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Coffelt v. Omaha School District

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

May 11, 2018

OMAHA SCHOOL DISTRICT; and JACOB SHERWOOD, Individually and in his Official Capacity as Superintendent DEFENDANTS



         Currently 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).

         I. BACKGROUND0

         A. Factual Background

         Mr. 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.[1] 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, [2] 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.

         According 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 moments."

         A 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.[3] 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, [4] 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.[5]

         On 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.

         Mr. 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.

         Mr. Coffelt subsequently wrote the OSD School Board seeking permission[6] 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.

         Mr. 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.

         It 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.

         Pursuant 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.[7] 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.

         The 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 "lazy."

         B. Procedural Background

         Mr. 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.


         While 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).

         While 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)).


         Because 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 factors first.

         1. Threat of Irreparable Harm to the Movant

         "The 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) (collecting cases).

         Mr. 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.").

         The District's near-absolute exclusion of Mr. Coffelt from all events at OSD[8] 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.

         2. Balance Between the Harm to ...

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