Justia Education Law Opinion Summaries

by
Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the summary judgment rejection of Kennedy’s claims against the school district. The Supreme Court reversed. The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression. The district acted on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.A plaintiff may demonstrate a free exercise violation by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not “neutral” or “generally applicable,” triggering strict scrutiny. Kennedy seeks to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise that does not involve students; the district’s policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable. The district sought to restrict Kennedy’s actions at least in part because of their religious character.Kennedy established a Free Speech Clause violation. When an employee “speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,” courts should engage in “a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.” Kennedy was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his coaching duties. His prayers occurred during the postgame period when coaches were free to attend to personal matters and students were engaged in other activities.In place of the “Lemon” and “endorsement” tests, courts should look “to historical practices and understandings.” A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition of tolerating diverse expressive activities. View "Kennedy v. Bremerton School District" on Justia Law

by
In 2015, John and Jane were students at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). On September 7, they went to a party together and then had a sexual encounter. The next day, a dispute arose about whether the encounter was consensual. Jane filed a police report, which led to an investigation but no criminal charges. Jane filed a complaint with UCSB’s Title IX and Sexual Harassment Policy Compliance Office, 20 U.S.C. 1681. An investigator opined that John sexually assaulted Jane and recommended that John be suspended for three years. A Review Committee denied John’s appeal.John sought judicial review; his petition named only the University; Jane is described as a “[n]on-party.” The trial court granted John’s petition, finding that John was not afforded procedural due process during the University’s investigation. Jane moved to vacate the order on the ground that she did not receive notice of or an opportunity to participate in, the writ proceeding. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of Jane’s motion. While Jane’s interests were affected by the mandate proceeding, such that she may have been a real party in interest or a necessary party, she has not established that she was an indispensable party. Nor has she established that the absence of even an indispensable party is grounds to void a judgment. View "Doe v. The Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

by
Plaintiff was raped by a fellow student two weeks after starting at the University of Washington. Plaintiff later learned that two other students had reported the same individual for unwanted sexual advances and contact. Plaintiff filed Title IX and common-law negligence claims against the University in the district court, which granted summary judgment to the University after finding that the University did not owe Plaintiff a duty of care. Plaintiff appealed.The Ninth Circuit certified two questions to the Washington Supreme Court:1. Does Washington law recognize a special relationship between a university and its students giving rise to a duty to use reasonable care to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of other students?2. If the answer to question 1 is yes, what is the measure and scope of that duty? View "MADELEINE BARLOW V. STATE OF WASHINGTON" on Justia Law

by
Maine offers tuition assistance for parents who live in school districts that neither operate a secondary school nor contract with a school in another district. Parents designate the secondary school they would like their child to attend; the school district sends payments to that school to defray tuition costs. To be eligible for tuition payments, private schools had to be accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges or approved by the Maine Department of Education. Since 1981, Maine has limited tuition assistance payments to “nonsectarian” schools. The First Circuit affirmed the rejection of constitutional challenges to the “nonsectarian” requirement.The Supreme Court reversed. Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause, which protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” A state need not subsidize private education but if it does so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. A law that operates in that manner must be subjected to “the strictest scrutiny.” A neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause; a state’s anti-establishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise. View "Carson v. Makin" on Justia Law

by
Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA), a nonprofit organization committed to ending race discrimination in higher-education admissions, sued the University of Texas at Austin (UT) over its use of race in admitting students. The district court concluded SFFA has standing but dismissed its claims as barred by res judicata. It reasoned that SFFA’s claims were already litigated in a prior challenge to UT’s admissions policies. See Fisher v. Univ. of Tex. (Fisher II), 579 U.S. 365 (2016); Fisher v. Univ. of Tex. (Fisher I), 570 U.S. 297 (2013).   The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment. The court agreed that SFFA has standing, but disagreed that res judicata bars its claims. The parties here are not identical to or in privity with those in Fisher, and this case presents different claims.   The court first explained that SFFA has associational standing to challenge UT’s race-conscious admissions policy and the district court correctly denied the motions to dismiss based on standing. The court wrote that, however, the district court erred in applying the control exception to nonparty preclusion in two key respects. First, it mistakenly rejected SFFA’s argument about the different capacities in which Fisher and Blum acted in Fisher and act in this case. Second, even if Fisher’s and Blum’s different capacities did not foreclose applying claim preclusion, the district court erred in finding that Fisher and Blum control SFFA. Further, under the court’s transactional test, SFFA’s claims are not the same as those in Fisher because the claims are not related in time and space. View "Students for Fair Admissions v. Univ of TX" on Justia Law

by
N.J., in seventh grade, went to school wearing a T-shirt displaying a Smith & Wesson logo, with an image of a revolver. A.L., a high school student, went to school wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a gun-rights group, incorporating an image of a handgun. Administrators at both schools barred the boys from wearing the shirts. Neither school’s dress code expressly bans clothing with images of firearms; the dress codes prohibit “inappropriate” attire, which the administrators interpreted to bar any clothing with an image of a firearm. The students brought separate lawsuits alleging violations of their free-speech rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The district court consolidated the cases and granted the school administrators summary judgment, declining to apply the Supreme Court’s “Tinker” precedent, which established the legal standard for student-speech cases. The court applied the standard for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum—the most lenient test— and upheld the administrators’ actions as viewpoint neutral and reasonable.The Seventh Circuit remanded. This is not a speech-forum case. Tinker provides the legal standard: restrictions on student speech are constitutionally permissible if school officials reasonably forecast that the speech “would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school” or invade the rights of others. Although this test is deferential to school officials and is “applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” it is stricter than the test for speech restrictions in a nonpublic forum. View "N.J. v. Sonnabend" on Justia Law

by
Defendants dismissed Plaintiff from two graduate nursing studies programs. She sued, claiming that her dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Due Process Clause. The district court refused to dismiss some of her claims. The Defendants appealed part of that order, contending that they have sovereign immunity from Plaintiff’s ADA claims and that she failed to state Fourteenth Amendment claims.   The Fifth Circuit dismissed Defendants' appeal in part finding that the court lacks appellate jurisdiction over the Fourteenth Amendment claims. The court affirmed the order in part and reversed the order in part, concluding that Plaintiff stated some Title II claims but not all of the claims that the district court refused to dismiss. Defendants were not entitled to sovereign immunity at this stage of the litigation because Plaintiff’s allegations did not permit the court to assume that Defendants did not violate her due-process rights. The court explained that it has appellate jurisdiction over only the denial of sovereign immunity from Plaintiff’s ADA claims. The court wrote it must assume that Plaintiff’s allegations are true and draw all reasonable inferences in her favor. The state may or may not be correct that its rebuttal evidence vitiates any inference that Defendants discriminated against Plaintiff because of her disability. But the pleading stage was not the right time to raise those contentions. Although the court has done so in the past, Plaintiff’s allegations do not permit the court to assume that the Due Process Clause was not violated. View "Pickett v. Texas Tech Univ" on Justia Law

by
The en banc Ninth Circuit court dismissed as moot an appeal from the district court’s summary judgment in favor of California Governor Newsom and state officials in an action brought by a group of parents and a student alleging Defendants violated federal law when they ordered schools to suspend in-person instruction in 2020 and early 2021, at a time when California was taking its first steps of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic.   The en banc court held that this was a classic case in which, due to intervening events, there was no longer a live controversy necessary for Article III jurisdiction. Nor was there any effective relief that could be granted by the court. The parents had not brought a claim for damages; they sought a declaratory judgment that Governor Newsom’s executive orders, to the extent they incorporated guidance on school reopening, were unconstitutional. Relatedly, they sought an injunction against the 2020-21 Reopening Framework. But Governor Newsom has rescinded the challenged executive orders, and the 2020-21 Reopening Framework has been revoked. Schools now operate under the 2021-22 Guidance, which declares that all schools may reopen for in-person learning. And the parents conceded that, since April 2021, there has been no “state-imposed barrier to reopening for in-person instruction.” The actual controversy has evaporated.The en banc court rejected Plaintiffs’ assertion that the case survived under two exceptions to mootness: the voluntary cessation exception and the capable of repetition yet evading review exception. Neither exception applied. View "MATTHEW BRACH V. GAVIN NEWSOM" on Justia Law

by
The First Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the judgment of the district court dismissing Plaintiff's complaint against Harvard University for breach of contract and other related claims, holding that the district court erred in dismissing Plaintiff's breach of contract claim.The day before Plaintiff was about to graduate from Harvard three female Harvard students accused him of sexual assault. Following a disciplinary hearing, Harvard withheld Plaintiff's undergraduate degree. Plaintiff sued, and the district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The First Circuit reversed in part, holding (1) at the pleadings stage, Plaintiff's allegations, taken as true, stated a plausible breach of contract claim; and (2) the district court properly dismissed the remaining counts of Plaintiff's complaint. View "Sonoiki v. Harvard University" on Justia Law

by
Charter Day School (“CDS”) a public charter school in North Carolina, requires female students to wear skirts to school based on the view that girls are “fragile vessels” deserving of “gentle” treatment by boys. Plaintiffs argued that this sex-based classification grounded on gender stereotypes violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and subjects them to discrimination and denial of the full benefits of their education in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. Section 1681 et seq. (“Title IX”).  In response, despite CDS’ status as a public school under North Carolina law, CDS denied accountability under the Equal Protection Clause by maintaining that they are not state actors.   The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s entry of summary judgment for Plaintiffs on their Equal Protection claim against CDS. The court also vacated the district court’s summary judgment award in favor of all Defendants on Plaintiffs’ Title IX claim and remanded for further proceedings on that claim.   The court held that CDS is a state actor for purposes of Section 1983 and the Equal Protection Clause. By implementing the skirts requirement based on blatant gender stereotypes about the “proper place” for girls and women in society, CDS has acted in clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The court further held that sex-based dress codes like the skirts requirement, when imposed by covered entities, are subject to review under the anti-discrimination provisions of Title IX. View "Bonnie Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc." on Justia Law