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Wood v. Board of Education of Charles County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 30, 2016

MELISSA WOOD, et al., Plaintiffs,


          GEORGE J. HAZEL United States District Judge.

         In this action, Plaintiffs Melissa Wood and John Kevin Wood, individually and on behalf of their then minor child, “C.W., ”[1] allege various violations of their First Amendment rights, Fourteenth Amendment due process rights, civil rights under Title IX and Title VI, and rights granted by Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights of the Constitution of Maryland, and bring suit against Defendants Board of Education of Charles County (“The Board”), Evelyn Arnold (“Principal Arnold”), and Shannon Morris (“Vice Principal Morris”) (collectively, “Defendants”). Presently pending before the Court is the Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, ECF No. 17, and Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 28. A hearing on the Motions was held on September 23, 2016. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, the Court will deny Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction and grant in part, and deny in part, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of events allegedly occurring in Charles County, Maryland, beginning in October 2014. ECF No. 1 ¶ 49-109.[2] During the 2014-2015 school year, C.W. was a 16-year-old student in the eleventh grade at La Plata High School in La Plata, Maryland, id. ¶ 49, and was enrolled in eleventh grade World History class, id. ¶ 52.[3] On October 22, 2014, C.W. was instructed to finish “a graded assignment to complete certain faith statements fundamental to the Islamic belief system.” ECF No. 1 ¶ 53. Mr. Wood learned of the homework assignment when his daughter came home from school that day. Id. ¶ 55. Mr. Wood was “surprised” to learn of the assignment, because there was no information about the “teaching and promotion of Islam” in the class syllabus. Id. From a discussion with C.W. and a review of the class materials, Mr. Wood believed that the school was promoting the Islamic religion over other faiths. Id. ¶ 54. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants “required the students . . . to profess statements on the teachings and beliefs of Islam in written worksheets as graded homework assignments” and instructed the class that “[m]ost Muslim's faith is stronger than the average Christian.” Id. ¶¶ 58-59. Attached to the Complaint as Exhibit 1 is what appears to be an outline or power-point used in the class describing “Islam Today, ” “Islamic Empires, ” “The Rise of Islam, ” and “Beliefs of Islam.” ECF No. 1-1. The World History course allegedly “spent only one day discussing Christianity” and “failed to cover any portion of the Bible or other non-Islamic religious texts, such as the Ten Commandments.” ECF No. 1 ¶ 65-66.

         The Woods objected to their daughter “being given religious instruction and being indoctrinated in Islam.” Id. ¶ 73. To that end, on October 22, 2014, Mr. Wood called La Plata High School to “voice his disapproval and to request that his child be given an alternative assignment.” Id. ¶ 75. Mr. Wood spoke with Defendant Shannon Morris, Vice Principal of La Plata High School, on October 23, 2014. Id. ¶ 76. Vice Principal Morris did not offer to give C.W. an alternative assignment and “asserted that C.W. would receive zeros on incomplete assignments.” Id. ¶¶ 78, 80. Mr. Wood informed Vice Principal Morris that C.W. “would not be completing the assignments that promoted Islam, ” and if Defendants “wished to retaliate against C.W. for her adherence to her Christian faith, he would pursue his complaints through lawyers and the media.” Id. ¶ 82-83.

         The following day, on October 24, 2014, Mr. Wood received a phone call from La Plata High School Resource Officer Mark Kaylor, of the Charles County Sheriff's Office. Id. ¶ 84. Officer Kaylor advised Mr. Wood that Vice Principal Morris had filed a complaint against Mr. Wood, and that Principal Arnold had signed a “No Trespass Order, ” forbidding him from entering the grounds of La Plata High School. Id. ¶¶ 84, 86. As a result of the No Trespass Order, Mr. Wood missed “countless Parent Teacher School Organization (“PTSO”) meetings, planning events for C.W., . . . and events where C.W. has been honored for her academic achievements.” ECF No. 1 ¶ 90.

         Plaintiffs filed the instant Complaint in this Court on January 27, 2016, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, damages, and attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on various First and Fourteenth Amendments claims, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Article 36 of the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution. ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs then filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction on February 19, 2016. ECF No. 17. The No Trespass Order was lifted on March 3, 2016, 16 months after it was entered. See ECF No. 27 at 1. Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment on March 24, 2016. ECF No. 28.


         A. Preliminary Injunction

         The purpose of a preliminary injunction is to “protect the status quo and to prevent irreparable harm during the pendency of a lawsuit, ultimately to preserve the court's ability to render a meaningful judgment on the merits.” In re Microsoft Corp. Antitrust Litig., 333 F.3d 517, 525 (4th Cir. 2003). The grant of a preliminary injunction is an “extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.” Dewhurst v. Cty. Aluminum Co., 649 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 555 U.S. 7, 22 (2008)). The party moving for a preliminary injunction must demonstrate four requirements before the court will grant the injunction: (1) the movant is likely to succeed on the merits; (2) the movant is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief; (3) the balance of equities tip in the movant's favor; and (4) the injunction is in the public interest. Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County, 722 F.3d 184, 188 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Winter, 555 U.S. at 20).

         B. Motion to Dismiss

         A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a 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) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664. In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the court must consider all well-pleaded allegations in a complaint as true, and must construe all factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion should be granted “only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.” Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002).

         C. Motion for Summary Judgment

         A party may also move for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The court shall grant summary judgment if there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings . . . together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 466 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citation omitted). In considering the motion, “the judge's function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). To withstand a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must do more than present a mere scintilla of evidence. Phillips v. CSX Transport, Inc., 190 F.3d 285, 287 (4th Cir. 1999). Rather, “the adverse party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. Although the Court should draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor, the nonmoving party cannot create a genuine issue of material fact “through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985).

         Defendants have styled their motion as a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), or in the alternative, a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56. “A motion styled in this manner implicates the court's discretion under Rule 12(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” McCray v. Md. DOT., No. ELH-11-3732, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8513, at *15 (D. Md. Jan. 16, 2013); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d) (“If, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.”). Pursuant to Rule 12(d), the Court has discretion to determine whether to accept evidence outside the pleadings, and thus convert a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to a Rule 56 motion. Id. at *16. Typically, all parties must then be given the opportunity to present all material pertinent to the motion, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d), but when the moving party captions its motion “in the alternative” and presents evidence outside the pleadings for the Court's consideration, the parties are deemed to have notice that the Court may treat the motion as one for summary judgment under the parameters of Rule 12(d). McCray, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8513, at *17.

         Here, the Court will consider matters outside of the pleadings in analyzing the retaliation claims and will therefore convert the motion into one seeking summary judgment as to those claims.


         A. Mootness

         Article III of the Constitution grants courts the authority to adjudicate “Cases” and “Controversies.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. “In our system of government, courts have no business deciding legal disputes or expounding on law in the absence of such a case or controversy.” Already, LLC v. Nike, Inc., 133 S.Ct. 721, 726 (2013). A case is moot, and therefore unreviewable, when the issues presented are no longer “live” or the parties lack a “legally cognizable interest in the outcome.” Id.; see also United States v. Hardy, 545 F.3d 280, 283 (4th Cir. 2008). “No matter how vehemently the parties continue to dispute the lawfulness of the conduct that precipitated the lawsuit, ” a case is moot if the parties' dispute is “no longer embedded in any actual controversy about the plaintiffs' particular legal rights.” Already, LLC, 133 S.Ct. at 727.

         Generally, when student plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of their school's policies, their claims for declaratory and injunctive relief become moot when the student graduate. Mellen v. Bunting, 327 F.3d 355, 364 (4th Cir. 2003); see also Bd. of Sch. Comm'rs of the City of Indianapolis v. Jacobs, 420 U.S. 128, 129 (finding the action moot where all named plaintiffs had graduated and case was not certified as a class action). Graduated students often claim the familiar exception to the mootness doctrine that the harm is “capable of repetition, yet evading review.” Mellen, 327 F.3d at 364. But “[t]his exception is only applicable where: (1) the challenged action is too short in duration to be fully litigated before the case will become moot; and (2) there is a reasonable expectation that the complaining party will be subjected to the same action again.” Id. (citing Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 17 (1998)) (emphasis added). Thus, such claims are usually unsuccessful since graduated students will generally not be subjected to the challenged school policy in the future. Mellen, 327 F.3d at 364.

         Here, C.W., the only named plaintiff who was or will be a student at La Plata High School, has apparently graduated as of June 2016. ECF No. 29 at 4; ECF No. 30 at 6. C.W. will therefore never again be subjected to any alleged harm from Defendants' “religious instruction that violates her fundamental constitutional rights” or “religious instruction that endorses Islam or that favors Islam over Christianity.” See ECF No. 1 at 24. To avoid a finding of mootness on this point, Plaintiffs rely on cases such as Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007) and Zamecnik v. Indian Prairie Sch. Dist. No. 204, 636 F.3d 874 (7th Cir. 2011). These cases are readily distinguishable and do not control the instant case.

         In Morse, the Supreme Court granted certiorari on two questions several years after the student-plaintiff, Joseph Frederick, had graduated: (1) whether the student-plaintiff had a First Amendment right to wield his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner at a school event, and (2) whether that right was so clearly established that the school principal who punished Frederick could be held liable for damages. See Morse, 551 U.S. at 400. Although Plaintiffs are correct that the Supreme Court granted certiorari after Frederick had graduated, the injunctive relief Frederick sought was “to remove the reference to the ten day suspension from his school records.” Frederick v. Morse, 439 F.3d 1114, 1117 (9th Cir. 2006), rev'd and remanded, 551 U.S. 393 (2007). Such relief, which was clearly directed at an on-going injury to the plaintiff, is markedly different from C.W.'s request here to “[p]ermanently enjoin Defendants . . . and successors in office from funding and implementing religious instruction that endorses Islam . . ., ” ECF No. 1 at 24, which no longer relates to any actual controversy about Plaintiffs' particular legal rights.[4] Additionally, a request for declaratory judgment does not alone save a case from mootness when claims for injunctive relief are moot. See Green v. Mansour, 474 U.S. 64, 73 (1985) (holding that declaratory judgment was improper where lack of continuing violation rendered injunctive relief moot ...

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