Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Education Law
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Patrick G. was a seventeen-year-old boy with autism who qualified for special educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and who, since 2013, has been attending the Alpine Autism Center for school. In 2016, Harrison School District No. 2 (the “School District” or the “District”) proposed transferring Patrick from Alpine to a special program at Mountain Vista Community School allegedly tailored to Patrick’s needs. Plaintiffs-Appellants Patrick’s parents challenged this decision on Patrick’s behalf, first in administrative proceedings and then in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, alleging that the School District committed a host of violations in crafting an “individualized educational plan” (“IEP”) for Patrick in 2015 and 2016. After several years of litigation, the district court determined that the expiration of Patrick’s 2016 IEP rendered the Parents’ lawsuit moot. Significantly, the district court held several related issues - including the Parents’ request for attorney’s fees from the administrative proceedings, their argument that the School District had incorrectly reimbursed the Parents’ insurance provider instead of the Parents themselves, and their motion for a “stay put” injunction to keep Patrick in his current educational placement during the proceedings - were also moot. The Parents contended on appeal to the Tenth Circuit that the district court erred by failing to find their substantive IDEA claims fell into the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to mootness. And, even if their substantive IDEA claims did not fall within this exception, they argued their requests for attorney’s fees, reimbursement, and a “stay put” injunction continued to present live claims. To the latter, the Tenth Circuit agreed and remanded to the district court to rule on the merits of these claims in the first instance. To all other issues, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Patrick G., et al. v. Harrison School District No. 2" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-Appellant Cl.G., on behalf of his minor son, C.G., appealed a district court’s dismissal of his case against Defendants-Appellees Cherry Creek School District (District or CCSD) and various employees for alleged constitutional violations stemming from C.G.’s suspension and expulsion from Cherry Creek High School (CCHS). In 2019, C.G. was off campus at a thrift store with three friends. He took a picture of his friends wearing wigs and hats, including “one hat that resembled a foreign military hat from the World War II period.” C.G. posted that picture on Snapchat and captioned it, “Me and the boys bout [sic] to exterminate the Jews.” C.G.’s post (the photo and caption) was part of a private “story,” visible only to Snapchat users connected with C.G. on that platform. Posts on a user’s Snapchat story are automatically deleted after 24 hours, but C.G. removed this post after a few hours. He then posted on his Snapchat story, “I’m sorry for that picture it was ment [sic] to be a joke.” One of C.G.’s Snapchat “friend[s]” took a photograph of the post before C.G. deleted it and showed it to her father. The father called the police, who visited C.G.’s house and found no threat. Referencing prior anti-Semitic activity and indicating that the post caused concern for many in the Jewish community, a CCHS parent emailed the school and community leaders about the post, leading to C.G.'s expulsion. Plaintiff filed suit claiming violations of C.G.'s constitutional rights. Defendants moved to dismiss, which was ultimately granted. On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the First Amendment limited school authority to regulate off-campus student speech, particularly speech unconnected with a school activity and not directed at the school or its specific members. Defendants maintained that C.G. was lawfully disciplined for what amounts to off-campus hate speech. According to Defendants, although originating off campus, C.G.’s speech still spread to the school community, disrupted the school’s learning environment, and interfered with the rights of other students to be free from harassment and receive an education. The Tenth Circuit determined Plaintiff properly pled that Defendants violated C.G.’s First Amendment rights by disciplining him for his post; the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s first claim was reversed in part. The Court affirmed dismissal of Plaintiff’s further facial challenges to CCSD’s policies. Questions of qualified and absolute immunity and Plaintiff’s conspiracy claim were remanded for further consideration. View "C1.G v. Siegfried, et al." on Justia Law

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Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) student Rowan Thompson had a classroom dispute with her chemistry professor that ultimately prompted Thompson to drop the professor’s class. But when Thompson emailed her former classmates to express her displeasure with the professor and to suggest that her classmates leave “honest” end-of-term evaluations. Thomas Ragland, MSU’s Associate Director for Student Conduct, allegedly prohibited Thompson from further contacting the professor or even discussing the professor with any students taking any of the professor’s classes. Thompson sued Ragland under 42 U.S.C. 1983, arguing that he violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that Ragland had not violated clearly established law and therefore was entitled to qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit disagreed and reversed. "Because one can infer from the allegations in the complaint that there was no proper justification for Ragland’s actions, the complaint states a violation of clearly established law governing the regulation of student speech." View "Thompson v. Ragland" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellee Camille Sturdivant sued her former coach on a high school dance team, Carley Fine, invoking 42 U.S.C. 1983, and alleging race discrimination in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Fine moved for summary judgment, urging qualified immunity based on the absence of: (1) an act under color of state law; and (2) a denial of equal protection. The district court denied the motion, concluding that a reasonable factfinder could infer that Fine had acted as head coach and “intentionally deprived [Camille] of educational benefits based on [her] race.” Fine appealed, presenting two alternative arguments for qualified immunity: (1) She did not act under color of state law because she was no longer employed as the head coach when she allegedly violated Camille’s rights; and (2) She did not violate a clearly established constitutional right. The Tenth Circuit determined it lacked jurisdiction to consider Fines first argument; the Court's jurisdiction in an interlocutory appeal did not extend to the applicability of section 1983. Thus, this portion of the appeal was dismissed. The Court did have jurisdiction on Fine's section argument, and found that a reasonable factfinder could find the violation of a clearly established right to equal protection. So the Court affirmed the district court’s denial of summary judgment based on qualified immunity. View "Sturdivant v. Fine, et al." on Justia Law

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Dr. Rachel Tudor sued her former employer, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, under Title VII, claiming discrimination on the basis of sex, retaliation, and a hostile work environment after Southeastern denied her tenure, denied her the opportunity to reapply for tenure, and ultimately terminated her from the university. A jury found in favor of Dr. Tudor on her discrimination and retaliation claims and awarded her damages. The district court then applied the Title VII statutory cap to reduce the jury’s award, denied Dr. Tudor reinstatement, and awarded front pay. Both Dr. Tudor and the University appealed: Southeastern challenged certain evidentiary rulings and the jury verdict; Dr. Tudor challenged several of the court’s post-verdict rulings, the district court’s denial of reinstatement, the calculation of front pay, and the application of the statutory damages cap. After review, the Tenth Circuit rejected Southeastern’s challenges. Regarding Dr. Tudor’s appeal however, the Court held that there was error both in denying reinstatement and in calculating front pay, although there was no error in applying the Title VII damages cap. Affirming in part and reversing in part, the Court remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings. View "Tudor, et al. v. Southeastern OK St. University, et al." on Justia Law

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Ronald Throupe, a Professor of Real Estate at the University of Denver ("DU"), brought an employment discrimination claim under Title IX against DU as well as several faculty and staff members. In 2013, Throupe was a candidate to serve as director of the Real Estate and Construction Management department. DU ultimately hired outside of the school, bringing in Barbara Jackson to lead the department. According to Throupe, upon Jackon’s arrival, she made clear in conversations with professors, she would force some of the tenured real estate faculty members to leave. In 2014, the University Title IX office was contacted multiple times about Throupe's relationship with a foreign graduate student. In an email to University officials, Jackson concluded "Ron believes he has done nothing but help this girl, but his behaviors have been totally unprofessional and inappropriate, his father/daughter views perverted, and his obsession out of control." The Title IX investigator and DU’s Manager of Equal Employment had a follow-up meeting with Throupe. Afterward, he sent an email to the Manager of Equal Employment formally reporting a hostile work environment. When Throupe later asked whether any actions had been taken in response to his report, the investigator told Throupe his claim “did not result in any formal investigation by the Office of Equal Employment.” However, the school issued him a written warning, admonishing him from further contact with the student. Throupe maintained that Jackson continued to harass him even after the written warning. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants. Although Throupe had dedicated little space in his briefing to arguing any theory of sex discrimination, the district court identified two theories of sex discrimination in Throupe’s argument: that defendants created a hostile work environment and engaged in disparate treatment against him. But the court determined that Throupe had failed to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination under either of these theories. Having dismissed Throupe’s sole federal claim, the district court declined to consider the remaining state law claims due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, specifically concluding the district court did not err in concluding that Throupe failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether he was discriminated against on the basis of his sex. View "Throupe v. University of Denver" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Terri Baker appealed the dismissal of this putative class action for lack of standing. She sued on behalf of herself and her son, S.F.B., to challenge Kansas laws and school district policies that: (1) required children to be vaccinated to attend school and participate in child care programs; and (2) provided a religious exemption from these requirements. She claimed these immunization laws and policies violated various federal and state constitutional provisions and statutes. Baker argued she and S.F.B. had standing because the immunization requirements and religious exemptions injured them in two ways: (1) the District misapplied Kansas law when it granted a religious exemption for S.F.B. to attend preschool despite being unvaccinated - her fear that the District would revoke S.F.B.'s religious exemption was an injury in fact that established standing; and (2) Baker "would like the option" of placing S.F.B. in a non-accredited private school (i.e., home school), school programs, or licensed child care - she contended Kansas law inhibited her from exercising these options and caused an injury in fact because she would be unable to secure a religious exemption for S.F.B. if she tried. Finding no reversible error in the district court's dismissal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed. View "Baker v. USD 229 Blue Valley" on Justia Law

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Jane Doe appealed the dismissal of her Title IX claim against School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado (the District or DPS) for failure to state a claim. According to the complaint, a group of students began sexually harassing Ms. Doe after she was sexually assaulted by another student in March of her freshman year at East High School (EHS). She alleged that despite her numerous reports of the harassment to school personnel, as well as reports from teachers and a counselor, the school administration never investigated her complaints and little if anything was done to prevent the harassment from continuing. She stopped attending regularly scheduled classes about 14 months after the assault, and she transferred to a different school after completing her sophomore year. The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding Ms. Doe's complaint contained sufficient allegations to support an inference of deliberate indifference. View "Doe v. School District Number 1" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Board of Education of Gallup-McKinley County Schools (Gallup) successfully obtained summary judgment on certain Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) claims made by Mavis Yazzie in the administrative action below. Subsequently, Gallup sought attorneys’ fees from Yazzie and her counsel, the Native American Disability Law Center (NADLC). The question presented for the Tenth Circuit's review was whether the controlling provision of the New Mexico Administrative Code (NMAC) permitted Gallup to pursue attorneys’ fees within 30 days of the final decision relating to any party in the administrative action, or did the NMAC limit Gallup to seeking fees within 30 days of obtaining summary judgment, which Gallup failed to do. The Tenth Circuit concluded the plain meaning of the regulatory language permitted petitions for attorneys’ fees made within 30 days of the final decision in the administrative action regardless of whether that decision related to the party seeking fees. Accordingly, Gallup’s petition was timely. The Court therefore reversed the district court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Board of Education of Gallup v. Native American Disability Law" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff John Doe asserted that the disciplinary proceeding brought against him by Defendants, the University of Denver (“DU”) along with several University employees, violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and under Title IX. The court granted summary judgment to Defendants on the Fourteenth Amendment claim because Plaintiff had failed to show that DU, a private school, was a state actor. The court also granted Defendants summary judgment on the Title IX claim, concluding that Plaintiff had adduced insufficient evidence of gender bias. Plaintiff enrolled as a freshman at DU in 2014. In October 2014, Plaintiff had a sexual encounter with Jane Doe, a female freshman, in his dorm room. Six months later, Jane’s boyfriend reported the encounter as an alleged sexual assault to a DU resident director. The resident director then spoke with Jane, who repeated the allegations and later filed with DU’s Office of Equal Opportunity a complaint of non-consensual sexual contact. Under DU’s policies, a student’s non-consensual sexual contact with another was a policy violation. Prohibited sexual contact includes contact by “coercion,” which the policy defined as “unreasonable and persistent pressure to compel another individual to initiate or continue sexual activity against an individual’s will,” such as “continued pressure” after “someone makes clear that they do not want to engage in sexual contact.” Two of the named defendants investigated the claims; the outcome of the investigation ultimately led to Plaintiff’s expulsion. The district court concluded that Plaintiff had failed to adduce sufficient evidence to raise a genuine dispute that gender was a motivating factor in DU’s decision to expel him. Finding no reversible error in the district court’s judgment, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. View "Doe v. University of Denver" on Justia Law