United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
pending before the Court are a Motion for Preliminary
Injunction (Doc. 5) and Brief in Support (Doc. 6) submitted
by Plaintiff Randy Coffelt and a Response (Doc. 12) and Brief
(Doc. 13) in Opposition submitted by Defendants Omaha School
District ("OSD" or "District") and its
Superintendent, Dr. Jacob Sherwood. The Court heard oral
argument on the Motion on January 19, 2018. In response to
the Court's questions, the parties requested to submit
additional briefs. Following an additional two-week period,
the parties submitted their post-hearing briefs (Docs. 20 and
21, respectively). After considering these filings and the
arguments made during the hearing, the Court will
GRANT the Motion for a Preliminary
Injunction (Doc. 5).
Coffelt is an alumnus of OSD and a parent of two of its
former students, one graduate and a daughter who transferred
from the District to neighboring Alpena School District. By
all accounts, he is an involved citizen who has attended OSD
events without incident for the past 20 years. In addition, both
of his children did, and the youngest still does, play
organized sports, which means that he often attends sporting
events held on OSD school grounds. Finally, as a very small
town,  Omaha's many community events,
including Christmas programs, pee-wees, pageants, rodeos,
school board meetings, etc., are held on OSD property.
Indeed, Mr. Coffelt testified during the hearing, and Dr.
Sherwood confirmed, that community life in Omaha largely
revolves around events at OSD.
to the Complaint and testimony during the motion hearing, Mr.
Coffelt's older daughter allegedly experienced harassment
and bullying for three years (2015-2017) at the hands of a
coach (Jimmy Lincoln) employed by OSD. The Complaint alleges
that Mr. Coffelt met numerous times with Dr. Sherwood in an
effort to resolve this issue, to no avail. As a result, on
April 10, 2017, Mr. Coffelt met with Dr. Sherwood again to
inform him that he was moving his younger daughter to another
district to avoid these same problems. Subsequently, the
Complaint alleges that Dr. Sherwood informed Mr.
Coffelt's wife, an OSD employee, that an investigation
into Coach Lincoln's conduct had begun at the behest of
an OSD School Board member. Dr. Sherwood testified during the
hearing that although this investigation ultimately did not
allow him to either confirm or deny the reports of bullying,
it did uncover that Coach Lincoln had used profanity in front
of OSD students during games and during "heated
closed-door meeting was held a couple of weeks later, on
April 21, 2017, between Mr. Coffelt, Dr. Sherwood, and Coach
Lincoln in Dr. Sherwood's office, which is in a building
with no classrooms but with rooms down sometimes used for
student purposes such as counseling. The meeting apparently got
heated and ended when Mr. Coffelt called Dr. Sherwood a liar
and Coach Lincoln a "chicken shit" after they
refused to answer his questions about the way his older
daughter had been treated. The parties dispute what occurred
next,  but it is undisputed that Dr. Sherwood
asked Mr. Coffelt to leave, following him out of the office
and telling him to "get the hell off my property."
Dr. Sherwood admitted that this was not the first animated
discussion he's had with parents where profanity was
used. The day after this incident, Mr. Coffelt returned to
OSD grounds to watch a Softball game. Although Coach Lincoln
was also present that day, there was no disturbance or
commotion of any kind.
April 27, 2017, Dr. Sherwood sent Mr. Coffelt a letter
stating that his conduct on April 21 substantially disrupted
and disturbed the educational function in the District and
that, effective immediately, Mr. Coffelt was forbidden from
entering upon any District property until further notice.
However, certain narrow exceptions to this categorical ban
were made, including that Mr. Coffelt could attend a
Graduation scheduled for May 12th (for his older daughter)
and an Athletic Banquet scheduled for May 19th, and that he
could enter District property in the event of an
"extreme emergency involving [his] child after first
contacting Mrs. Green (the school's principal)."
(Doc. 1, p. 3). However, his attendance at those events would
only be permitted if he was accompanied by a police escort,
the costs of which were not to be borne by the District.
Id. He was not permitted to attend any other events
of any kind, as he was informed that attendance at any other
event would result in a report to the police.
Coffelt did in fact attend both his older daughter's
graduation on May 12, 2017, and the Athletic Banquet on May
19, 2017, with police escorts. Although there were no
incidents during these events, Mr. Coffelt's police
escorts were no more than eight feet from him at all times
and apparently at one point inserted themselves in between
Mr. Coffelt and his family to make their presence known.
Coffelt subsequently wrote the OSD School Board seeking
permission to appear in front of it to ask it to
reconsider Dr. Sherwood's action. The School Board
granted him permission to appear and speak. After Mr. Coffelt
appeared at the July 17, 2017 Board Meeting to deliver his
five-minute prepared remarks, the Board had no questions for
him and did not make any public comments about his request.
Coffelt subsequently received a letter from Dr. Sherwood that
mentioned his appearance at the School Board meeting and
modified the restrictions that the District was placing upon
him. This letter informed Mr. Coffelt that he would be
"allowed to enter District property ONLY for the
athletic events in which your student may participate and
when a police officer is on duty." (Doc. 1, p. 5). In
addition, he was required to contact the High School
Principal by phone or in writing at least 24 hours in advance
if he planned to attend the event so that the District could
be aware of his presence and could verify police presence.
Other than these athletic events at which his student was
competing, he was not to be present at any other event.
appears that, after Mr. Coffelt's counsel sent a
cease-and-desist letter to the school, Mr. Coffelt's
access to OSD campus buildings was further modified. In a
letter sent to Mr. Coffelt on October 5, 2017, counsel for
OSD repeated the District's prior statement that Mr.
Coffelt could attend events at OSD if Mr. Coffelt's
children were participating. In addition, this letter stated
that if there were other events or occasions where Mr.
Coffelt believed he needed to enter OSD school property for
any reason, he was to similarly give one day advanced notice.
to this last letter, Mr. Coffelt did in fact request
permission to attend events held on OSD school property on
October 31, 2017; November 27, 2017; November 30, 2017;
December 2, 2017; December 11, 2017; January 19, 2018;
January 23, 2018; and February 5th-10th. Though the tone
of the last letter indicated that Mr. Coffelt would be
allowed to attend events where his daughter was in
attendance, OSD, through Dr. Sherwood, responded on October
26, 2017, that Mr. Coffelt would only be allowed to attend
events on February 5 and February 8 (the two days his
daughter had athletic games against OSD teams and, on those
dates, ONLY during his daughter's games). He was denied
permission to attend any other events.
Complaint and the testimony during the hearing revealed that
despite several instances where other parents engaged in
similar (if not worse) conduct, Mr. Coffelt was the only one
who had been banned from the District. Those other instances
of parental conduct included:
• One parent who observed a teacher yelling at his child
and pointing her finger in the child's face told Dr.
Sherwood that the parent would have "slapped the shit
out of her" if she were a man but that he would
"take care" of the situation himself if this type
of event happened again. That parent testified at the hearing
in response to a question about what "take care of meant
that he would do "whatever it took" to right the
situation, including slapping the teacher. That same parent
cursed at Principal Amanda Green in Green's office after
banging on the door to get into the office.
• Another parent verbally assaulted a teacher during an
awards ceremony at OSD.
• In the Fall of 2015, a parent stopped a school bus,
banged on the door, entered the bus, and cursed at its driver
for not waiting long enough for a child. The same parent then
later appeared at school to yell and curse at the principal.
• In October 2014, the sister of a student enrolled at
OSD posted a threat toward a coach on Facebook.
• In the Spring of 2014, a former member of OSD's
school Board threatened a coach with physical violence if the
coach ever again called the former member's son
Coffelt filed his Complaint (Doc. 1) against OSD and Dr.
Sherwood on November 9, 2017, alleging that the
District's actions violated various of his First
Amendment rights, including his right to free speech,
assembly, and association, as well as his right to due
process and equal protection. Submitted contemporaneously
with that Complaint was the present Motion for Preliminary
Injunction (Doc. 6). After the Motion was fully briefed, the
Court heard oral argument during its scheduled Rule 16 case
management hearing. In light of legal questions that had gone
unresolved or unmentioned in the parties' original
briefing, the Court requested that the parties submit
post-hearing briefs. At the hearing, the parties reached an
agreement that, during the pendency of this additional
briefing period and until the Court ruled on the Motion, Mr.
Coffelt would be allowed to attend events where the general
public was invited, such as community events held on OSD
property, sporting events, or school board meetings. The
caveat was that the District would retain its authority to
remove Mr. Coffelt from events should his conduct become
threatening, harassing, or disruptive.
the standards for granting a preliminary injunction are
similar nationwide, in the Eighth Circuit, district courts
should consider: (1) the threat of irreparable harm to the
movant; (2) the balance between this harm and the injury that
granting injunctive relief would inflict on other parties;
(3) the movant's likelihood of success on the merits; and
(4) whether the injunction is in the public interest.
Dataphase Sys., Inc. v. CL Sys., Inc., 640 F.2d 109,
114 (8th Cir. 1981).
no factor is dispositive, "the probability of success
factor is the most significant." Home Instead, Inc.
v. Florance, 721 F.3d 494, 497 (8th Cir. 2013) (citing
Barrett v. Claycomb, 705 F.3d 315, 320 (8th Cir.
2013)). Given the importance of that factor to the overall
analysis, the law is clear that "[t]he very nature of
the inquiry on petition for preliminary relief militates
against a wooden application of the probability test."
Dataphase, 640 F.2d at 113. Indeed, Mr. Coffelt need
only show a "fair chance of prevailing on the
merits" in the case at bar. See Planned Parenthood
Minn., N.D, S.D. v. Rounds, 530 F.3d 724, 732-33 (8th
Cir. 2008) ("Only in a case . . . where a preliminary
injunction is sought to enjoin the implementation of a duly
enacted state statute, must district courts make a threshold
finding that a party is likely to prevail on the
merits." (emphasis added)). Additionally, where the
movant demonstrates that the other equity factors tip
strongly in his favor, his showing on the likelihood of
success on the merits can be less. Dataphase, 640
F.2d at 113. Finally, in a case like this where a plaintiff
has asserted multiple causes of action, "[t]he plaintiff
'need only establish a likelihood of succeeding on the
merits of any of [its] claims." Richland/Wilkin
Joint Powers Auth. v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng'rs, 826
F.3d 1030, 1041 (quoting Am. Rivers v. U.S. Army Corps of
Eng'rs, 271 F.Supp.2d 230, 250 (D.D.C. 2003)).
the standard used to determine the movant's likelihood of
success on the merits varies according to the strength of the
other three equity factors, the Court will consider those
Threat of Irreparable Harm to the Movant
basis of injunctive relief in the federal courts has always
been irreparable harm and inadequacy of legal remedies."
Bandag, Inc. v. Jack's Tire & Oil, Inc., 190
F.3d 924, 926 (8th Cir. 1999) (quoting Beacon Theatres,
Inc. v. Westover, 359 U.S. 500, 506-07 (1959)).
"When there is an adequate remedy at law, a preliminary
injunction is not appropriate." Watkins, Inc. v.
Lewis, 346 F.3d 841, 844 (8th Cir. 2003) (citing
Modern Computer Sys., Inc. v. Modern Banking Sys.,
Inc., 871 F.2d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 1989)). "An
inadequate remedy at law exists only where the injuries
cannot be fully compensated through an award of monetary
damages." Gen. Motors Corp. v. Harry Brown's,
LLC, 563 F.3d 312, 319 (8th Cir. 2009). Courts have
found that damage awards would be inadequate in a number of
circumstances, especially in situations where 1) the award
would be speculative because the damages are not easily
quantifiable and 2) where the injury is of a continuing
nature. Charles A. Wright and Arthur R. Miller, 11A Federal
Practice & Procedure § 2944 (3d ed., Apr. 2018)
Coffelt has demonstrated irreparable harm. As the Court will
further explain below, he has a fair chance of succeeding on
the merits of at least his First Amendment claims. And, it is
well established that "[t]he loss of First Amendment
freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably
constitutes irreparable [harm]." Elrod v.
Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373-74 (1976) (citing New York
Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971));
see also Marcus v. Iowa Pub. Television, 97 F.3d
1137, 1140 (8th Cir. 1996) ("If [the movant is] correct
and [his] First Amendment rights have been violated, this
constitutes an irreparable harm.").
District's near-absolute exclusion of Mr. Coffelt from
all events at OSD has the effect of: barring him from
attending athletic events at which his daughter and family
members are participating or observing; from serving as an
emergency contact for family members who still attend OSD;
from visiting his wife who teaches at OSD; from attending and
participating in OSD school board meetings which are all held
on OSD school property; or from attending Omaha community
events-many of which are held on OSD school grounds because
the small community of Omaha often uses school grounds as a
gathering space for community functions. In the absence of
injunctive relief, Mr. Coffelt's ban from these events is
certainly an ongoing injury not capable of ready
quantification. Because standard legal remedies are
inadequate to compensate him for the loss of his First
Amendment privileges, the Court finds that the loss of First
Amendment freedoms in this case constitutes irreparable harm.
Balance Between the Harm to ...