects" and "severe pain." The spray was used to break up fights, disburse bystanders, and discipline students who were verbally disrespectful but not physically violent.  The officers were following Birmingham Police Department procedures in using the spray, as summarized by the court in Fig. 1. The district court found that the sprayings were unconstitutional seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and that officers' failure to arrange for sprayed students to be decontaminated was part of those ongoing seizures. Thus, the court concluded, the plaintiffs' claims were best evaluated under the Fourth Amendment's unconstitutional seizure doctrine, rather than the Fourteenth Amendment's "shock the conscience" standard. Turning to remedies, the district court found that six of the eight student-plaintiffs were entitled to damages. The court declined the plaintiffs' request to ban the use of Freeze+P in Birmingham schools, given the "scenarios when it is appropriate for S.R.O.s to use Freeze +P in the school setting." The court instead ordered the parties to meet and develop a training and procedures plan for S.R.O.s’ use of Freeze+P, including protecting uninvolved persons from overspray. The court also suggested that the Birmingham police chief remind his officers that "enforcement of school discipline is not part of their job description and that Freeze+P is not suited for general crowd control." Given the chief's comments earlier this year that the school system was too dependant on the police department to resolve low-level misbehavior, he may agree with the court's sentiment. The plaintiffs were represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  The opinion in J.W. v. Birmingham Board of Education is here.

October 2, 2015 in Cases, Discipline | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Ninth Circuit Takes The Middle Ground In O'Bannon v. NCAA, But The Case for College Athletes' Compensation Is Still Open

The Ninth Circuit decided O'Bannon v. NCAA yesterday, upholding the district court's finding that the National Collegiate Athletic Association's restraints on what its member schools could pay Div. I college basketball and football players violated the antitrust laws, but vacating the lower court's  remedy that would have required the NCAA to allow its member schools to pay student-athletes up to $5,000 per year in deferred compensation. The case arose when class plaintiffs, represented by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, challenged the NCAA's rules against player compensation that prohibit college athletes from receiving any compensation to be eligible to play college sports. The NCAA's rules applied to players' names, likenesses, and images even after they finished school, which prompted the suit when O'Bannon and other athletes recognized their likenesses in NCAA-licensed video games. Last year, a California district court ruled that NCAA violated antitrust law by not allowing athletes to be paid for the use of their names and likeness and enjoined the NCAA from prohibiting its member schools from giving student-athletes scholarships up to the full cost of attendance at their respective schools and paying players $5,000 each year in deferred compensation to be held in trust while they were still eligible to play college sports. While the NCAA will be unhappy that the Ninth Circuit declined to exempt it from antitrust scrutiny because of its tradition of amateurism, it should be relieved that the panel credited its argument that amateurism is a legitimate procompetitive purpose that supports the NCAA's eligibility rules. The class plaintiffs, on the other hand, can claim partial victory for the Ninth Circuit's recognition that the NCAA's rules are"more restrictive than necessary to maintain its tradition of amateurism in support of the college sports market," thus providing more traction to help the pipeline of cases pressing for compensation for college athletes, including Jenkins v. NCAA. The Ninth Circuit stressed that its opinion was limited and that it did not want to change college sports into another minor league of professional sports. Mark Edelman at Forbes thinks that the plaintiffs lost this case during the bench trial below in not countering the NCAA's study showing that that its rules increased consumer demand among fans to attend college sporting events - an important pro-competitive benefit. Read the Ninth Circuit's opinion in O'Bannon v. NCAA here.

October 1, 2015 in Cases, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

School Speech Shorts: School District Employees Entitled to Qualified Immunity in Facebook Search Suit; Univ. of Kansas Cannot Expel Student for Off-Campus Tweets

The Fifth Circuit recently reversed a district court's decision denying qualified immunity to officials of a Mississippi school district on a First Amendment claim. The case arose when a teacher in the Pearl Public Schools, who served as the school's cheer squad sponsor, coercively requested a student's Facebook log-in information, accessed her Facebook messages, and later punished the student by removing her from the cheer squad because of the messages' content. After the student was dismissed from the squad, her parents filed a § 1983 action alleging that school officials violated their daughter's First and Fourth Amendment rights by searching her messages. The Fifth Circuit held that the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity because the law was not “clearly established” when the incident occurred (September 2007) that searching a student's Internet messages would violate either the First or Fourth Amendments if the teacher was acting on a reasonable suspicion that that the student had posted threatening messages immediately after a school event. The finding of qualified immunity was compelled, the Fifth Circuit explained, by conflicting rulings in school search cases until the Supreme Court handed down Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Redding in 2009. The circuit court likewise held that school officials had qualified immunity on the First Amendment claim, because they did not have "fair warning," given the available precedent, that removing the student from the cheer squad because the content of her Facebook messages would violate the First Amendment.  Read the opinion in Jackson v. Ladner, No. 13-60631 (5th Cir. Sept. 15, 2015) here.

A Kansas appellate court held last week that University of Kansas had no authority to expel a student for posting sexually harassing tweets about another student even though the university had ordered him not to contact the other student. The harassing communications were done off-campus, and construing the University's student code, the court concluded that the "only environment the University can control is on campus or at University sponsored or supervised events." The case is Yeasin v. Univ. of Kansas, No. 113,098 (Kan. App. Sept. 25, 2015).

September 29, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Third Circuit Denies Teacher's First Amendment Retaliation Claim

The Third Circuit recently upheld a summary judgment finding in a teacher’s retaliation claim after she was discharged after her derogatory comments about students gained national attention. The Third Circuit held that while the teacher’s speech may have touched on a matter of national concern, it caused sufficient disruption for the students and the school district to warrant the teacher’s discharge, and thus speech was not protected under Pickering v. Board of Education. The case arose when a teacher for a Pennsylvania school district, Natalie Munroe, began a blog entitled "Where are we going, and why are we in this hand basket?" In the blog, Munroe discussed personal matters but also complained about her students, her co-workers, and the school where she worked. She did not expressly identify either where she worked or lived, the name of the school where she taught, or the names of her students, but described students as the “devil’s spawn,” and “rat-like.” Students and the school district discovered the blog, and after complaints about Munroe’s professionalism, the school district assigned a “shadow teacher” to teach Munroe’s subject at the same times that Munroe did and allowed students to opt-out of Munroe’s class. Munroe meanwhile became a minor celebrity in the national media because of the views expressed on the blog. Eventually, the school district discharged Munroe, and she brought a retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the district violated her First Amendment rights. She claimed that her termination based on her private blog and her media interviews. The Third Circuit found that Munroe’s national media interviews did not rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression, finding that “Munroe’s various expressions of hostility and disgust against her students would disrupt her duties as a high school teacher and the functioning of the School District.” The Third Circuit concluded that the district’s interest in eliminating Munroe’s disruptive speech and presence outweighed her “interest, as well as the interest of the public, in her speech.” Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, No. 14-3509 (3d Cir. Sept. 2015) is here.

September 16, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Eighth Circuit Upholds District's Decision to Opt Out of School Choice Law To Comply With Desegregation Mandates

The Eighth Circuit has affirmed a district court's ruling that an Arkansas school district acted properly in opting out of the state's school choice statute because to comply with its efforts to remedy the effects of past racial segregation. Derek has followed the related litigation over the 2013 Arkansas Public School Choice Law, which allows students to transfer to schools outside their district, but also allows districts to claim an exemption from the Act if the district was subject to a desegregation order or mandate of a federal court. The plaintiffs in yesterday's Eighth Circuit  decision were parents in the Blytheville School District who were prevented from sending their children to another district because the district resolved, for the 2013–2014 school year, to opt out of the School Choice Law because it would conflict with its obligations under a federal court desegregation order. The plaintiffs sued in federal court, arguing that the district violated their due process and equal protection rights under § 1983 and Arkansas' civil rights law by using race as the reason for its exemption and nullifying the 2013 Act "on the pretense that it was subject to a desegregation order" even though that case was closed in 1978. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment order of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in favor of the district. The circuit court held that the district had a rational basis for believing that the desegregation suit and the related federal agency oversight meant that the district could not take any action that could result in returning to the dual-school system dismantled by the federal desegregation order. The Eighth Circuit also rejected arguments that a parent's ability to choose where his or her child is educated within the public school system is a fundamental right of liberty; nor did the Act create a property interest in exercising public school choice because the parents did not have more than "a mere subjective expectancy of school choice under the Act" since receiving nonresident districts retain discretion to accept or reject transfer students. The circuit court also held that the parents failed to prove that the district had a disparate purpose in claiming the exemption, in part because the parents had no evidence that African-American students were allowed nonresidential transfers on the basis of race. Thus, the circuit court concluded, the proper test for the district's action was rational basis, and the district had a rational basis for believing it was subject to a federal court desegregation order or federal agency mandate which it would violate if it failed to claim the exemption. Read Adkisson, et al  v. Blytheville School District #5 here.


September 1, 2015 in Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Settlement Reached For Student Expelled After Protesting College's Parking Deck Plans

A settlement has been reached in Barnes v. Zaccari, the long-running case in which a Valdosta State University (Ga.) student was expelled in 2007 after he protested the VSU president's plans to build a new parking deck. After a letter-writing campaign opposing the environmental impact of VSU's parking deck plans, student Thomas Barnes posted a collage on his Facebook page titled “S.A.V.E.—Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage” that included a portrait of then-VSU President Ronald Zaccari. (A copy of the collage can be found here.) Zaccari interpreted the word "memorial" to apply to deceased persons, therefore signaling that Barnes contemplated harm to him. He ordered that Barnes be "administratively withdrawn" from VSU because Barnes presented a “clear and present danger” to the campus. Barnes sued Zaccari in federal court, claiming violations of his  due process and free speech rights. The district court denied Zaccari's summary judgment motion based on qualified immunity. A federal district court denied Barnes' First Amendment retaliation claim, finding that because it was pled as a conspiracy claim and VSU's administrators opposed Zaccari's actions, there was no agreement to form a conspiracy. In 2013, a federal jury found the collage was innocuous expression, finding Zaccari personally liable for $50,000 for violating Barnes's rights. In January 2015, the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in Zaccari's favor on the First Amendment retaliation claim. Barnes v. Zaccari, 592 Fed.Appx. 859 (11th Cir. 2015). VSU apparently has decided that it is done fighting the case. Read more about the settlement at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education here.

July 28, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

D.C. Circuit Holds That District Must Pay For Residential School Placement After Failing To Provide An Alternative

Leggett v. Dist. of Columbia, No. 14-7021 (D.C. Cir. July 10, 2015) - Short take: when a school district drags its feet in providing a free appropriate education required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the district may be on the hook for a more costly one. In Leggett, the D.C. Circuit held that the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) was required to reimburse the costs of a private boarding school placement after DCPS failed to provide an individualized education program by the start of the school year. The IDEA requires school districts to reimburse parents for their private-school expenses if "(1) school officials failed to offer the child a free appropriate public education; (2) the private-school placement chosen by the parents was otherwise “proper under the Act”; and (3) the equities weigh in favor of reimbursement—that is, the parents did not otherwise act “unreasonabl[y].”" In Leggett, the parent requested an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act after her child did not complete the eleventh grade. DCPS failed to develop an IEP in time for the school year. After being told that her child would benefit from residential placement, Leggett chose a private boarding school where her child thrived. She sought reimbursement from DCPS for the cost of the residential program. DCPS countered that the residential school placement—with activities such as an equestrian program—was unnecessary because the student could have succeeded in a non-residential program. Both the due process hearing officer and the D.C. District Court found that DCPS violated the IDEA by failing to have an IEP in place by the beginning of the school year, but denied reimbursement because, in their view, the student did not require a residential program. The D.C. Circuit reversed the denial of reimbursement, holding that under Bd. of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982), the student’s placement was proper because DCPS had offered no IEP, “identified no suitable alternative, and failed even to challenge Leggett’s claim that [the residential school] was the only available placement.” The circuit court held that on remand, DCPS could challenge the costs of extracurricular activities that were unnecessary for the student’s education. Read the opinion here.

July 28, 2015 in Cases, Special Education | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Court Finds That D.C. District Neglected "Child Find" Duty for Preschoolers

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia again found last week that the D.C. school district failed to comply with their “Child Find” duty to locate disabled students in the birth-to-five population, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The court found in 2010 that the D.C. district neglected its duties for years to identify, evaluate, determine eligibility, and ensure a smooth transition for services for preschool disabled children covered by the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act. Following Wal-Mart v. Dukes in 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court vacated the original plaintiff class certification of disabled children and remanded for the district court to determine whether the plaintiffs' claims had sufficient commonality to represent a class. On remand, the district court certified four subclasses. In last week's decision, the district court found no genuine dispute that the "District's attempts to identify, evaluate, determine eligibility of, and transition disabled children were inadequate through and including 2007, [which is] sufficient to establish the District's liability under the IDEA on each subclass's claim." The District had been cited by the Office for Special Education Programs (OSEP) in 2001 for failing to conduct timely evaluations under its program compliance agreement. The case is DL v. D.C., No. CV 05-1437, 2015 WL 3630688 (D.D.C. June 10, 2015).

July 15, 2015 in Cases, Special Education | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Teachers' Union Dues Case

The Supreme Court granted certiorari Monday to hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the case about compulsory teachers' union dues that some observers say will threaten  union financing. Friedrichs challenges California's “agency shop” laws, which require public employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment, Friedrichs argues that state's agency shop laws violate the First Amendment particularly when the union's positions conflict with individual teachers' on-the-job interests or personal beliefs. Friedrichs' certiorari petition presents two issues:

(1) whether Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) should be overruled and public-sector “agency shop” arrangements (that require teachers to join the union or pay the equivalent of union dues) should be invalidated under the First Amendment; and

(2) whether it violates the First Amendment to require that public employees affirmatively object to subsidizing nonchargeable speech by public-sector unions, rather than requiring that employees affirmatively consent to subsidizing such speech.

In Abood, the Supreme Court held that nonunion public sectors employees could not be required to fund political or social activities to which they objected, but employees could be required to fund activities that benefitted all employees related to “collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment purposes.” Because Abood controlled the outcome of Friedrich's claims, the Ninth Circuit summarily affirmed the district court's ruling against Friedrich.

July 2, 2015 in Cases, Teachers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Supreme Court Will Revisit Diversity Admissions Policies in Fisher v. UT Austin

The Supreme Court granted certiorari today in Fisher v. Univ. of Texas to revisit race-conscious admissions policies at the University of Texas at Austin. The Supreme Court remanded the Fisher case in 2013 for the Fifth Circuit to conduct a "searching examination" of whether UT's policies were narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that in addition to the Fifth Circuit's upholding UT's policy, the justices may also consider new evidence that then-UT Austin President William C. Powers Jr. intervened on behalf of well-connected applicants (the elephant in the room for racial diversity policies in college admissions). The Chronicle of Higher Education's story is here.

June 29, 2015 in Cases, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Supreme Court Rules that Non-testifying Witness' Statements to Teachers Are Admissible at Trial

The Supreme Court decided Ohio v. Clark last week, a case that we discussed earlier in the summer here, holding that a three-year-old's statements to his preschool teachers that his mother's boyfriend had hit him could be admitted at trial even though the child did not testify. The Court found that the child's statements were not "testimonial" under the Sixth Amendment because they were made in response to his teachers' questions about his injuries and not for the purposes of criminal law enforcement. The Court also indicated that in most instances, statements of non-testifying young children to daycare workers or teachers can be admitted at trial without violating the Confrontation Clause. Read the opinion here.

June 22, 2015 in Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Class Action Suit Asks Court to Recognize Complex Trauma as a Disability

A novel class action suit asks a federal court to require the Compton (CA) Unified School District to recognize and accommodate the effects of multiple traumas on its students. The plaintiffs are students who have suffered complex trauma of violence, abuse, and racism that has negatively impacted their school attendance and success. They allege that the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act require the district to "accommodate students who are being denied benefits of educational programs solely by reason of experiencing complex trauma." They allege that the Compton school district has high concentrations of trauma-impacted students for whom individualized education plans are insufficient. Instead, the plaintiffs maintain, the district should start schoolwide trauma practices to keep students in school, including early and appropriate interventions to teach resilience; training educators about trauma; avoiding re-traumatizing students through the use of punitive discipline; and ensuring access to consistent mental health support. In a LA Times article, plaintiffs' counsel cited a counseling program started by the Los Angeles school district for trauma-impacted students as an appropriate intervention. The lawsuit is Peter P., et al., v. Compton Unified Sch. Dist., 2015 WL 2393294 (C.D.Cal., filed May 18, 2015).

June 3, 2015 in Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 1, 2015

Federal District Court Overturns School Policy Allowing Distribution Of Only Student-Written Literature

The Western District Court of Washington overturned a student's suspension on Friday for preaching and distributing Christian literature, the Pacific Justice Institute reports. Cribbing from the Institute's press release: Plaintiff Michael Leal is a senior at Cascade High School, part of the Everett Public Schools system. Leal violated the school district policy several times by preaching and passing out religious materials about his Christian faith to fellow students during the school day. The district's policy limited passing out such materials to times before or after the school day at school building entrances or with permission from school administrators. The district also required that this literature be written or produced by a student. Leal was disciplined and threatened with expulsion for repeatedly violating the policy. The federal district court had stated earlier in the case that the district's time, place, and manner restrictions on such speech were appropriate but was "troubled" by that part of the policy that prohibited students from passing out materials that were not written by students. According to the Institute's report, the district court decided that part of the policy could not stand. The case is Leal v. Everett Pub. Sch., No. 2:14-CV-01762 TSZ, 2015 WL 728651 (W.D. Wash. 2015).


June 1, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Federal Court Approves Prayer At School Events If Students Selected On Neutral Criteria

A federal court in South Carolina recently found that a school district’s practice of including Christian prayers at elementary school graduation ceremonies violated the Establishment Clause, but approved a revised policy that allows student-initiated prayer at school events if the student is selected to speak based on “neutral criteria such as class rank or academic merit.” The plaintiffs, parents of an elementary student in the district joined by the American Humanist Society, challenged the Greenville County School District’s practice of having graduation ceremonies at a college chapel at which prayer opened and closed the event. (The claim about the location of the event was dismissed earlier.) The court found that the district’s new policy allowing students to initiate prayer did not contravene the Supreme Court’s First Amendment holdings because the district’s revised policy “simply refuses to preemptively restrain a certain type of message, namely religious,” as opposed to dictating when private religious speech would be allowed during school events. The case, American Humanist Assoc. v. South Carolina Dept. of Ed., is available here.

May 26, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Recent Special Education Decisions

Supreme Court Declines Review of Case Presenting Circuit Split on IDEA's Stay-Put Provision

As covered by SCOTUSBlog, the Supreme Court declined certiorari this week in a special education case, Ridley School District v. M.R. The case presented a circuit split on the statutory definition of “proceedings” in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) stay-put provision, which determines how long a school district must pay for a student’s current educational placement during a legal dispute. The "stay put" rule safeguards students from having their education disrupted during litigation. The D.C. and Sixth Circuits have held that schools’ stay-put obligation ends upon entry of a final judgment by a trial court in favor of the school district; the Third and Ninth Circuits have held that school districts must continue to pay the costs of private school placements until the exhaustion of all proceedings, including appeals. Several school board associations joined in filing an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the Third Circuit’s definition of “proceedings.” The school boards argued that the Third Circuit’s interpretation creates “an incentive for parents to engage in protracted litigation rather than working collaboratively with educators to resolve disputes without delay,” by placing the burden on a school district to continue to pay for alternative education after a district court’s determination that the district has provided sufficient education services.

Second Circuit Allows Amendment of Hearing-Impaired Child's Claim that Girl Scouts Organization Provides Education Services

The Second Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a Section 504 claim brought against the Chicago area chapter of the Girl Scouts for failing to provide a sign language interpreter to a hearing impaired girl. The circuit court found that the plaintiffs’ claim that the Scouts were “principally engaged” in education services was not futile, and thus they should have been allowed to amend their complaint. The plaintiffs, the girl and her mother as next friend, sued the Girl Scouts under the Rehabilitation Act after it stopped providing sign language interpreter services and then, when her mother objected, allegedly retaliated by disbanding the girl’s local troop. The Scouts responded that as a private organization, it was exempt from the Act’s coverage. The Second Circuit found that the Girl Scouts organization was subject to the Act as a private organization that is “principally engaged” in the business of providing education as defined under 29 U.S.C. § 794(b). The Second Circuit interpreted the statutory coverage of the term “education” beyond that provided by a traditional school system. Education, the circuit court reasoned, includes social and education services if they, in the aggregate, make up the primary activities of the private organization. The court noted that Girl Scouts’ literature touts the educational purposes of many of its activities, even in selling cookies. The court therefore reversed the dismissal to allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The decision is Runnion ex rel. Runnion v. Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago & Nw. Indiana, No. 14-1729, 2015 WL 2151851 (7th Cir. May 8, 2015).

Seventh Circuit Finds Parent’s IDEA Claim as Preserved, But Pro Se Parent Cannot Represent the Child

The Seventh Circuit recently allowed a pro se mother of a special education student to pursue her parental rights to relief under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The circuit court vacated the district court’s finding below that the mother did not specifically request reimbursement at a hearing before the Illinois State Board of Education to be reimbursed for the cost of her daughter's speech and language sessions, and thus was not aggrieved by the hearing officer's decision. The Seventh Circuit found that the hearing officer understood that the mother was requesting compensatory relief for speech and language services, and thus the officer ordered the Board of Education to pay for more speech sessions with the same pathologist that the mother had retained. However, the circuit court upheld the district court’s decision to deny the daughter’s claims because of the circuit’s holdings that a nonlawyer parent cannot represent her minor child pro se, a question left open in Winkelman ex rel. Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 550 U.S. 516 (2007). The decision is Foster v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chicago, No. 14-3035, 2015 WL 2214152 (7th Cir. May 11, 2015). 

May 22, 2015 in Cases, Special Education | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fifth Circuit Holds that Houston School District May Not Be Sued Under RICO

The Fifth Circuit decided a novel issue in its circuit on Monday, holding that the Houston Independent School District (HISD) may not be sued under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act because a governmental organization cannot be shown to have the required mens rea and that the HISD had immunity from RICO’s punitive treble-damages provision. The case arose when a former member of HISD’s Board of Trustees, Lawrence Marshall, allegedly used his position to steer the district’s construction projects to companies in which he served as a paid consultant. When HISD prohibited Marshall from doing that, those companies hired one of Marshall’s business associates who received consulting fees for district contracts, funneling a share of those fees to Marshall. The plaintiffs sued Marshall, HISD, and others in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas for violations of RICO, § 1983, and state law for breach of contract, estoppel, and civil conspiracy. The district court dismissed the RICO and state law tort claims against HISD, finding that the district was not a proper RICO plaintiff. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that a RICO allegation requires proof of an underlying criminal act, and a governmental entity cannot form the required mens rea for a crime. The court also found that HISD, as a  municipal entity, has common law immunity from RICO’s partially punitive treble-damages provision. The court interpreted RICO’s treble damages provisions as awarding damages beyond the amount of actual harm, despite some Supreme Court language that RICO is “remedial in nature.” The Fifth Circuit also held that Marshall was not shielded as a HISD employee against  state law claims. As an elected school board trustee, Marshall was not controlled by or in the paid service of the HISD, and therefore, he was not an employee. Even if he were to be considered an employee under some statutory definitions, receiving bribes, the court wrote, was outside the scope of his employment. The circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the individual defendants on the RICO and state law claims.

May 20, 2015 in Cases | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Certiorari in New Orleans Teachers' Challenge to Termination After Katrina

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ certiorari petition in Oliver v. Orleans Parish Sch. Bd. on Monday, ending the class action suit for 7,600 former New Orleans teachers and school employees. The teachers and other school employees claimed that Louisiana violated due process when the state terminated them after Hurricane Katrina and took over of 102 of the Orleans Parish’s 126 schools. Overturning the Louisiana Court of Appeals decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court below held last fall that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by res judicata and that the Orleans Parish School Board did not violate the employees’ due process rights by failing to recall them after Hurricane Katrina. The Louisiana Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs’ claims were the subject matter of an earlier settlement between the OPSB and the Orleans Parish’s teachers’ union, the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO)—which included three persons who were also class members in Oliver case—and thus barred by res judicata. On the due process claim, the court found that the issues presented by Hurricane Katrina were so unique that there were only 526 positions available for the over 7,600 class members. Acknowledging that there was no recall list for teachers temporarily displaced by Katrina, the court found that OPSB’s employee hotline to communicate to determine which employees could return to work when the schools re-opened, while imperfect, was sufficient to satisfy due process. Finally, the court found that the plaintiffs had no constitutionally protected property interest in the right to “priority consideration” for employment with a third party, the Recovery School District. The Louisiana Supreme Court's decision is here.

May 19, 2015 in Cases, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pennsylvania School District Settles Racial Bias Suit

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reports that a racial bias suit against a Pennsylvania school district was settled this week. In 2014, the Webbs, a student and his mother, sued the Susquehanna Township School District after it expelled the student from high school for wearing a multifunction tool that had a knife on it. The student's mother sued when they learned that three white male students were treated differently than the student, who is black. In the other three instances, a white male student brought two airsoft pistols onto school and aimed at other students as they left the building; in the second, a white male student brought marijuana into a classroom; and in the third, a white male student brought a BB gun onto school grounds. On each of those occasions, the school superintendent did not recommend to expel the students. The Webbs sued in federal court claiming disparate treatment and violations of the 14th Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). The Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed their claims for lack of standing and because the statute of limitations had expired on some of the claims. However, the federal court gave the Webbs leave to amend their claims under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). Despite the dismissal, the school district reportedly settled the case for an undisclosed amount. The federal case was Webb v. Susquehanna Twp. Sch. Dist., No. 1:14-CV-1123, 2015 WL 871731 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2015).

May 14, 2015 in Cases, Discipline | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Student's Facebook Post that Teacher "Needs to Be Shot" Ruled Protected Speech

The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon recently ruled that a school violated a student's free speech rights when it suspended him for posting on Facebook post that his teacher "needs to be shot." The eighth grade student was angry because his parents grounded him after he got a C in her class. The court wrote that the off-campus post post was unlikely to "materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the required showing under Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. The student's post did not announce a specific plan, and the school's choice of discipline, a three-day in school suspension, further convinced the district court that school officials did not take the comments seriously. Although the teacher was apprehensive about the student returning to school, she accepted the school's decision to let the student return. The district court distinguished a 2013 Ninth Circuit case, Wynar v. Douglas Co. Sch. Dist., which upheld a school suspension of a student for his threatening social media post because he detailed plans that targeted specific students. Read the district court's opinion in Burge v. Colton School Dist. 53 here.

May 7, 2015 in Cases, First Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Judge Approves Consent Order Aimed at Achieving Unitary Status in Huntsville, Ala. Schools

Last week a federal court approved a consent order to put Huntsville, Ala. on the road to unitary status. The Huntsville schools must still comply with a decades-old federal desegregation order, but the consent order is a "plan to plan" to end the imbalances that led to federal oversight. In its order, the court wrote a message to the district's students in the district, urging them to show openness and patience as the school system rezoned them for new schools. Last year, the district court expressed skepticism about the district's progress toward unitary status, citing among other things, continued racial imbalance in the city's schools, discrepancies in disciplinary rates, and racial achievement gaps on measures of academic performance. Under the consent order, the school system is tasked with making progress in areas identified in the original desegregation order: (1) desegregation of faculty and staff; (2) majority to minority transfers; (3) equity in school construction and site selection; (4) interdistrict transfers; (5) equity in services, facilities, activities, and programs, including athletics and other extracurricular activities; and (6) equity in transportation. The consent order in  Hereford v. Huntsville Bd. of Educ. is here.

April 29, 2015 in Cases, Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink | Comments (0)