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N.Y. v. San Ramon Valley Unified School District

United States District Court, N.D. California

November 6, 2019

N.Y., Plaintiff,
v.
SAN RAMON VALLEY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS TO DISMISS FOURTH AMENDED COMPLAINT; AFFORDING PLAINTIFF LIMITED LEAVE TO AMEND RE: DKT. NOS. 123, 124

          MAXINE M. CHESNEY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are two motions: (1) "Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Fourth Amended Complaint," filed July 29, 2019, by defendants San Ramon Valley Unified School District ("District"), Rick Schmitt ("Schmitt"), Jason Reimann ("Reimann"), Ruth Steele ("Steele"), Jason Krolikowski ("Krolikowski"), Jamie Keith ("Keith"), Dearborn Ramos ("Ramos"), and Bernie Phelan ("Phelan") (collectively, "Administration Defendants"); and (2) "Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Fourth Amended Complaint," filed July 29, 2019, by defendant Janet Willford ("Willford"). The motions have been fully briefed. Having read and considered the papers filed in support of and in opposition to the motions, the Court rules as follows.[1]

         BACKGROUND

         In the operative complaint, the Fourth Amended Complaint ("4AC"), plaintiff N.Y., who previously was a student attending San Ramon Valley High School ("SRVHS"), [2]alleges he was deprived of his federal constitutional and state rights in connection with a student election conducted in 2017 and events following the election.

         Specifically, N.Y. alleges, in February 2017, when he was Junior Class President, he ran for Associated Student Body ("ASB") President (see 4AC ¶¶ 29, 32, 35) and that, shortly before the election, he and a "group of his friends," while at the home of one of the friends, filmed a video that was intended to "increase N.Y.'s name recognition" (see 4AC ¶ 39), which video subsequently was uploaded to the "personal YouTube webpage" of one of the friends (see 4AC ¶ 44). According to N.Y., the video depicted him "as a James Bond-type hero who rescues a person kidnapped by two members of an extremist group who attempted to force the victim to participate in a video game competition" (see 4AC ¶ 2), and that two of his friends, "who happen to be practicing Muslims, conceived and developed the idea for the antagonists" and "voluntarily decided to play the antagonists" (see 4AC ¶ 40).

         The "Campaign Rules" applicable to the election included the following provision: "Please have discretion when creating campaign signs and slogans, as any inappropriate material will be removed and the candidate is subject to be pulled from the election." (See 4AC ¶ 36.) N.Y. alleges defendants determined the video to be "inappropriate" (see 4AC ¶ 7) and, in light of such determination, "stripped him of his position as Junior Class President" and "expelled" him from the school's "Leadership Class" (see 4AC ¶ 6);[3]additionally, N.Y. alleges, defendants "disqualified him in the election for [ASB] President" (see id.), even though he "received the most votes" (see 4AC ¶ 11).

         N.Y. alleges that, thereafter, he "filed an ex parte petition for writ of mandamus" in state court, which petition was "denied" for failure to meet the "requirements for writ relief" (see 4AC ¶¶ 66-67), and that his counsel next "informed the District in writing that N.Y. intended to file a lawsuit based on [d]efendants' unconstitutional acts" (see 4AC ¶ 68). According to N.Y., although the District then "permitted" him to "return" to the Leadership Class, "reinstated" him as Junior Class President, and stated he would be "permitted" to serve as ASB President during his senior year (see 4AC ¶ 69), defendants "retaliated" against him by, for example, "intentionally withholding N.Y.'s semester grades throughout the summer of 2017" and "transferring" the ASB President's "powers and privileges" to another student (see 4AC ¶ 134).

         Based on the allegations set forth above, N.Y. asserts five claims arising under federal law and five claims arising under state law.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "can be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory." See Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). Rule 8(a)(2), however, "requires only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). Consequently, "a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations." See id. Nonetheless, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." See id. (internal quotation, citation, and alteration omitted).

         In analyzing a motion to dismiss, a district court must accept as true all material allegations in the complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See NL Indus., Inc. v. Kaplan, 792 F.2d 896, 898 (9th Cir. 1986). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual material, 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). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level[.]" Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Courts "are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         A. Federal Claims

         The Administration Defendants seek dismissal of N.Y.'s federal claims, which claims the Court considers in turn.[4]

         1. Second Cause of Action[5]

         In the Second Cause of Action, N.Y. alleges Schmitt, Reimann, Steele, Keith, Ramos, and Phelan, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, deprived him of his First Amendment rights when they "punished" him for violating the campaign rule prohibiting the use of "inappropriate" material. (See 4AC ¶ 121.) According to N.Y., the Administration Defendants' imposition of punishment was in violation of the standard set forth in Tinker v. v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969). (See 4AC ¶¶ 1, 105.)

         In Tinker, the Supreme Court held schools cannot prohibit student speech, "even on controversial subjects," unless the speech "materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others." See Tinker, 393 U.S. at 512-13. The Administration Defendants do not contend N.Y. fails to state a claim if such standard applies. Rather, they argue, he fails to state a claim or, alternatively, they are entitled to qualified immunity, in light of a different standard, specifically, the standard set forth in Hazelwood School Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988).

         In Hazelwood, the Supreme Court considered the standard applicable to school regulation of student speech "disseminated under [the school's] auspices," such as speech in "school-sponsored publications," e.g., school newspapers, as well as speech in "theatrical productions" and "other expressive activities that students, parents, and members of the public might reasonably perceive to bear the imprimatur of the school." See id. at 271. In resolving that issue, the Supreme Court held "the standard articulated in Tinker for determining when a school may punish student expression need not also be the standard for determining when a school may refuse to lend its name and resources to the dissemination of student expression"; in the latter situation, the Supreme Court concluded, schools do not violate the First Amendment by "exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech . . . so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." See id. at 272-73.

         At this stage of the proceedings, the Court finds the Administration Defendants' reliance on Hazelwood as a ground for dismissal is premature. The instant motion challenges the claims as pleaded, and the 4AC does not include facts sufficient to support a finding that the video constitutes speech akin to that made in school-sponsored newspapers or theatrical productions, or that persons who viewed the video reasonably would have perceived the content therein to "bear the imprimatur of the school." See Id. at 271. Indeed, N.Y alleges the video was uploaded to the personal YouTube page of a student (see 4AC ¶ 44), that it "[did] not feature [the] School's or the Leadership Class's name, logo, or other indicia," that no "School property or equipment" was used to create it, and that "neither the School nor the Leadership Class [were] mentioned" in it (see 4AC ¶ 41).

         The Administration Defendants next argue the 4AC includes no facts that could support a finding either Schmitt, the Superintendent of the District, or Reimann, the District's Director of Education Services, played any role in deciding N.Y. had violated the campaign rule or in imposing punishment.

         "A plaintiff must allege facts, not simply conclusions, that show that an individual was personally involved in the deprivation of his civil rights." Barren v. Harrington, 152 F.3d 1193, 1194 (9th Cir. 1998). Consequently, "a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution." See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; see also Barren, 152 F.3d at 1194 (affirming dismissal of § 1983 claim, where plaintiff "fail[ed] to allege any facts which would support his allegations that the defendants had conspired to violate his [civil] rights").

         In his opposition, N.Y. points to no factual allegations that could support a finding that Schmitt or Reimann engaged in the conduct on which the Second Cause of Action is based, and the Court, having reviewed the 4AC, finds none. Indeed, the 4AC includes no factual allegations of any kind concerning Schmitt, other than an allegation that he is the Superintendent (see 4AC ¶ 20), and the factual allegations against Reimann pertain solely to conduct that, although asserted by N.Y. to be retaliatory in nature, occurred after the District set aside SRVHS's decision to impose punishment (see 4AC ¶ 70).

         Accordingly, although the Second Cause of Action is not subject to dismissal in its entirety, such claim is subject to dismissal to the extent it is asserted against Schmitt and Reimann.

         2. Third Cause of Action

         In the Third Cause of Action, N.Y. alleges Schmitt, Reimann, Steele, Krolikowski, Keith, Ramos, and Phelan, in violation of § 1983, "retaliated" against him for creating and uploading the video (see 4AC ¶ 135), as well as for his filing a "state court petition" and notifying the Administration Defendants of "his intent" to file another action (see 4AC ¶¶ 134-135).

         The Administration Defendants argue the standard set forth in Hazelwood applies to their consideration of the video, and, consequently, that N.Y. fails to state a retaliation claim, or, alternatively, that they are entitled to qualified immunity.[6] As set forth above, such argument is premature. As also set forth above, however, the 4AC includes no facts about Schmitt, let alone that he engaged in any assertedly retaliatory acts.

         Accordingly, the Third Cause of Action is subject to dismissal only to the extent it is asserted against Schmitt.

         3. Fourth Cause of Action

         In the Fourth Cause of Action, NY alleges Schmitt, Reimann, Steele, Keith, Ramos, and Phelan, in violation of § 1983, deprived him of due process (1) by enforcing the prohibition against "inappropriate" campaign speech, which prohibition, N.Y. alleges, is vague and failed to give him notice of the speech in which he could not engage (see 4AC ¶¶ 142-143), and (2) by "suspending or expelling" him from the Leadership Class without following procedures required by state law (see 4AC ¶¶ 147-148).

         The Administration Defendants argue N.Y. fails to state a due process deprivation claim because the "Campaign Rules had provided notice that removal from the course was possible for violation of the Campaign Rules." (See Admin. Defs.' Mot. at 14:1-2.) The Fourth Cause of Action, however, is, as set forth above, based on the theory that the Campaign Rules did not adequately give notice of the type of conduct that would give rise to punishment and that a number of administrative procedural requirements were not met, not that the Campaign Rules failed to give notice that a violation might result in the imposition of a particular punishment.[7]

         The Administration Defendants also argue that the 4AC's allegations only support a finding that N.Y. was "briefly removed" from the Leadership Class, and, consequently, that N.Y has failed to plead facts to support a finding that "he actually was 'suspended or expelled' as those terms are defined by the California Education Code." (See id. at 13:26-27.) Such argument is not persuasive. As relevant thereto, N.Y. alleges he was prohibited from attending the Leadership Class from March 10, 2017, to May 16, 2017. (See 4AC ¶¶ 62, 69.) Even assuming said period of approximately two months can be described as "brief," a "suspension," under the Education Code, can include prohibiting a student from attending a class for a period of as little as two days. See, e.g., Cal. Educ. Code § 48910(a) (setting forth procedure whereby teacher may "suspend any pupil from class" for "the day of the suspension and the day following").

         As to Schmitt and Reimann, however, given that the Fourth Cause of Action is based on the decision to impose punishment for N.Y.'s alleged violation of a campaign rule, such claim is subject to dismissal for the reasons set forth above with respect to the Second Cause of Action.

         Accordingly, the Fourth Cause of Action is subject to dismissal only to the extent it is asserted against Schmitt and Reimann.

         4. Fifth ...


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