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McKinney v. Huntsville School District

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

October 12, 2018

JESSICA McKINNEY, as next friend and legal guardian of K.P., a minor PLAINTIFFS
v.
HUNTSVILLE SCHOOL DISTRICT, and ROXANNE ENIX in her individual capacity as Principal of HUNTSVILLE HIGH SCHOOL and JOHN DOES 1-10 in their individual capacities DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Currently pending before the Court are a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 10) and Brief in Support (Doc. 11) filed by Defendants Huntsville School District, Roxanne Enix, and John Does 1-10 (Huntsville School Board members). Plaintiff Jessica McKinney, as next friend and legal guardian of K.P., has submitted a Response in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 17). The Court heard oral argument on the Motion during a hearing held on July 19, 2018, at which time it GRANTED Defendants' Motion from the bench. This Opinion and Order memorializes that ruling. To the extent anything written here differs from the Court's pronouncements from the bench, this Opinion and Order controls.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On Saturday evening, February 24, 2018, K.P., a student at Huntsville High School, posted to social media a photograph of himself wearing a trench coat and beanie while posing with an assault rifle. The photograph did not include a caption. The next morning, after reading several comments mentioning school shootings, K.P. removed the photo and posted a second photograph of himself in the same clothing without the assault rifle. This time, however, he included a caption that read, at least in part, "If I wanted to make an impact I would choose a much more high profile crowd th[a]n a bunch of hicks and jocks who are never going to be anything of particular value." (Doc. 6, p. 13). In the interim, other students from the school viewed the photo and commented on it, and school officials were notified. Over the next several days, concerned parents, students, and teachers contacted the school, requesting to know how the school was going to handle the perceived threat and whether it was safe to come to work or to bring a pupil to the school.

         In response to these events, K.P. was initially suspended for ten days. Subsequently, the School Board expelled him for 365 days. As part of this year-long expulsion, K.P. will be allowed to take the classes necessary for graduation through an online program called A, provided to him by the District. This will ensure that he remains eligible to graduate on-time, and any credits that he earns from the program will appear on his transcript and will not note that they were earned through this program while he was expelled.

         Plaintiff's Complaint contends that Defendant Huntsville School District ("District") violated K.P.'s free speech (Count I), procedural due process (Count II), and substantive due process rights (Count III). Plaintiff also claims that Defendant Enix (the Huntsville High School Principal) violated K.P.'s free speech rights (Count IV) and also defamed him (Count V). Additionally, Plaintiff claims that John Doe School Board Defendants violated K.P.'s free speech rights (Count VI).

         Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Counts 111, IV, V, and VI pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 10). They argue that Plaintiff fails to state a claim for substantive due process violations (Count III) because, in punishing K.P., the District did not act arbitrarily and capriciously but rather in accordance with its legitimate interest in school order and safety. (Doc. 11 at 4). Defendants also argue that qualified immunity protects Enix and the School Board members from damages and therefore request that Counts IV and VI be dismissed. Finally, Defendants argue that the defamation claim (Count V) against Enix should be dismissed due to qualified privilege.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a pleading must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The purpose of this requirement is to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The Court must accept all of a complaint's factual allegations as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Ashley Cnty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009).

         However, the complaint "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Id. In other words, while "the pleading standard that Rule 8 announces does not require 'detailed factual allegations,' ... it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Count III: Substantive Due Process

         Substantive due process claims may be stated in two different ways. First, a plaintiff may allege that the government has infringed her fundamental liberty interests. These claims are generally limited to protecting recognized liberty interests such as "matters relating to marriage, family, procreation, and the right of bodily integrity." Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 272 (1994). Second, the Supreme Court has also recognized substantive due process claims when government actions "shock the conscience." See Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 846-53 (1997); Mendoza v. U.S. ICE, 849 F.3d 408, 420-21 (8th Cir. 2017); Moran v. Clarke, 296 F.3d 638, 645, 647 (8th Cir. 2002).

         However, when a specific constitutional amendment provides an "explicit textual source of constitutional protections against a particular sort of government behavior, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of substantive due process, must be the guide for analyzing those claims." Stewart v. Wagner,836 F.3d 978, 983 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lewis, 523 U.S. at 842) (quotation marks omitted). For example, a claim of arrest without probable cause, "even if labeled a claim of malicious prosecution, 'must be judged' under the Fourth Amendment, not substantive due process." Id. (quoting Albright v. Oliver,510 U.S. 266, 270-71 & n.4 (1994)); see also Brandenburg v. Hous. Auth. ofIrv ...


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